Ash Wednesday 2012
Isaiah 58 1-12 & Matthew 6
February 22, 2012
Ash Wednesday 2012 Isaiah 58 1-12 & Matthew 6 February 22, 2012
Like some of you, I grew up in an ecumenical environment. My dad was born into a Presbyterian home and my mom into a Lutheran one. I don’t know what kind of arm wrestling they did, but Mom’s roots won out and we were raised Lutheran. I love what Lutheranism brings to ecumenical dialogue, and I also love what Methodists and Presbyterians, UCC and Roman Catholics, etcetera, bring. At Lent we are united by the call to return to God with all our hearts.
To be baptized into Christ is to trust God to meet us in our humanity and use us for good. The ashen cross we receive on our forehead tonight reminds us that we are the created ones, not the Creator. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We are limited. But we are also blessed! And the biggest blessing is that we are created to be a blessing within our limitations. We don’t have to be anyone other than who God created us, in love, to be.
Look at your fingertips. As you know, no one has the same print as you. Your voice is that way too. No one else has your voice print. No one reflects the Creator as you do. Your human realities, limitations are uniquely yours. On Ash Wednesday we own up together that whatever our human limitations are, God is God and God chooses to raise us up, in all our humanity, for God’s good pleasure. God uses even all our mistakes for good, wrote Trappist monk Thomas Merton. It’s an awesome thing to be in the hands of such a personal, grace filled Creator.
How many of you in the last day or so got to eat a pile of pancakes? The tradition of eating pancakes around Shrove Tuesday – the night before Ash Wednesday – grew out of the call to eat up butter or syrup, any rich foods around the house because we were to forego them for Lent. Forgoing can be helpful, but only if we forgo for the sake of adding. Lent invites us to add back into our lives a renewed love for what God has in mind and had in mind in the first place.
This odd act of receiving ashes on our forehead is an act of humility and honesty. We are finite and we know better than to argue about that fact. But what we do tend to argue about, at least with ourselves, is whether God can really accomplish making of us a blessing that matters. The Christian community enters Lent together. We need each other because the call to be a blessing comes from outside us. Who, all on your own, would come to the realization that people are most fulfilled when we prioritize our lives, spend our time, use our money, share our talents in ways that overflow not just for ourselves, but in wide blessing beyond ourselves?
Most of us come by this good realization gradually, if we come to it at all. And we come to it most often in some kind of community where we watch other’s lives reflect this more beautiful way. Most of us watch it unfold in others before we believe it’s possible from ourselves. And when we see others too have clay feet, even trip over their own feet in the dance of being human, but God uses them anyway, we begin to imagine that God might be able to use us too, as we are.
The words we hear on this day are words we would not come by on our own. “Do not store up treasures on earth where robbers can break in and steal.” We are regularly told the opposite. Store up treasures on earth and buy security systems to keep robbers from stealing. We live in the real world. But the word of the gospel is also real. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be.”
So Lent begins with this question: “What do we treasure?” And it warns us, that where we focus our energy will find us out. It will indicate our real treasure. There’s no hiding it because it shows up in where our hearts go, and our time, and our resources, and our talents and energy. Today’s Matthew 6 reading says to not parade your piety. Don’t let your right hand know what your left is doing. But in reality, our actions show us out. We can’t hide it when our actions follow what we treasures – even if we try to keep it quiet – it gets out.
So I would say to Trinity United Methodist folk who grace us with your presence this evening, your hearts and actions and commitments tell you out. There’s no hiding it. You value, among other things, making the healing art of music available to anyone who needs it. And you value putting racism behind us – as you open your church to MLK, Jr. gatherings year after year. You value putting an end to human trafficking where innocent people are used in the worst of ways. You value partnership as you join efforts with the Chico Area Interfaith Council and the work we share. Your actions, these and many others, bear you out. And I say, more power to you as you enter Lent along with us, saying, “Let your love, O God, be our treasure, for where our treasure is, our hearts will follow.”
And Faith Lutheran folk, your actions bear you out too. You don’t hide your care for the homeless as you share your commercial kitchen with other communities who want to share in cooking meals for the Torres Shelter but don’t have a commercial kitchen. And when we were asked if we might cook two nights a month instead of one, you rose to the need. And you show yourself by your commitment to youth as you buy their cinnamon rolls in support of their participation in the National Youth Gathering in New Orleans this summer.
Even more, you show yourself when you spend your precious time sharing in play and ministry with children and youth and call them by name. And your ten year love affair with Rwanda – that too bears you out – as does your Taize worship and Centering Prayer offered ecumenically. Our building is not just for us, as Trinity’s isn’t just for them, and that’s a good thing.
And those of you from other faith communities, or no faith community to call your own yet, you show yourselves simply by being here – gathering with other finite people who know our need for God. We are not self-made. God makes us – and sends us out for the good of the world. We can ignore the sending, or think we are not worthy of it. L left to ourselves, we might do that. The church learned years ago of the human need to be called to return to God with all our hearts.
The New Common Lectionary of readings we share as communities of faith now includes an alternative First Reading of Isaiah 58. Isaiah poetically expresses what is made clear throughout the Bible that how we live with our neighbors matters probably more than anything else. Isaiah is filled with what today we might call “tough love.” He doesn’t say “If you feel like caring for the homeless, that’d be nice.” He doesn’t say “Don’t worry about the children, they’ll grow up fine without your help.” He doesn’t say “God is compassionate, but that doesn’t have to affect you.”
Instead Isaiah fashions a word that’s demanding, and can’t easily be dismiss. “If you remove from among you the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness. The Lord will satisfy your needs in parched places, and you shall be like a watered garden. You shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach…”
“If” is a little but mighty word. God has in mind a world shaped by love and well being, mercy and justice. If we treasure what God has in mind, we’ll see it unfolding all the time because our hearts will go to what we treasure. If we don’t delight in God’s love affair with creation, we may not even notice it. We may think God has abandoned the world rather than see ourselves as uniquely fashioned by God to be a blessing to it.
It’s risky to take God’s “if” to heart because it alters agendas. Things are never the same again. But the choice is ours, and the church calls us to Lent to support us in our choosing. There are other options that may look more appealing. But once we’ve been touched by God’s love we realize we are the treasured. We are where God’s heart is. Jesus shows us that. He died showing us that.
And God raised Jesus, and in baptism raises us with him to be a blessing. It’s as simple as that. As the song writer puts it: “We are called to act with justice, we are called to love tenderly; we are called to serve one another, to walk humbly with God.” It is a humble walk, but walking humbly with God is always better than we even imagined. Welcome to Lent.
+Pastor Peg Schultz-Akerson, to the glory of God
Faith Lutheran Church, Chico, CA