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Marked as Christ’s Own (Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018)

You all know the old line that comes from Benjamin Franklin: “In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.”

Let me change that up a little bit: “In this world, nothing is certain except death and the fact that while you live, you are going to mess up.”

Here’s the theme of tonight’s sermon: we are mortal, and we are fallible.

It’s not a very comfortable thing to hear. It’s not a very comfortable thing to talk about either. But it is true. These are two of the certainties of what it means to be a human being.

And if we’re uncomfortable with it, our society is absolutely opposed to this kind of talk. Someone once said that we live in “an officially optimistic society.” So let’s not talk about unpleasant realities. Never let them see you sweat.

But here we are. It’s Ash Wednesday, and today is a day which speaks to both of those realities. If there is any day when we must be honest about who we are, surely it is Ash Wednesday. We dare not be anything less than honest about ourselves today.

Even so, some churches are giving in to the discomfort. They’re changing what we do on Ash Wednesday. Some clergy, when they mark your forehead with the ashes, will say, “Remember, you are stardust”—as if it’s a great big Broadway musical number. Other churches are mixing glitter in with the ashes. They claim that it’s a way of showing inclusion for the LGBTQ community, but my sense is that it appeals to some people because it lightens what seems to be such a morbid church ritual.

I guess that makes me an Ash Wednesday traditionalist.

Today, we journey with our mortality and our fallibility.

Today, we mark our foreheads with ashes. We hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust shall you return.” It’s a stark reminder of who we are. Much of the time, we live as if we’re going to be here forever. Today is a corrective to that. Today we acknowledge honestly that our lives are limited, that we are limited.

Today, we also acknowledge the reality that we mess up. I know I mess up. We all do. We hurt people, even when we don’t intend to. We live with broken relationships. We make mistakes. We are often wrong.

At the same time, we are the victims of having been hurt, and we find it difficult to forgive, difficult to heal. We get lost, and we can’t find our way home to God again. We give in so easily sometimes to the values of the culture around us, and we forget the values of the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are not the same.

Today we journey with our mortality. Today we journey with our fallibility.

But … and this is the great gospel word … it is not a message or a journey of hopelessness. We are mortal and we are fallible, but we are also a hopeful people. We are not doomed. We are, in fact, claimed by something much larger than ourselves. We are claimed by Someone who loves us with an unending passion.

Last Sunday, we celebrated the Transfiguration. In the same way, let me suggest that these ashes with which we mark our bodies transform us. We mark our foreheads with these ashes as a strong sign that we are claimed by God. When God claims us, then nothing—not even our own mistakes, not even our own death—nothing can end God’s claim on our lives.

As we begin this journey of Lent, we begin a journey of transformation. Once more, we journey to the heart of our faith, and understand that we are becoming the people of God’s own heart.

What that means for us is that in the midst of the muddle of our lives, God holds us, God claims us, God loves us, God will be endlessly faithful to us.

And so I tell you that there is hope in these ashes. They mark us as Christ’s own people. They become for us the sign and promise of resurrection. But the thing about resurrection is that we can only get there by dying first. Resurrection comes only after death. But resurrection is the powerful, life–affirming promise and gift of one who has been raised. In these ashes, there is hope for even our darkest nights and a sign of the joy that is to come.

We enter the journey of Lent, a journey to the heart of our faith, marked with the sign of these ashes. At the same time, we must remember that our foreheads were also once marked with water, a sign of God’s claim on our lives.

We enter the journey of Lent which is intended to draw us closer to God. We enter the journey of Lent, marked with ashes and then fed with Eucharist. We enter anew into a journey which we have been making all our lives.

We are marked as Christ’s own. We find hope for our story in his story. We wear this sign of hope on our foreheads, and trust that the promise of abundant life is faithful and true.

Thanks be to God.

Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt

February 14, 2018 (Ash Wednesday)

Psalm 103: 8–18

Joel 2: 1–2, 12–17a

2 Corinthians 5: 20b–6:2

Matthew 6: 1–6, 16–21