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Ash Wednesday 2019 Sermon
Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21
6, 2019


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In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; Amen.

Well, here we are again. We have blown the proverbial trumpet and are embarking once again upon a season of reflection, prayer and denial. It all begins today, with Ash Wednesday. Even though we “do this” every year, I believe it is good to remember why we “do it”:
Ashes symbolize several aspects of our human existence:

• Ashes remind us of God's condemnation of sin, as God said to Adam, "Dust you are and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19).

• Ashes suggest cleansing and renewal. They were used in ancient times in the absence of soap. On Ash Wednesday ashes are a penitential substitute for water as a reminder of our baptism.

• Ashes remind us of the shortness of human life, for it is said as we are buried: "earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

• Ashes are a symbol of our need to repent, confess our sins, and return to God.

You will notice that before you have an opportunity to come forward, we will have a time of confession of sins. This confession marks the beginning of a season of penitence. At the conclusion of the confession and imposition of ashes, we will proclaim a declaration of grace, coupled with a plea for God’s mercy.
There is rich history in the Christian church going back many centuries to when there were no denominations, and it was indeed all one holy and universal (or catholic) church. The use of ashes for repentance goes back before Jesus, but the action of placing them on our foreheads in the shape of the cross is linked to the strong emphasis during Lent of baptism. To replace chrism oil or water with ashes is a right and appropriate thing to do. If you feel that by walking outside these walls with your foreheads marked goes contrary to Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 6, then please go to the restroom before you leave and wash yourself, according to Jesus’ commands.
In addition, it is not mandatory that you begin Lent in this way, and if you desire to stay in your seat and contemplate what the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” mean to you personally, please do so. According to the words of Psalm 51, God takes no delight in sacrifice, burnt offerings God would refuse – but the sacrifice of a contrite spirit and a humbled, contrite heart God will not spurn. The cross will be there for you – even though you cannot see it without the help of a mirror, it is there. And maybe it will be forgotten until the next time you go to the wash room and look up into that mirror and remember. But what God desires for us as we begin this penitential season of Lent is that we feel his grief. God our maker intended us to know only peace, love and joy. In our sinfulness, we have tried to create those very things for and by ourselves, and in so doing, have moved ourselves away from our dependence upon the mercy of God.

Recently I attended an event co-sponsored by the Southern Ohio Synod and the Cincinnati Arch-Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church on addiction. It was a wonderful time for Lutheran and Catholic leaders to be together, to hear folks who are involved in recovery speak, and to talk with peers about the challenges of addiction to opioids and other substances in our communities. I was particularly taken by the words of the plenary speaker, Father Mark Hushen. Father Mark is a Priest from the Baltimore, Maryland area who is also a recovering alcoholic. As a way to connect the Christian faith with addiction and recovery, he talked about what he calls, “Divine homesickness.” Divine Homesickness is the idea that God builds into us a restlessness, irritability or discontent of being “on the wrong path.” It is God’s desire to always have us in good and close relationship, so God constantly calls us back – lovingly receives us back.

The freedom that is involved in our relationship with God is not only a freedom from, but a freedom for or to; God promises us freedom from: obsessive compulsive focus; addictive thinking; negative behaviors, things that we all have a tendency toward; and God promises us a freedom to: live, laugh, love again. Father Mark encouraged us to see the importance of this kind of spirituality when encouraging people in recovery, so that they might know that they are never dis-connected permanently from the God who loves them. I relate this with Ash Wednesday and Lent because today we experience in our hearts that divine homesickness, and we can experience that restlessness, irritability and discontent of being on “the wrong road” with our fellow sinful brothers and sisters. And we receive a visible sign of how God addressed that divine homesickness on our foreheads with an ashen cross. And we engage in spiritual exercises to be free to live, laugh and love again as God has intended.

Addressing this divine homesickness begins with our confession – sharing the words that vulnerably lay our failures open to God and act as a reminder to us of our need for God’s grace. All other activities in which you may choose to engage during this time – from the ashes on the forehead to fasting, praying more or giving more – are ways that you may put aside what society tells you is right, but which take you down that wrong road. And as we engage in this journey together, we do so fully expecting that God will have mercy on us according to God’s own steadfast love, and set us right in our relationship with God and with each other.

Whatever you do during these weeks leading up to Holy Week and Easter, focus on the homesickness that is built into all of us by a loving and merciful God who continues to call us back, desiring that we experience true joy and peace. The love that Jesus showed to us and to the whole world is known in the word, “agape.” It is a love that comes to us in our sinfulness and says, “I know all there is to know about you and I still love you enough to give my life for you.” If the crosses on our heads today proclaim anything to people who will see them, may they proclaim the crucified Lord Jesus – and may they lead others to have humble, contrite hearts and spirits so that the mercy of God will heal all of the world, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; Amen.