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March 1, 2006 (Ash Wednesday)
Intern Pastor Joshua Graber
Joel 2:1–2, 12–17; Psalm 51:1–18; 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10; Matthew 6:1–6, 16–21
Grace and Peace to you from God our loving Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Ash Wednesday is a strange if not surreal experience for many of us. It is not a typical worship service and neither is its message.
In a few moments we will be confessing a long litany of our sins, asking for God’s mercy on us... asking for God to accept our repentance. Then we will hear texts that are full of admonishments and warnings, that tell us a day of darkness and gloom is coming, that tell us that as servants of God we may endure beatings, imprisonments, sleepless nights, and dishonor as we are treated as imposters in this world.
But for most of us, the most strange and most surreal experience is the imposition of ashes, in which we face our mortality and look death in the face. You will have ashes applied to your foreheads and you will be told “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
If this experience brings you anxiety you are not alone, but I have to admit, for me, there can also be a strange comfort in the recognition of my mortality.
As I think about my normal everyday worries—how far behind I seem to be in life and in my expectations for myself, how I haven’t started my taxes, or financial aid for next year, how I get frustrated about money and worry about the future, how I’m frustrated with my self-image and the trans fat I am carrying around my mid-section—there is some comfort in facing my inevitable mortality. It brings a valuable perspective to the worries of my day that so often seem like matters of life or death.
We all have our own worries.
My mother worries about the weather, especially bad weather that might affect her kids. My mother has her computer at home set up to the weatherchannel.com for each of the zip codes that her kids live in. And if bad weather is going to hit any of us kids, we are usually informed of it by our mother before we notice it ourselves or hear about it from any people in our zip codes!
I used to laugh when occasionally she would call to give us her personalized weather reports or when she would forward me e-mails of the weather conditions in Seattle or Saint Paul, but I knew it was because she cared about me that she took the time to do it.
Over the past few months, my mom has forwarded me e-mails from a friend that has been battling cancer. Since returning from a missionary call in Africa, her friend has been in and out of Mayo Clinic, and she and her family have been trying to cope with the possibility that the cancer might win the battle for her body. Through these e-mail reports I’ve been let into the ups and downs of this experience.
If you’ve ever received reports from someone who is going through cancer treatment, you may have had similar experiences to what I have in reading the e-mails from my mother’s friend. One e-mail could be entitled “LIFE” in capital letters as it seems that this life will be spared, the cure is really working like a miracle, the cancer is on the run, the person that has been battling as a victim may suddenly be saved and given back all the possibilities they saw as lost just a short time before. And then the next e-mail comes and she is back in Mayo and apologetically saying “sorry to interrupt your busy lives, but I think I may be dying again...”
Death is an inevitable part of our reality. Yet our mortality catches us by surprise. Most of us spend our lives trying to deny death. We try to hide the reports about it in the back of our minds...even though we all know that life is fragile and that death can come for us and send these bodies back to the earth at any time.
Death is a place we all try to run away from, that we will battle to the end to avoid, but it is a place where we are all going. I don’t think any of us feel we are ready for that trip—but we will all need to take it. That’s what we remember as we hear the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
But as Christians we know that is not the whole story. As we fear our encounter with death, we remember that God has already encountered us in Jesus. In our baptism we have already entered Christ’s death and have been raised to new life in Christ.
That new life does not die with our earthly bodies but waits for the resurrection, as we wait for Easter these forty days of Lent.
Whatever the weather brings, with this season of Lent comes renewal of trust in a God who will be with us through all of life the good and the bad. Lent is a time when God prepares us for bad weather coming to our zip codes. Lent is a time when we remember that this Christian journey is about taking up our cross and following the one who carries us through the inevitable storms of life and death.
And we remember during Lent that we trust in a God who loves us with power that will break through the worst storms of fear, anxiety, and worries so that we might have the strength to proclaim to the world “LIFE,” even in the midst of death.
How will you do that this Lent on a personal level and as a community here at LCH?
On a personal level, Lent does not need to be as dark as this ash. Lent is actually a word that means “spring” and Lent is a little like spring cleaning for us. We ask “What is getting between me and a God who wants to be in relationship with me, a God who cares about me—this life and this body!”
Lent is a time when we all can find new ways to return to God and plant the seeds of renewal through focus on spirituality and faith in action. It is a time to practice our faith.
We can do this as a part of a community as well. At LCH you are invited to enter into a conversation about this life we have in Christ, even in the midst of a world where we must confront pain and death and many difficulties, including difficult questions.
For the next five weeks we will be walking with Jesus on his journey to the cross—in worship and in our Bible Study following Lenten services, where we will be interacting with the life giving stories from the Gospel of John.
We will ask question with Nicodemus, We will marvel with the Samaritan woman at the well, that Jesus knows her and still offers her living water to drink, With the man blind from birth, our eyes will be opened to see Jesus as the light of the world, We will weep with Jesus for his friend Lazaurs and wonder at the image of a dead man walking from the grave, And we will sit with Jesus at the last supper, as we prepare for Good Friday and hope for Easter.
These stories in Scripture are the stories of real people encountering Jesus as we have encountered Jesus in our lives and as we continue to encounter a God, who is not dead but who lives and brings us life.
The bible study guide for this time is from a book entitled That You May Have Life. This may seem like a contradiction during a season that begins by facing death the way we do tonight. But this time together—this time of Lent—is a time when we will remember that our faith is the story of both death and life, both pain and joy.
We will remember that we have a message the world needs to hear. Because we believe, however strange it might seem, that true life comes in facing death and in encountering the savior who entered death to bring us everlasting life.
As we practice our faith during Lent, we will act so as individuals and using our gifts in community. In our study together, we will practice using our intellects, using our creativity, and sharing our experiences to open up the texts for each other and recognize that Scripture helps us to encounter Jesus as we encounter God in baptism, dying to self, so that we might have new life.
During Lent we hold onto the promises of a God who cares for us through storms and even through death.
Copyright © 2006 Joshua Graber
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org