Right before what we just read from the Apostle Paul in Corinthians, he says, “We don’t not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Christ’s sake.” I try to not preach myself, I preach Christ, because I am dust.
I’m nothing special, but I have noticed that people generally like me. Way to kick off this season of humility, right? Well, it’s just something I’ve observed and I don’t want to exaggerate that beyond what is true, but I also wonder why, and I’m not really sure. But one thing that helps is that I am very comfortable with imperfections, my own and other people’s. I don’t take myself all that seriously, and I am very accepting of others. I have become aware that a lot of life, including religion, is downright laughable if it wasn’t so sad. But there’s a lot of pressure for people to be so serious and uptight about certain things, and here comes a clergy person willing to give permission to people to point out absurdities and to get to the business of taking a load off and being honest. And for some, it’s refreshing to, you know, have a pastor come down to “our level.”
But that’s where you might get it wrong. I’m not coming down to your level. I’m coming up to your level. I’ll confess something to you today. I’m about to get vulnerable here, taking a risk that maybe at least someone out there knows what I’m talking about. This surprises people when I mention it, because I seem so positive and happy, and I am genuine when you see that, but I tend to hang out in the darkness a lot of the time. That doesn’t mean I’m living a scandalous life. It means I have depression, for which I have been on medication for years now. I have gray colored glasses on. The reason I say I come up to your level is that this job, and you people, save my life. You force me, well, you pay me, to wrestle with the scriptures and mine out hope. And I try to do that well, for your sake and for mine.
But I’m comfortable with brokenness and pain, and I’m relatable that way, and people feel at ease around me because I’m easy-going and not uptight about things. But part of the reason for that is that, a dark side, is that there’s a guy inside my head who has the attitude that nothing really matters at all. Nothing to get uptight about. We come into brief existence as very tiny specks on this very tiny speck, orbiting around a tiny light, indistinguishable at a distance from the billions of lights in the galaxy around it. And so on. Might as well just be one of these specks of dust on a forehead somewhere. So precarious. Such a difficult toil of existence. No control over forces at work on this tiny world for this brief existence. So we might as well laugh at it all – eat, drink, be merry.
I was talking to someone the other day who has dealt with her grief by watching Hallmark movies, where every story ends happily. I understand this. But I deal with grief by being allergic to Hallmark movies, because there aren’t necessarily happy endings to every story.
Now for those of you in the Hallmark category, I want to reassure you that this sermon does have a happy ending. Maybe not Hallmark, but still a happy ending.
Psalm 51. If what God wanted was a sacrifice, I’d bring it. I’d burn it to ashes on an altar for the Lord. No matter the cost, I’d purchase it, give it, God is happy, I did what I needed to do. The psalm says that what God wants is something I don’t need to go out and get. I already have it. Brokenness. A broken heart. The hard part, though, is that I need to hand it over, surrender it to God to make something out of it. Which means I need to give it up, no longer be in control of it, no longer spin the narrative about what it is. It is God’s now. And I need to trust. And hope. That there actually is a happy ending to every bit of it.
It's so much easier to despair. It’s easier to have a hard heart. The managing expectations thing. I’m just trying to avoid being too vulnerable; I’m just trying to avoid taking responsibility for my own destiny. I can manage, live with my own pain and tread water most of the time with all that right under the surface. And like I said, doggonit, people like me. Hope is harder. Working, cooperating with God to build something with my life, with my grief and pain, in hope, that’s harder. To break open the callousness, again, to hope in God, is taking a risk, when being let down by God, this time, just might destroy me for good.
But it’s time. It’s Ash Wednesday If I’m really going to lead you into authentic trust in God, I need to be leading myself. Let God own my brokenness, and turn it into something beautiful. God owns my brokenness anyway. God purchased it fair and square with Christ’s brokenness on my behalf. It’s not about me; it’s about God. So I come before God today, acknowledging my own frailty, mortality, vanity before God by being marked with ashes. But I won’t stop there. I will let these ashes be made into the image of the cross, which represents God’s magnanimous sacrificial love for me. And I will make that symbol with all of the other specks of dust which are Christ’s people. And I will take of Christ’s flesh and blood, broken and poured out for me, and I will surrender my own self to Christ’s death, that I might be united with him in resurrection. It doesn’t mean I won’t have my brokenness anymore, but in some important ways it means it won’t have me.
This is what Ash Wednesday and Lent are all about. Facing the truth of the darkness within and around us, our own powerlessness, captivity, and even the silliness of all these things we and others take so seriously. But Lent is the deep work of trusting that the soil of our brokenness and ashes is the most fertile ground for gardens of goodness and love to take over all the dark haunts of our lives and the world. Believing beyond anything else that God works everything for the good of those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose.
Shout out; do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they want God on their side.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress all your workers.
You fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is 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?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator[b] shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am.” If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your needs in parched places and make your bones strong, and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
[Jesus said to the disciples:] “Beware of practicing your righteousness before others in order to be seen by them, for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you fast, do not look somber, like the hypocrites, for they mark their faces to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
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