Ash Wednesday

Before we begin, I hope that everyone has received the ashes that I mailed out to you. If not please feel free to grab a spice such as cinnamon or ground cloves, ashes from your fireplace or wood burner, or even a little soil from a friendly potted plant.

A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge. 5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. 6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place. 7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. 10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. 13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways so that sinners will turn back to you.
- Psalm 51:1-13

Prayer: “Lord, Your love knows no bounds. Even in our darkest hours, Your grace and Your mercy shine through. Thank you for inspiring David, a man after Your own heart, to write this psalm of repentance. So many times in our own lives, we have been brought to this same place where this has been the cry of our hearts, too. Each time we have fallen by the error of our sin, You have been faithful to hear our cries for help and lift us up out of the mess. “Search our hearts, Lord. You alone know the depths of our souls and the dark corners of our hearts that even we are blind to. Reveal to us how we need to change. Thank you for the guidance, wisdom, and conviction of Your Holy Spirit, without which we would be lost to the temptations of this world. Hold us upright and keep us from straying as we walk the narrow path that leads to You. “Lord, we are overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for what Your Son did on the cross. Thank you for saving us and adopting us into Your kingdom, for blotting out out our sins and keeping us near You. You are our rock and our salvation, and we thank You for Your forgiveness. In Your name we pray, Amen.”

On this Ash Wednesday our Lenten journey begins... we are like a fisherman who launches his boat at dawn on the way to deep waters... The morning seas are calm; but the fisherman knows a storm can come with little warning. The boat may be buffeted by wind and waves before the journey is done. It may even capsize...Nevertheless, carefully equipped for the journey, he launches his boat, he pushes out. . He trusts that his journey will be successful and be good. . . Our boats are ourselves; the waters are our lives, a new course that we are making a new effort to direct our lives to God through Christ. We are on our way to deep waters of faith. Our morning seas are calm, but we know that winds of unrest, discontent or discouragement may lie ahead. Our boats may even capsize... Nevertheless, we push out. we trust that we will have a good journey because Jesus goes with us...He will guide us through the words of the Lenten scripture reading-. He will help us to understand better through them the journey through death He himself has taken. And he will give us courage to follow. The strength of his presence in us will help us to forgive, accept, persevere, and love through the weeks ahead........ We will join with others--family, friends, Christians--who are also on this journey. Together we will turn to God in prayer and ritual . . Jesus, present among us, will join his prayers to ours........ we are eager to push out from the shore.......... We have the words of the Ash Wednesday challenge in our ears: "Repent and believe in the Gospel." we are ready to begin."

Our Lenten journey begins with the Psalm 51. In this Psalm, David is confessing his sin and his need for forgiveness. He says: “according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so, you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.”

David is saying he deserves punishment for his sin. He knows he is a sinner in the eyes of God. The question can be asked, can you? Can you acknowledge that in the eyes of God you are a sinner. It is because of you and me that Christ died on the cross. Yes, not only for me and you did he die, but because of us. Because of our sins, Jesus died

The Psalmist says:

5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”

We are born into sin and live our whole lives as sinners.

Now you might be saying, not me pastor. I am a good person. I live a life that does not do all those awful sins like kill, steal, commit adultery. How can I be a sinner. Yet, in God’s eyes we are sinners. We fall short of what God expects of us all the time.

Or we might call them little sins, but they mount up according to what God expects of us. We are like birds at Niagara Falls. Some birds swoop down to snatch a drink from the clean water. Sometimes the water is cold, and the birds plunge into the water. They dip down for a drink, and ice forms on their wings. But they dip again and again and more and more ice forms on their little bodies. And suddenly they can’t rise anymore, and they fall into the water.

Sin is as deceptive as the sparkling water of the Niagara wintry rapids. Dip into it once too often, and we are not able to lay aside the weight which sin gives us by clinging so closely."

Since God demands perfection and we cannot achieve it, our sins do mount up. We are sinners.

Our sins do have not to be what we consider the awful sins, killing, stealing and committing adultery. They can be the everyday sins of our own pride, our own built in prejudice, our own ideas of what should be right and wrong.

There is a modern parable by an unknown author that I would like to share with you.

“There are six people gathered around a dying campfire on a dark and bitterly cold night. Each one has a stick which they might place on the fire. But, sadly, one by one they decide not to give what they have to keep the fire going. The lone woman does not give because there is a black man in the circle. The penniless man does not give because in that circle there is a member of the idle rich. The rich man does not give because he reasons his contribution would obviously help someone who was lazy and shiftless. Another didn’t give because one of the six didn’t belong to his church. The black man didn’t give because it was his way of getting even with the white people that didn’t like him. Another would not give because he believed in giving only to those who also gave. And each one felt if he or she were asked to give with a personal invitation, or if they knew the need was really great, then they would give.

The parable ends with these words: Six logs held fast in deaths hand was proof of human six, the sin of pride, ego, and selfishness. They didn’t t die from the cold of that night, they died from the cold within each heart.“

Our sins come from within and they do mount up in the eyes of God.

