Ash Wednesday Service Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 6:22-23
Great Ash Wednesday story. A collogue of mine, when she was still early in her ministry and very inexperienced, forgot to get ashes for the Ash Wednesday service that was about 15 minutes from starting. So, in a panic she got some powdered ink out of the copier in the office… You can see where this is headed …can’t ya? Her parishioners carried the “Mark of the Ash” on their foreheads for at least a week. Don’t worry. I put some of the ash on my hand every year so I can make sure it washes off. I tried it, we’re Okay tonight.
Another Ash Wednesday story. The first time I lead an Ash Wednesday service I didn’t know you could buy ashes. Who knew? So, I burned up some palm leaves that were dried and left by the former pastor. And all was going well. I put them in a coffee can and out on the back porch of the parsonage, I lit them up. A point of interest here. When you light something like palm leaves out on the back porch of your parsonage, make sure you’re sheltered from the wind. Yep. As soon as the leaves turned to ash they blew away.
I did however salvage just enough ashes to use in the service. Which leads me to another point of interest. Be careful how much oil you add to the ashes. As I applied the ashes to the foreheads of the faithful that evening, a small stream of what can only be described as an “oily sludge” trickled down their noses. Great Ash Wednesday memories.
I shared these humorous stories tonight for a reason. And that reason is that Ash Wednesday, and the whole season of Lent for that matter, don’t have to be a complete downer! It never ceases to amazing me, that for so many people Lent a time of gloom and doom. Is it just me? Or has Lent become a time to beat yourself up; a time to “give up” something you enjoy, and to take on a whole truckload of shame and guilt.
Traditionally, this is the reason we carry the mark of the ashes on our foreheads. It’s a sign of our mortality. It’s an understanding that we have sinned against God. It’s a sign of our repentance. Over the course of my many years as a pastor, as I smudged ashes on many, many hundreds of heads and hands, I uttered the words, “repent and believe the gospel.” And I still think that’s a part, and important part, of Ash Wednesday and Lent. Lent is finally about turning around.
However, I think the emphasis on shame and guilt has become the dominate theme. It’s been overplayed. I say that because there’s another aspect; an equally important aspect to Lent. And that aspect is God’s generosity.
How did I come to this conclusion? Well, one of the central features of the entire biblical message is the claim that God is Creator, Redeemer, and Liberator. Right? That’s the job description of the Trinity. But in Lent, traditionally, we have tended to focus only on God as Redeemer. Redeemer in the sense that through repentance, through changing our ways and hopefully our hearts, we are forgiven. Again, here’s nothing wrong with this traditional way of approaching the season of Lent. There’s nothing wrong with a good prayer of confession and then making the changes necessary to put that confession into action.
BUT here’s the thing. God is also the Creator and Liberator of all humanity. Our God is a God who looks on the oppressed with compassion, who frees the captives, lifts the downtrodden, and who loves those whom we might consider, unlovable. In other words, God is about Justice! And God’s Justice finds it’s basis in generosity. Our God is a God who is finally generous beyond all measure. And God’s generosity includes creating this beautiful earth for us to live on. God’s generosity includes being merciful and forgiving when we mess up. God’s generosity includes calling every person and all of nature – Beloved! Do you see what I’m getting at here? Lent can be about celebrating the wholeness of God rather than just a third of God. Lent is finally about celebrating God’s generosity. And this is key! God’s generosity challenges us to be generous as well. I think that’s way more important than giving up chocolate or trashy TV.
Which leads us to our Scripture lessons for this evening. What I find striking here is the clear and concrete way in which they define living out a life of justice in terms of practicing generosity! The prophet Isaiah says that practicing God’s justice looks like this: “If you get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people’s sins. If you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out, your lives will begin to glow in the darkness, your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.”
Isn’t that interesting? If we can find it within ourselves to take a chance and reach out to those in need; if we can find the courage to overcome our fear of the “other;” if we can participate in the Present Reign of God by helping those who, for whatever reason, cannot help themselves. Then, Isaiah says, our “shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.” That’s finally our goal for this season. The goal is to move from fear to faith; to move from compliancy to action; to move from ashes to light.
So, as we continue this journey that we call lent, may the ashes we receive tonight turn into light. And may the smudge remind us not only of our own mortality and our need for repentance, but may it also represent our calling, our challenge to practice God’s generosity in our lives.
My friends, as you come forward for the imposition of ashes this evening, you are encouraged to seek forgiveness for your transgressions. You are invited to consider that all humanity originated from the earth and that someday we will all return to dust from which we came. But as those ashes are applied to your forehead or back of your hand, you will hear the words, “Practice God’s Generosity” A generosity that comes first from God, but is then “live-out” through acts of Kindness & Compassion, Peace & Justice, and through acts of Loving-kindness. May we, as we progress through this season of Lent, indeed, move from Ashes to Light.