Ash Wednesday – March 2, 2022

Prayer of the Day
Almighty and ever-living God, you hate nothing you have made, and you forgive the sins of all who are penitent.  Create in us new and honest hearts, so that, truly repenting of our sins, we may receive from you, the God of all mercy, full pardon and forgiveness through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen

Processional Psalm:  Psalm 51
First Reading:  Isaiah 58: 1-12
Psalm:  Psalm 103 
 Second Reading:  1 Corinthians 15:20-28, 45-49
Gospel:  John 5:24-29


Title:  An Uncomfortable Truth

Perhaps this is the year that the church is going to get into trouble on this Ash Wednesday.  Perhaps pastors will get arrested for what they preach from the pulpit.  Seriously.  Because laws are being proposed and passed dictating what people are NOT supposed to say.  Teachers are being told what they are NOT allowed to discuss in the classroom. And all of this is around the issue of NOT wanting to make people feel uncomfortable.  We can’t talk about racism because it makes white people feel uncomfortable.  We can’t discuss issues around emotional, sexual, and gender identity because it might make those who refuse to understand the complexities feel uncomfortable.  We can’t talk about events of the recent past because it might make certain supporters and politicos uncomfortable.

The people that Isaiah is prophesying to were having a similar time of it.  They wanted to only talk about their rituals.  They only wanted to hear that God was happy with them.  That they were doing the right things, obeying the right laws, engaging the right traditions. And they certainly could not comprehend, because of their faithfulness to all that they held dear, (operative word being THEY held dear);  they could not comprehend how God could let them be defeated and taken into exile.  But whether or not they wanted to hear it, Isaiah was going to tell them that God was desiring something else from them.

Through Isaiah, God says to the people:  6Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7) 

That is not what they were looking to hear.  They just wanted to hear God say: “Hey, I just love that fasting you all do so faithfully.  And I’m so touched by how humble you all are.  Keep up the good work.  You are spot on in my book.”  Maybe they should have put rules on what God was allowed to say and not say.  Oh, yeah, folks do. And that’s called religious domination.  We’ll return to that on Good Friday.

But back to today. Fast forward to our times, our discomfort-censoring times.  We gather today, on this day we call Ash Wednesday, taking this first step on our Lenten journey, to hear some pretty uncomfortable words.  (And good for you for being willing to come here and hear them.)  But as uncomfortable as they may make us, it is the truth.  Ready?  We are all going to die. Or using the churchy language for today:  Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Now perhaps that doesn’t make you so very uncomfortable.  After all, you came here willingly to hear that.  But if you want to see just how uncomfortable our society is by this news that we are all going to die, just watch TV some night or your various social media platforms, and check out how many products are designed to help us avoid this brutal truth. Take note of the behaviors that we all engage in to try to deal with this uncomfortable truth. Amassing things to distract, over-dedicating ourselves to jobs to find meaning hoping to  leave an impressive impact, create legacies. Or perhaps we numb ourselves plugging our ears and avoiding it altogether. 

But today, there is no avoiding it.  We put ashes on our foreheads, a visible symbol that we are willing to face the truth.  Speak the truth.  Live into the truth.  Or should I even say, die into the truth.

This isn’t about guilt, this is not about shame, this is not about some verdict from an angry and vengeful God.  This is about the truth – regardless of the comfort level.  The truth of who we are, and left to our own sinful selves, what our fate would be.

However, breaking through all the discomfort that can even drive us to despair and hopelessness, God breaks through our death-cloaked darkness with the light of the Good News.  What we call the gospel.  The story and the life, the works and the teachings, the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, the word of God in human form.

This is what St. Paul is trying to get across to those Corinthians in the section of his letter that we have read.  God’s love is so great that God was not going to leave us, condemned to death by our dusty lineage inherited from our humanity.  Made new in the waters of baptism, God has transformed our bad news into good news, transformed our death into life, transformed us from children of dust into children of God.  In light of this transformation, there is no reason to feel uncomfortable.  With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can boldly tell our truth and God’s truth – with ashes on our foreheads, peacefully confessing our need for God and God’s mercy, grace and forgiveness. 

That’s why even the ashes of our dustiness are shaped into the Cross of Christ that is our salvation.  That lifts us up out of death into life, new life, eternal life.  The Cross of Christ that scorns our truth-avoidance, transforms our discomfort, and leads us forward into good news.

And, having been born anew through God’s grace in the waters of baptism, having heard the Good News of Jesus the Christ, we can come to the comfort of this table, nourished by the resurrected life of Christ that is our new life, fed and nourished through the power of the Holy Spirit.

We are the ones that Jesus is speaking of.  We are hearing his words as we lay in our graves, being raised up to new life.  He gives us the power and the assurance that enables us to speak the truth.  Knowing there is no shame.  There is no humiliation.  There is no condemnation.  There is only good news that is filled with love and mercy, grace and peace.

May your Lenten journey that begins with bold truth-telling, lead you out of the dust, out of the darkness, out of hopelessness, out of death, into a deeper understanding and trust in the comforting, good news of God made known in Jesus Christ and that is always working through the power of the Holy Spirit;  the good news that is our life and our light, our hope and our salvation, for the living of this dusty life and for the glory that will be ours in Christ for life eternal.

The Rev. Mark Erson

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