Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. DeeAnne Lowman, Associate Pastor

 

 

 

 At an Acceptable Time

Ash Wednesday

February 25, 2009

 

 

2 Corinthians 5:20 - 6:10


Dee

Rev. Dee Lowman

 

I was having a conversation with someone recently who said that “the whole Ash Wednesday thing” was outside of his religious tradition.  He’d never really understood the purpose, the reason why people found the ritual of having a smudge of ash on one’s forehead meaningful.  It seemed “too catholic” to him. It got me to thinking about my own religious experience with this day.

 

I remember as a child sitting impatiently in the Fellowship Hall of my church while my parents and I attended the sacrificial meal put on by the United Methodist Women.  My parents weren’t idiots; they fed us before the meal.  But I don’t recall these evenings as religious events. I don’t even remember getting ashes or having any worship service per se.  I just remember wishing I’d eaten more at home and wishing I was there instead of the Fellowship Hall.  Another memory I have is of some of the kids in my public school getting out of class around noon on Ash Wednesday so they could go across the street to St. Angela’s Roman Catholic Church to attend services.  They came back with ashes on their heads; we were instructed by our teachers not to ask them about them. 

 

Ash Wednesday liturgies and services have been found that date as early as 960.  Later, clergy and men had ashes sprinkled right on their heads, while women had the sign of the cross made with ashes on their foreheads. Eventually the ritual used with women came to be used for men as well.  So yes, this is a Catholic (Big “C”) practice, but it is also a catholic (small “c” meaning universal) act that many Protestant churches have begun to retrieve and include as part of the celebration of Ash Wednesday in the last 25 years or so.  For this I am grateful, for I find that I need a reminder of not only my origin –“You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” meaning I’m not permanent on this planet - but of my occasional disconnect with God, my missing the mark, my misalignment in my daily living.

 

My daily living and your daily living all consist of distractions that take attention off our relationships with God.  There are extreme situations where distractions are more than lack of attention – the apostle Paul gave us a pretty complete list of things that can get in the way of what he might have called righteous living – living in alignment with the ways of Christ.  He called the members of the church at Corinth “ambassadors for Christ,” and acknowledged how hard it is to live faithfully when there’s a lot going on.  I’ve not had anything as terrible as imprisonments, beatings, riots, or hunger; maybe you have, or you know someone carries the scars of such things with them each and every day in the midst of living righteously.  Thankfully the only plight that Paul mentioned in that list that I can relate to is sleepless nights.  It seems a bit odd to list that among the other dire circumstances, although after 2 or 3 of them it becomes more clear why he included that particular state of affairs. Paul acknowledged that living rightly in the middle of tough times is, well, tough.  But he didn’t allow any of these things as an excuse for our misalignment with God.  In fact, Paul speaks of reconciliation with God even though all that might be going on around us.  How is it that someone can focus on reconciliation when life appears to be coming apart at the seams? Or even it life is ok, but we are weary and worn out from working and juggling and trying to make ends meet?

 

Paul told the church that “now is the acceptable time.”  The time is now to live rightly, to work on reconciling ourselves to one another and to God.  “Now is the day of salvation,” Paul said.  In the midst of all that is life, we need to be ready to offer reconciliation and to be reconciled, to offer salvation, and to be saved. 

 

I want to talk a bit about these two concepts: reconciliation and salvation.  The first thing I want to say is that reconciliation saves us.  Paul urged the members of the church to be first reconciled to God, then with one another.  The importance of this for us – this act of renewing of a relationship – isn’t for God’s sake.  God will live with us no matter what. But what does this really mean – reconciliation? The first time I heard the word reconciliation, I was in an accounting class.  Reconciling meant the removal of inconsistencies from one set of accounting documents to another.  Reconciling the balance in the check book to the bank balance.  Reconciling churches like Foundry are doing this – aligning the way we live and the theology we share with what we understand to be the way God calls us to live.  We are attempting to remove any inconsistencies between God’s message and our living.  This is what saves us – this is what ultimately helps us to live honorable and righteous lives. Now – today/tonight – Lent is an acceptable time to let reconciliation save you – to preserve you from destruction, difficulty, or evil – those things on Paul’s list.

 

So now on to salvation. I’m not speaking here specifically about salvation in any kind of ultimate sense, although Paul was.  For the 1st Century Christians, the notion that the end times – the time when God’s reign would come on earth – was considered close at hand. Focusing on how we live would be important if the life we knew would soon cease to exist. For 21st Century Christians, the way of salvation isn’t the same.  The way to being saved has a different emphasis, a different purpose even.  What does it mean for us now in 2009 to ask for salvation? To desire salvation?  Paul urges the church “not to accept the grace of God in vain.”  If it is grace that saves us – that gift free of entanglements or requirements in which we fully know that we are valued by God – then what would it mean for our salvation if we accepted God’s grace in vain – keh-noń in Greek meaning “for no purpose”?  I believe the ultimate purpose of salvation is reconciliation.  Salvation reconciles us – it renews us and brings us around so that we can work together to help usher in God’s reign, so that God’s desires actually do come into being among the people of God.  Salvation reconciles us – removes the inconsistencies in the divine and human needs all around us.

 

So this is an acceptable time – today/tonight. It is an acceptable, salvific time for reconciling ourselves to God’s desires, to the desires and needs of others, and ultimately to our own deep need to know God fully and to be fully known.  Traditionally this day/night is a time of repentance, a time to acknowledge where we have diverged from God’s will and put in its place our own thought and desires.  As you receive the ashes today/tonight, know that this is the time, this is the place, this is the moment that God desires for you as you begin again the journey toward remembering just how Divinely loved you are. 

 

Yes, we are dust – our bodies were created ultimately from the remnants of exploding stars and planets, and we shall return to dust when our earthy bodies are through living. But God loves all that is dust. God places great value in the dust.  What matters is what we do and how we live in the in-between – in this acceptable time.

 

This is not a night for full and finished transformation, but to again set in motion new and renewed movements toward reconciliation with God, and salvation through the power of God’s love for you in Jesus Christ.  It is not a day/night for guilt, but for acknowledgement that we have all fallen short, and that God has been waiting and will continue to wait for us all.  

 

 

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