Friday, February 24, 2012

Belated Ash Wednesday

I don't usually do this. I don't usually post my sermons on my blog. I believe that preaching is an oral event; sermons are preached not written. But, I am trying to post more frequently during Lent, and a certain assistant to the Bishop "strongly encouraged" me to do this. So, for those who may be interested, here is my Ash Wednesday sermon....

Return to the LORD, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
     Joel 2:13b NRSV

Somehow, through the centuries, our culture got hold of Christmas and began adding all sorts of things to the Church’s celebration of the birth of Christ. Now we have trees and presents and Santa and Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman.

Somehow our culture took the Church’s 12 day season that begins on December 25, and stretched it out to nearly two months and pushed it back to the day after Halloween, and filled it with an expectation that we will all be merry and jolly.

And, I’m not complaining. I actually like a lot of that Christmas stuff. But I am observing that a lot of our celebration of Christmas has more to do with our culture than our Church.

Easter, too, though maybe to a lesser extent, has been taken over by our culture. Now we have egg hunts and bunnies and bonnets and parades and jelly beans and marshmallow chicks....And a lot of those things are good things. I mean, I like marshmallow chicks, but what do they have to do with Jesus’ resurrection from the dead? They’ve got more to do with our culture than our Church.

Don’t even start me on Valentine’s Day or St. Patrick’s Day. They barely even belong to the Church anymore.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. And this is one Church holy day that the culture just doesn’t want.

Fat Tuesday? Yes. Whether you call it Mardi Gras or Carnival or Farewell to the Flesh, with its parties and parades and general debauchery, it’s the kind of celebration that our culture loves. But, as Nadia Bolz-Weber has pointed out, you’ll never see a Peanuts TV special called “It’s Ash Wednesday, Charlie Brown!”

This day belongs to the Church and to the Church alone. The culture doesn’t want it. In fact, Ash Wednesday is profoundly counter-cultural with its confession of sin and its frank recognition of mortality. These are things our culture prefers to deny.

So why do we do this? Why do we gather in church tonight to confess our sin and remember that we must die?

Let me say that it is not just to feel bad about ourselves. There is no sense in that. It is, rather, to be honest with ourselves.

We confess that we are sinners, because, when we look at ourselves honestly, we know that we do things that are wrong--whether we want to or not. We incur guilt and we want, we need, to be forgiven.

But more than that, we are sinners because we live in a state of sin--a state of separation from God and from one another. We go about our daily lives mostly ignoring, and by our actions even denying, the reality of God in our lives.

And this is why we not only confess our sins, but also remember the fact of our mortality. Tonight we remember that we are dust and will return to dust. We remember that we are frail flesh and, though our culture would prefer to deny it, we will all one day die.

We remember, in short, that we are not God. We need God. Our help, our only help, is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.

Now some people practice self-denial during Lent. They give up chocolate or caffeine or alcohol. Or they try to lose weight or something. Some of us treat lent as a kind of self-improvement program or a New Year’s resolution that only lasts forty days.

And of course there is nothing wrong with self-improvement. We could all use a little self-improvement. I know I could. But just becoming a better person is not the point of Lenten discipline. Whether we give something up or take something on for Lent, the point is to grow in right relationship to God.

The point of self-denial is to remove from our lives those things that come between ourselves and God. The point of taking on a discipline like prayer, or Bible study or some form of service is to attend faithfully to the God whom we sinners tend more naturally to ignore.

In fact, I believe that Lent is all about growth in relationship to God. That’s why we begin with confession and a remembrance of our mortality--because this is how we grow. Jesus reminded us that a seed has to be planted before it can sprout.

Lent is not about the self. That’s why I say it’s not about feeling bad about yourself and its not about self-improvement. Lent is about our relationship to God. So on Ash Wednesday, we look at honestly at our sinful, mortal nature, and we also look at God’s nature.

We remember that God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.

So we begin Lent remembering that we are sinners AND remembering that God loves sinners.

We begin Lent remembering our mortality AND remembering that the immortal God embraced our mortality in the cross of Christ.

We begin Lent trusting that our hope is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth--The Lord who is gracious, merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

God bless you in this Lenten season and grant you growth in your relationship with God.


Preaching is not only an oral event but, I believe it is also a team activity. A sermon lives in the interaction of the preacher, the congregation and the Holy Spirit. In my case, the Holy Spirit gets considerable assistance from several quarters. Let me acknowledge my Tuesday morning pastor's text study. My colleagues there challenge my thinking, sharpen my faith and improve my preaching in countless ways. For this sermon I must also acknowledge Nadia Bolz-Weber whose blog provided me not only with the sermon's best line ("It's Ash Wednesday, Charlie Brown") but also some key thoughts about how culture has absconded with some of our Church holy days. Also, where innumerable good preaching ideas are born. The photo illlustration came from wiki.


  1. I'm an ordained ELCA chaplain living and serving in St.Paul, MN. I found your blog through Nadia's. Thanks so much for your post.

    I am another Lent-lover, for mostly the same reasons. I have served congregations for 9 years, prior to my chaplainship. I led 3 congregations at once for the last 6 of those years. With all of those services to lead, I found Lent exhausting. However, I reveled in the deep realities involved in our spiritual lives.

    I found my congregations to be more open during Lent to hearing and thinking about the really painful parts of our lives: The places where we are embarrassed, ashamed, regretful. It was permission-giving to share in the grief of our failures, while we waited to revel in our forgiveness. Resurrection is truly life-shattering and -saving!

    To think that our very impotency makes space for our shared triumph! Crazeeee!!!!

  2. Thank you for your kind and thoughtful comments.

    And welcome to my little corner of the internet.

  3. From Nadia to you -- what blessings God has given me this Ash Wednesday.

  4. You put me in lofty company, ToniLou.

    Thank you for your kind words.