Sermon: Ash Wednesday 2012

February 22, 2012

What do you see when you look under your couch? Or under your bed? How about behind the fridge? Maybe this is more about me than it is about you, but my answer to all of those questions is some variation of dust bunnies and cat hair sculptures. But unless I occasionally peek in those hidden places and deal with what I find there, those piles of dust and hair just get bigger and bigger. Ash Wednesday is an invitation to look at the dusty places not only in our homes, but in our selves.

Under close examination, I find—and I bet this is true for you too—that there are aspects of my life that need to be swept out, refreshed, changed. In church language, we call this awareness of the need for change repentance.  The Greek word for repentance is metanoia—and literally it means “to turn around.” Today we begin the process of turning away from all that obscures a healthy relationship with God and with others. “RE-turn to the Lord your God” is the theme of this church season we call Lent.

Which isn’t to say that we don’t need to repent and return to the Lord on a regular basis throughout the year. We do. Sometimes we do this together, in worship or support groups, and sometimes we do it individually. For many of us, I think there are layers of confession. It is one thing to confess, “Oh God, I’m sorry. I really messed that up. If only I’d been more aware, I would never have done that (or neglected to have done that, as the case may be). I won’t do it (neglect to do it) again.”

This kind of self-awareness and apology is one way of re-returning. It is helpful in any relationship. It smoothes things out with co-workers, families, and friends. Sometimes we confess our participation in sins about which we are not aware. We benefit from the pain of others, sometimes completely because of systems in which we participate. Do you know for sure that the clothes you are wearing were not made by a six-year-old in a sweatshop or that the coffee you drank this morning was purchased at a fair price from the farmer who grew it? I did not purchase an iPhone with the intention of making factory workers in China suffer. But I bought one, and they do.

Sometimes we confess sins known and unknown because we long to be returned to a right relationship with others in our world. But there is another level of confession that we sometimes (often?) avoid. It is the kind of confession that begins, “Oh God. I really messed that up. And the truth is, although I know it was wrong, given the very same conditions again, I am likely to do exactly the same thing. I’m sorry, but that’s the truth.”

Does that resonate with you? For me, sometimes these confessions are about things I have done or left undone that, if I’m completely honest, I’m GLAD about. “I know it’s mean, but I’m GLAD that I made her cry.” Or “I wanted him to hurt as much as I hurt.” Or “It serves them right.” Or … you get it. Fill in the blank. There really are times when, given the chance to do it all over again, we wouldn’t behave any better.

It’s hard to address this kind of sin. We are not inclined to turn or return, even though we know it would be good for us. Our resistance to healthy conduct in our relationships creates a wedge between us and others and between us and the God who is Love. It damages even our relationship with ourselves. There’s no point in pretending such sin isn’t there, any more than pretending that if we don’t peek behind the fridge, the electric coils will be squeaky clean and shiny. This wedge of resistance is the reason for that phrase in our common confession that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.”

After Adam and Eve sinned the first sin in the Garden of Eden, you might remember that their first impulse was to hide from God. They were ashamed, and didn’t want God to see their nakedness—a nakedness as much emotional as physical. These vulnerable creatures did not want God to know that they had sinned, did not want God to see them as they really were.

It reminds me of when I was a kid and my friend Kim and I let her little sister Kristi play hide and seek with us. Kristi was really little—I don’t remember, maybe 4?—and she didn’t quite get the game. When it was her turn to hide, she would crouch very still in the middle of the room with her eyes squinched shut. She figured that if she couldn’t see us, we couldn’t see her. We laughed at her, but honestly, I think it’s a game we play with God sometimes too. We don’t RE-turn to God because we pretend that if we are very still and refuse to acknowledge our sinfulness, God won’t see it. “God, if I don’t tell you what I have done/left undone or how I am feeling/not feeling, you won’t know.”

Of course God knows how hide and seek works, even if Adam and Eve do not. I’ve always found it quite poignant that as God searches for Adam and Eve, pursuing them the way God always pursues straying loved ones, God asks, “Why are you hiding from me?” Why were they hiding? Why do any of us hide? We are hiding because we don’t want to be seen as less than perfect. We are afraid that if anyone sees who we really are—including, and maybe especially, God—we will lose their love.

As a society we are eager to conceal our imperfections. Everything from makeup and wigs to government or media cover-ups are attempts to show the rest of the world our cleaned up, presentable selves. On a large and small scale, we want to be seen as innocent of wrongdoing. Individually and collectively we hurl accusations of imperfection in every direction, to distract people from seeing anything evil or wrong within us.

But underneath all our striving to be good—or at least to be perceived as good— beyond our wishing that we were good, when all is said and done, we still get it wrong as often as we get it right. Accidentally or on purpose, we hurt ourselves and others. We ignore suffering. We create suffering. We each have within us the potential to do great damage to God’s creation, whether or not we act on it. There is no such thing as good people and bad people. There are only levels of honesty about our brokenness. In the end, we are all dust, just like Adam and Eve and everyone else since.

So what do we do? Later, when you receive ashes on your forehead, you’ll hear the words, “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” These are the same words that the person sitting next to you will hear. It is the truth about you, regardless of what you have done or left undone. Each of us is dust, and we cannot be more than what we are. So why even bother to try to live a meaningful life, if in the end, we are bound to make a mess of it? What’s the point in metanoia, turning again, if we cannot succeed in becoming better people—or, more to the point, better than other people? Why strive to be good if in so doing, we cannot make God love us more?

We are dust. But dust is not all there is. God is NOT dust. God is at work within and among us, just as God was with Adam and Eve, breathing new life into dirt. God knows that we are dust, and that—try as we might—we never have and never will get it all right. But God does not scoop up the dust into a dustpan and blow it off the face of the earth. God sees us in the middle of the room with our eyes squeezed shut, or hiding behind a bush or a wig or a polished performance, and God pursues us. Not to scold us, warning us to come back when we have cleaned up our acts, when we WANT to change our ways. No. God comes to us right where we are, pleading with us to RE-turn so that God can be near us, with us, as close as our next breath. God is aching to do what we are afraid to ask for—to breathe new life into us.

RE-turn to the Lord your God, full of whatever darkness you are ashamed of. RE-turn to the Lord your God, empty of the light you wish were inside of you. RE-turn to the Lord your God with all your baggage, both hands full. As Adam and Eve became alive when God breathed into their dust-bodies, so do we, when God breathes new life into our dustiness. This Lenten season, come out from your hiding place. Show God your nakedness, as scary as it might be. Open up. Tell God everything you would rather pretend wasn’t part of you. Acknowledge your humanness. Remember that you are dust. And remember that God really understands and loves the dust-creature that you are. God is longing to kiss where it hurts and make it better. Return to the Lord your God.

Amen.

~Pastor Susan Schneider

About Trinity Lutheran Church

A congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) located in Madison, Wisconsin.
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