Ash Wednesday + C 2016 The Reverend Robert R.M. Bagwell+
Life is fragile…life is fragile. Oh we pretend we're so tough, invulnerable (especially the younger you are) But over the ages the scriptures speak through Solomon "Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; (Proverbs 31) The media will tell you, ignore it"
Life is short…life is short. We try to deny it in healthcare, in beauty enhancement, in proper dieting, eating and running from "fix it" products and practitioners.. No longer do our aging and deteriorating population draw a possible future to our attention. They are carefully tucked away in nursing homes. People die on TV, not in real life! While for millennia, family members died at home cared for by family and friends. Now death is systematized, organized and sanitized. I think now, the reason so many fear death is because it is so far divorced from life.
Life is difficult, although we do all we can to deny it as if it shouldn't be so, but we live in a universe of sin. We may deny it: "oh that's not nice, so unpleasant", You may have noticed ISIS has no such scruples. No, ISIS reveals to us what the world was for thousands of years, before Jesus came' We Christians, although we may hate to acknowledge it, more than anyone else should joyfully proclaim that we are great sinners, but even more, that Jesus is a profoundly great Savior! In our second reading the dilemma is laid out. Our relationship with God is broken, it will always be broken. But God was not satisfied with this horrible predicament that humanity found to be the core of its orientation and faltering future.
So at our human roots, if we think about it and do not buy into the cult of distraction that refuses to acknowledge anything uncomfortable or makes us afraid. We are mortal and there is nothing WE can do about it.
So God did….God did: " For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." what we could not do: God did! The collect says: Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent:". As we move into the loving arms of reconciliation with God, let us dispel this idea that God hates sinners! Scripture says that God hates sin. You see God has this amazing ability that many of the human race lack: to separate sin from the sinner. That is why Jesus was able to love the woman taken in adultery, Zaccheus the cheat, Matthew the thief and on and on and on till that is how Jesus can love us, not sinless, but IN our sins. In John chapter 9, the man who received his sight was verbally attacked by the Pharisees who said to him:., You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us! Hello??? I guess they didn't get the memo, they and all of us were steeped in sin at birth. You don't get a get out free ticket for going to your place of worship. Jesus is a sinners' savior. Oh yes, Jesus is an odd duck: He loves SINNERS! Most of the Christians I know don't particularly LOVE sinners.
There is no day like Ash Wednesday. Here we are all for the moment on the same level, acknowledging things we had rather not think about much less speak of, and yet here we are! Ashes, ashes: what good are they? Are they of any use? What are they, some substance whose integrity has been violated. Worthless, useless. Ashes are what remains of something that was once alive. ARemember you are dust, and to dust you shall return?@ I don=t know about you, but that=s not very uplifting or complimentary and yet...it is true. Today, the powerful and the weak, the meek, the arrogant and the humbleBthe rich and the poor, all must ultimately acknowledge the pretense that many spend their whole lives protecting: "we ..are dust and to dust we will return.@ In the face of our culture that makes this life the ONLY LIFE, and thus despairs when it is over, we proclaim good news!
In his bestselling book, First Things First, writer Stephen Covey wrote this as the purpose of life. It is both profound and yet simple: To live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy. From the beginning, God so planned for humanity that he made, a way to overcome. So much did he plan, that he entered into our dustiness in the person of Jesus Christ.
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
If we look at these reading they have a sense of urgency. This urgency is to significance that the bride and groom are called from their wedding, something never done, to voice their own repentance.
As far back as the fifth book of the Bible, we read: " This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live! (Deuteronomy 30:19) But this isn't something buried in antiquity. It applies to every dilemma of the human condition up till this evening. Remember you are dust. People every day choose death for a myriad of reasons, but death is the only outcome after life. To choose greater life or eternal death is the mission of life on this fragile earth.. Ashes: this is a tradition, not commanded by Jesus, but with the force of "do this in remembrance of me." This is humbling. debasing, not building up self esteem, but the true self esteem is only from God.
Into this chaos, God comes, and we read " the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2) We are dust! but not just any dust, but the dust that God formed into a vessel to bear his Divine image and he who alone could, breathed into us the breath of life. The old protestant hymn says: "this world is not my home, I'm just a passin' through. My treasures' all laid up somewhere beyond the blue…."
I would like to suggest that Lent is an opportunity to re-connect to life. Yes, some think that it is 'painful' but to quote William Willimon, Bishop of the Methodist Church as he worked with Christian students at Duke University: when he said "the question is not what can we 'do', the problem is, if I could get anyone to say 'no' to anything'…" We have been taught to deny ourselves no pleasure whatsoever. Yet we followed Jesus who did not deny his life for our sakes. For dust we are, and to dust we shall return, except, to quote religious spiritual writer, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: we are not human beings on a spiritual journey, we are spiritual beings on a human journey.
Lent can deepen our relationships with God and his people on these Lenten days, not merely use these days to serve as dates on a Church Kalendar. This is where we learn to imitate Christ. Researchers say, if you can do (and also not do) a certain number of things to change our behaviors for forty days, it can become a habit and thus change our lives. Largely, the spiritual battle for growth is inner, not outer. The journey is not to be reconciled to God in some technical and geographic way, it is the way of the heart. We are not biding time, we are 'abiding' until the day we are called home.
Do you have plans for Lent? Mine may be overly ambitious. At worst, you will not fulfill but you can always, fall down and get up. At best, something positive will make life better. It is certainly not what is outside of us, but what is within us. What we need is the courage to change, the courage to enlist repentance into our mortal sphere and partake of the life God desperately wants to give and us to have: forty days of renewal in Him.
After he made sacrifice for our sins, Jesus embraced "dust" forever. what a Savior!
If we walk the way of Jesus these forty days, we will most certainly and purposefully: " live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy". Not to try means nothing. What can you and I do not only to engage our fellow human beings for Jesus? Along with me, ask God to open doors and eyes. Listen to some of our Presiding Bishop Curry's sermons on YouTube. You will be challenged to experience the abounding grace of God in all of its fullness and dust will lose its threat and it's somber character The greater Truth we wrestle here is mortality and the holy hope that Jesus promised. The word Lent literally means, spring. Spring brings life out of death. 'Lord, let the dust of our lives, be molded and shaped to the image that most resembles the grace, the love and the peace of God that you have given us in Jesus Christ. To Him be glory forever!