Ash Wednesday

March 1, 2017 – Ash Wednesday
2 Corinthians 5.16-20 and Isaiah 58.1-12

We often speak of Lent as a journey. Which might cause us to wonder, Where are we going?

The season of Lent is a time to prepare to enter the mystery of Easter. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians, If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation….in Christ God was reconciling the world to God’s self. That is a big theological claim: that in Christ we are made new and reconciled to God, and not just we as individuals, but the whole world, all of creation. How do we comprehend this Good News? How do we comprehend it not just with our minds as a theological idea but as an incarnational reality—a truth we live with our lives?

We get to the Good News of Easter through Lent. Lent is an invitation to begin this journey again, to ask the question, What helps me live my faith? And what gets in the way?[1]

For many of us the world around us is chaotic and cluttered. We are bombarded with more information—both truth and false—than we can take in. We are saturated with messages and expectations that distort our humanity. Lent is an invitation for simplifying and for traveling light[2]; for laying aside the heavy baggage we carry and taking only what is essential.

Do you remember the story of Jesus’ baptism? As Jesus comes up out of the water, a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.” In our baptism, we too are marked by God’s love. We are marked as God’s beloved children, the delight of God’s life.

But often we forget that identity. We obscure or deny it. Our identity as God’s beloved is also obscured or denied by others.

Lent is a time to excavate our identity as God’s beloved, to find it again, to practice living it more deeply.

This Lent we are encouraging everyone to read James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree. For hundreds of years, the belovedness of African Americans in our country has been obscured and denied. To recover our own identity as God’s beloved, we must recover the belovedness of all people. In Christ God was reconciling the world to God’s self—not just us as individuals but us, collectively, all people. James Cone’s book invites us to a collective Lenten journey to look at ourselves honestly; to remember, repair, and restore[3] the mark of God’s belovedness in all people.

In baptism, we receive a new identity as a follower—a disciple—of Jesus. Baptism is a sign of new life, a mark in our lives of God’s great love for us and a sign of our life now dedicated in love to loving God and loving our neighbors.

Lent is a good time to ask “Is my identity rooted in [God’s love], [in] baptism, [in] discipleship or is it rooted in something else? If it’s rooted in something else, what do I need to do about that?”[4]

Simply by living in our world, our identity is, at least in part, rooted in something else other than God’s love, baptism and discipleship. So we all ask, what do I need to do about that?

Isaiah 58 guides us to develop congruity between our identity as God’s beloved people and the way we live our lives. The journey of Lent—often spoken of as the Lenten fast—is not about making ourselves look humble or adopting a practice of self-denial as a means to spiritual elevation. The journey of Lent is rooted in justice. The way Isaiah talks about it, it’s the way we live out loving our neighbor as ourselves: doing justice, caring for those who are vulnerable, changing systems that diminish the humanity of others. The journey of Lent is more than giving up a food group for six weeks. Our journey is toward life-long transformaiton. Our goal is not to deprive ourselves of something for six-week and then quickly resume it again after Lent is over. The invitation of Lent is to embody new life in Christ—not just for six weeks and not just for ourselves—but for a life-time and for the sake of the whole world.

Now I know I’ve been talking about being marked by baptism and I know that today is Ash Wednesday when we are marked by ashes so let me say something about ashes.

Typically we look at the ashes on this day as a reminder of a mortality. From dust we have come and to dust we shall return. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, we say in the funeral liturgy.

Tonight, I want to add another possible meaning to being marked by ashes. Just this week there has been some research released about forest fires and it reminds me that in the ecology of the forest, fire is an important part of the health of the forest. Periodic fires burn up the underbrush and leaf litter that, if left to accumulate on the forest floor, can become an enormous amount of flammable kindling that turns a regular forest fire into something catastrophic. What often happens after a forest fire is that native plants are able to sprout and gain a foothold when they’ve been choked out by invasive plants. In this way, fire supports the healthy and robust biodiversity of an ecosystem. Fire also helps germinate the seeds of many tree species. Some seeds need fire in order to sprout. In this way, fire can become a catalyst for new life. And if you’ve been in a forest after a fire, amidst the grey, ashy soil and blackened trees, there is also a remarkable green that begins to show up. The green of new life.[5]

Now, I don’t want to push this metaphor too far because forest fires can also kill and devastate people’s lives and homes. So I want to keep the metaphor to the ecology of a forest in which fire is a welcome catalyst for new life and life which is abundant and flourishing.

So perhaps tonight, we might let the ashes on our forehead be not only a reminder of our mortality but also be a mark of the new life God desires to bring forth in us.

* * * * *

[1] Michael Waschevski and John G. Stevens, Rhythms of Worship: The Planning and Purpose of Liturgy, (Louisville: Westminster Knox Press, 2015), 53.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jennifer Harvey, Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014), 241.

[4] Waschevski, 54.

[5] http://blog.nature.org/conservancy/2013/07/24/how-fire-can-restore-a-forest-time-lapse-video/, accessed 1 March 2017.

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