But do we stand forever as sinners? Do you and I deserve only God’s punishment and wrath? No!!, listen to what David says next:

10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

He asks God to cleanse his heart. Put a new and right spirit within me God. We first have to understand and acknowledge our position before God. We are sinners, period. Then we can turn to God and ask for his cleansing forgiveness. God can change us from the inside out with his grace and mercy. All we have to do is acknowledge our need for it.

It is like hunger. Our stomach growls, it hurts and once we finally acknowledge what the pain is, we take care of it. We feed our hunger. Just like the pain in the pit of your heart, the pain of sin, once we acknowledge it, once we fall on our knees before the throne of God and acknowledge our sinfulness, God will take care of it.

The grace of god can be bewildering for some:

There is a story of a man named Ronald, Ronald was a dying man. He knew it. The doctors knew it. And the chaplain who visited with him every day knew it. "I can’t understand it," said Ronald to the chaplain. "I’ve done some awful things in my life. I’ve cheated on my wife. I’ve ignored my children. I made my fortune by walking on the shady side of what was right. And you’re telling me that all I have to do to be forgiven is ask for forgiveness and then I will be forgiven, and the gates of heaven will be opened for me? I just can’t understand how it can be that easy. Are you sure I don’t have to pay a certain amount of money, or work a certain amount of time helping others? I just can’t understand it." "But that’s just it," the chaplain replied. "You are not supposed to understand it. You are supposed to believe it in your heart."

10 “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”

Yes, it is that easy for us because Jesus paid the price of our sinfulness. He paid the cost for all the awful things, and the little things we have done in our lives.

On this Ash Wednesday, we need to acknowledge our sinfulness, we need to come to the table of the Lord with hearts willing to acknowledge our position before God. We come to the table as sinners and we receive forgiveness in through and around the body and blood of Christ.

Later as you our someone puts the ashes on your forehead, reminding you of your sin and the forgiveness of God through the cross of Christ, acknowledge your sin and repent. Ask for forgiveness. The ashes are a reminder of the Holy Week work of Christ. The week he gave us his body and blood as the payment for our sins so that today and every day we might ask for forgiveness and cleansing.

Our Lenten journey begins as we push our boats from the shore and see the forgiveness God has planned for us through the life of his son Jesus Christ.

Let me try to sum this up with this closing story.

Imagine yourself looking out over a landscape of thousands and thousands of people. People who seem happy, playing, dancing, laughing and celebrating As you focus in on their faces, they look just like you, you even see friends, neighbors, relatives and one who looks exactly like you. As you continue to watch these people, you notice that some don’t move as free as others, You see they are linked by invisible chains, to huge weights. Weights of resentment, or bitterness, or non-forgiveness, or lack of self-control, or loneliness, or deep guilt, or a broken spirit or unfaithfulness, or non-trust, or petty complaints, or worry, or gossip or wanting to be number one, or pride, or weights of knowing what is best for everyone, or self-righteousness, or religious bigotry, or weights of piety.

You see all these weights, some huge, some medium size, some small but everyone you see is chained to some kind of weight. Some carry their weights with ease, disguising the fact they have to carry a weight, others are struggling, it affects their lives the way they move, dance, interact with others. You look around and you see the one who looks like you, you see the weights. Everyone is smiling, even the one who looks like you, but you can see their burdens, you can see their struggles, you can see how their lives their every move is affected by the weights they carry. You long to free them, you long to find some way to release them from those weights, but at last you know you cannot, as they know they cannot free themselves.

Then you see one moving among the people one who has no weight, only a key which says FREEDOM, RELEASE and he is moving about unlocking, releasing the people from their weights and chains. Releasing people and giving them the chance to move freely--releasing them to move uninhibited. But sadly some don’t let him, they move away from him, they continue to dance their own dance weighted down by their weights.

You see others, who are given the strength and courage to carry their weights, because even this one cannot free them in this land, but he gives them a promise they will be free in another land he promises to bring them to when their walk through this land is finished. You even see this man reach out to help carry as many of those weights as he can. Some are freed, some are given strength and courage, some are given help in carrying their weight, and some move away from him in self pride, still disguising their weights, still pretending they have no weights what so ever to carry.

Then you focus on the one who looks like you, this person, this man, this Christ moves toward you what will you let Him do with your weights? Amen

Let us begin the imposition of the ashes. Ashes are a very personal inward-seeking sacred moment. Before you turn to yourself, take a deep breath for the world, inhaling sorrows you know from the news and exhaling love and hope and blessing. Pause.

Take a second deep breath for those who are ill, in despair or fearful now, inhaling the painful stories you know are out there, then exhaling love and hope and blessing. Pause.

Take a third deep breath for those dear to you, inhaling their needs, losses, anxieties then exhaling love, hope and blessing. Now you are only yourself. Just you, God’s beloved child. If you are alone, mark a cross on your forehead or the back of your hand, whichever you prefer, and say, “I am human dust, and the image of God. God loves me.” If you are with others – mark each other or offer the bowl so a person can mark themselves and say, “You are / I am  human dust and the image of God. Always remember, God loves you/me.” Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Amen