Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6. 1-6, 16-21
We are forgiven that we might confess.
And loved that we might believe!

We’ve heard the story, before. About the man, the woman, the garden. After all, that’s where it began. Chapters two and three of the first book. God gave them everything. Only one was off limits. The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Unfortunately, that’s the first place they went. The man blamed the woman. The woman blamed the snake. And we’ve all had to pay the price ever since. Our unhappily-ever-after. It’s called the Fall. The moment sin entered the world. And tonight, once again, its shadow falls over us. “Remember,” god told Adam, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Those same words will be spoken to you as a soot is smeared onto your forehead. Remember … Remember …

And for a while, that’s what we’ll do. We’ll shuffle forward. Bent, stooped, under the load. Humbled by guilt, by shame. We’ll bow our heads. We’ll avert our eyes. We’ll remember. After all, we’ve sinned. We’re sinners. In thought, word, deed. What we’ve done, what we haven’t. Of course, we’ll promise to do better, to try harder, never to do it again. And for the next forty days – not counting Sundays – we may, even, do it! Confessing sins. Praying. Giving alms. Maybe, even, fasting. But then it will be Easter. And after that Pentecost and all those Sundays-after. And life will return to normal. Until the next Ash Wednesday. When the ritual, the routine, happens all over, again. Remember … Remember … You are dust …

Truth is, none of the things you’re about to be invited to do has any redeeming value. None of them, on their own, change anything. Not our good intentions. Not our better angels. It doesn’t matter how guilty we feel or how ashamed we are. We can wear sackcloth twenty-four/seven. We could cover ourselves with ashes, morning, noon, and night. Gnash our teeth to nubs. Cry a river. But that isn’t what saves us. That isn’t what gets god’s attention. There’s only one thing that can do that … the love god ALREADY has for us! The love god ALREADY has for us all!

There’s nothing uniquely Christian about the discipline of lent. Self-examination. Repentance. Fasting. Prayer. Works of love. Sacrificial giving. All religions have those things. And frankly, they, probably, do a better job at them than we do! Those aren’t what we believe in, what we rely on, what we depend on, what we stake our lives on. But for some reason, Ash Wednesday comes around and we forget that. We get sidetracked. Distracted. Thirty-one thousand plus verses in the bible. Nearly eight thousand in the New Testament, alone. And these are what we choose to read? These dozen verses from the Sermon on the Mount? “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

For then you have no reward? Is that why we’re here, tonight? Is that why we’re doing what we are? For the reward? For what we get out of it? Is that why we sing the songs? Is that why we read the words? Why we say the prayers? I certainly hope not. Or the past five hundred year … of teaching the gospel … of administering the sacraments … will have been a waste of time, a waste of energy … This night isn’t about the piety. This night is about the love, about the charity, about the grace.

We know we’re going to die. We all know that. And we believe it. With every ounce, with every fiber, of our being. And it terrifies us. We can’t even bring ourselves to call it for what it is. Instead, we say we pass, we cross over. We know we’re dust. We know to dust we’ll return. What we have trouble believing is Lent! Springtime! When life returns! When the world is born again! Believing in the resurrection of the body is believing in life! Believing in living! Look around! This is what faith is about! Trees budding! Flowers blooming! Creation turning green! All the while, god is whispering in our ears … Remember! You are life! And to life you shall return!

It’s not the guilt that brings us here. It’s not the guilt that brings us closer to god. It’s not the shame. It’s god! It’s god who does that! It’s god who draws us! It’s god who comes to us! Conceived by the Spirit! Born of a virgin! Suffered! Crucified! Died! Buried! Descended! God does it all until god is here, with us, now. That’s what love does. God doesn’t wait for us to take the first step. God’s already done that. Taken the first step … and the second step … and the third … and the fourth … and every step that needs to be taken! God isn’t sitting back, waiting for us to confess before god forgives. God’s already done that, as well! It’s the forgiveness that inspires us! The forgiveness that gives us the strength and the courage to see ourselves as we really, truly are.

No, this time together isn’t about the Fall. It’s about the Rising! The Spring! It’s not about what happened in Eden; but about what happened on Golgotha! This night is about the cross and this night is about the love! Gloom? Despair? Agony? Hardly! Moping? Brooding? Sulking? Not in the least! This is the season of life! Of living! The season of heartbeats and breaths! There are no shoulds … or oughts … or musts … Nothing to give up … Nothing to take on … This is only the love! The love we share, to be sure … But more importantly, the love god imparts!

God already loves us! We are already forgiven! And now, my friends, now is the time to confess our sin …