Ash Wednesday Sermon, March 9, 2011

March 10, 2011 at 10:59 am Leave a comment

Ash Wednesday
March 9, 2011

A little boy was asked by his pastor if he was looking forward to Easter,
and the boy said, “No, I’m not.”
The pastor said, “Well, didn’t you give something up for Lent?
Aren’t you looking forward to having that back?”
The boy said, “Yes.”
The pastor said, “Doesn’t the Easter bunny come to your house?
Aren’t you looking forward to that?”
“Yes, I like the Easter bunny.”
“Well then why aren’t you looking forward to Easter?”
And the boy said, “Because after the Easter Bunny comes,
we get dressed up and come to church,
and you always tell the same story every year.”

Now I invented some of the details,
but it’s a true story,
and the little boy in the story was me.
I have no recollection of this at all,
but my mother swears it’s true.

The same story every year –
one might say the same thing about Ash Wednesday.
Haven’t we done this before,
heard of our need for repentance
and listed the litany of our sins
and had the ashes affixed to our forehead,
and thought about the things we were giving up for Lent,
or what we were going to do differently this year?
Truly resolved to do better?
And yet it is the same story every year,
our need for repentance, the litany of our sins, and the ashes are applied once again
to a slightly older forehead, a forehead a year or so closer to its dusty destiny.

If we look at Lent as an opportunity for self-improvement,
as a chance to get it right this time, we will inevitably be disappointed.
The holy season of Lent is neither of those things.
Lent and its culmination in the Easter feast
is the time when we come from our scheming and dreaming and hoping
and hear once again the same old story –
the story of our need and God’s amazing love,
the story of our yawning emptiness and God’s desire to fill us with his grace
the story of the garden, the cross, and the empty tomb.
It is this that we need more than anything else,
the same old story, because we are part of that same old story.
Our Lenten practices of worship, study, prayer, fasting, giving –
they are not about building ourselves up
but rather emptying ourselves so that God can fill us.
We give up something we like,
or we take on other more strenuous fasts,
not because it is good for us,
but because it speaks to our need,
it speaks to the need that we try so hard to fill with other things,
and it reminds us of our frailty,
our utter dependence upon a creation which we have not created,
our need for God who created all things good.

We give away what is ours,
not so we can build a resume as a giver,
but to imitate Christ who gave all of himself for us.
We pray not to be seen praying by others, but to encounter God,
a God who desires nothing but relationship with us,
relationship which he desires to freely give us in Christ.

We return to repentance not because by repenting this Lent
we will finally get it right and move on with life,
we return to repentance because that is our life as the baptized.
Martin Luther’s 1st Thesis of his famous 95 is this:
“When our Lord Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’
he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
Repentance is simply turning to God,
and that’s what we do in Lent and in all other times,
turning to God,
with nothing in our hands to give,
no great thoughts or exalted feelings to recommend us,
with nothing but the knowledge of our need,
the sign of our frailty upon our heads,
and with our only hope in the Gospel we are given,
that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and ready to relent from punishing.
That in Jesus Christ, we may be reconciled to God,
who for our sake was made to be sin who knew no sin,
that we might become the righteousness of God.
That God who sees in secret will reward us,
not because we have something that we can give him,
but because he delights to give what is his to beggars.
It’s the same old story.
We need to know ourselves as beggars.
Beggars can’t be choosers, we well know.
But beggars can be chosen.

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On Ash Wednesday: Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Guilt, Justification, Renewal Sermon Lent 1 – March 13, 2011

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