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March 1, 2017 Ash Wednesday Sermon


Too often, we think of Lent as a ‘heavy’ season. It’s a season of self–denial and penitence and discipline. We’re supposed to give something up in Lent—and usually, it’s something yummy … like chocolate, or coffee, or scotch.
But there’s more to Lent than that. Lent is not just about giving something up. It’s not just about denying ourselves something we enjoy. The purpose of it all is to get rid of some of the clutter in our lives so that we can focus more clearly on our relationship with God, our relationship with each other, and our relationship with the world. Lent is a gift.
It’s a spiritual discipline in which we focus on drawing nearer to God. Lent is a gift of making time in our busy lives to reflect on what it means for us to be Christian people.
Again, I’ve used a word we don’t much like in our society—“discipline”. We don’t want discipline. We are a society of instant gratification—instant coffee, instant emails, instant credit, instant everything. We don’t like to wait. We don’t want to delay. We want what we want and we want it right now.
Coming from the same root as “disciple”, the root meaning of “discipline” is “learning”. Self–discipline is not about becoming a better person. It’s about learning to follow Jesus more closely, more faithfully, more generously.
Lent is a gift.
I love the prayer written by 13th century bishop Richard of Chichester (you may remember it from Godspell): “Day by day, dear Lord, three things I pray: to see thee more clearly; to love thee more dearly; to follow thee more nearly.”
The gift of Lent is time—time to think about our relationship with God, with others and with the world. Lent is a gift to help us make those relationships more healthy. Lent is a gift which sets us free to devote ourselves in love to God, to each other, and to the world. Lent is a gift in which we intentionally think about what it means to us to be Christian people.
We receive that gift, starting today. We mark the gift of this season with the sign of ashes. We say, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Again, the ashes and those words can be seen as something heavy. It’s a reminder of our mortality, which means that we acknowledge our limitations. We are not immortal; we are not infallible; we are not divine. We simply cannot control life.
Instead, life is given to us as a mysterious, miraculous gift. Our lives are a miracle. We are human beings, deeply loved by God. Each day comes as a precious gift.
Each moment brings with it the capacity for holiness and grace. In each day, we will find both beauty and pain. Life has an incredible, infinite capacity to touch us with hope and joy, and all of it comes to us as a gift.
So this dust, these ashes … they remind us that life is made holy because God is present. God holds us in all of life.
Christian faith is intensely material that way. At its best, Christian faith doesn’t divide life into sacred and secular. All of life is holy. Both the spiritual and the material are shot through with holiness and grace.
Dirt reminds us of heaven. The people around us are a sign of God’s presence in our lives. We smudge our foreheads with ashes, and we wear it proudly as a sign of our lifelong commitment to live as the people of God. In ordinary bread and wine and water, Christ is present.
A few years ago, in a Bible Study, we were talking about that wonderful story in Genesis about God playing in the dirt. Norman Wirzba writes it this way: “God takes a handful of dirt, holds it so close that it shares in the divine breath, and inspires it with the freshness of life. It is only as the ground is suffused with God’s intimate, breathing presence that human life is possible at all.”
Someone in the group said, “I’ve always thought that story of God making us out of dirt was a way of saying that we are grounded in God.”
What a wonderful insight. We are made of the earth, and grounded in God. It’s the same kind of insight Joni Mitchell shared when she sang, “We are stardust.”
Ashes … a holy discipline … getting rid of the baggage in our life so we can focus more clearly on God. These are the gifts of Lent. They help us focus on what is important to us as the people of God in this place.
Lent is a gift.
“Day by day, dear Lord, three things I pray: to see thee more clearly; to love thee more dearly; to follow thee more nearly, day by day.”
Thanks be to God.

Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
March 1 2017
Ash Wednesday
Matthew 6: 1–6, 16–21
2 Corinthians 5: 20b–6:10
Joel 2: 1–2, 12–17a