Getting Our Hands Dirty: Ash Wednesday Sermon

dirty hands

Calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for? -Matthew 8:34-37, The Message

“With the possible exception of the equator, everything begins somewhere.”  – C.S. Lewis

That is a wonderful quote by C.S. Lewis. Today is a beginning. Today we begin a journey… a journey we call Lent. And I wonder what you think this journey looks like. What does Lent mean to you? For some of us, it is the adventure of trying to give up something we like. A high school classmate of mine gave up Facebook. She signed off last night and said, “See you on Easter!”  Some of us give up chocolate or caffeine. And there is value in these attempts; if nothing else, we learn how engrained some of the substances or practices are in our lives. Before our daughter Emma was born, Laura and I gave up tv one Lent.  We both realized how much tv was in our life… maybe too much.  Didn’t keep us from watching it after Easter though. There is value in these attempts, but is that really the journey Jesus calls us to… When Jesus spoke today of self-sacrifice was he talking about giving up sweets for 40 days? It probably was no less than that, but surely it was more.

For some, the journey of Lent is deeper. It is a confrontation with nothing less than our sinfulness. “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” “Repent!” That word has a certain pattern associated with it where I come from. It goes something like this: You realize, somehow, how sinful you are; how worldly you are. You feel really bad about it, you confess your sins and ask for help, usually in the words similar to the sinner’s prayer, and you promise that you will be a good little boy or girl from that moment forward, with help from God, of course. And that, I believe, is a part of this Lenten journey too. Psalm 51, the Psalm most associated with today is an implicit confession of fatih. A prayer that implores God to “Create in me a clean heart” implies that my heart may not be so clean right now. “Renew a right Spirit within me” suggests that my Spirit may not be right; that I may not be pointed in the right direction.

But, once again, I am not sure that is what Lent is wholly about either. Because turning away from what is bad is not enough. We must learn what we are turning toward. Today Jesus did not talk about the importance of the sinner’s prayer or making a full accounting of our sins before God. He talked about something else. And if it’s any consolation, the disciples weren’t always sure of what Jesus was talking about either. Jesus begins to talk about him going to face suffering, to be accused, and ultimately to be killed. He talks about a Cross. And, as Laura mentioned on Sunday, Peter stands up and says, “No way!” That’s not the way to go, not for you, not for us.

It is then that Jesus makes his invitation to them and to us. “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat. I am.” That is ultimately what this Lenten journey is about. Nothing more and nothing less than starting from where you are right now in your life and putting Jesus in the driver’s seat. Nothing more and nothing less than following Jesus wherever he leads.

And it strikes me that Jesus may be leading us in a direction different than what we expected. For example, I at least have had the thought that Lent is all about getting clean. I’m kind of cleaning myself up before Easter. I’m putting aside the worldly issues of my life. And that is a part of Lent, but certainly not all. As I look at Jesus’ movement toward the Cross, I realize that he was getting his hands dirty in this journey to Jerusalem. He was taking on the messiness of our lives as he walked. He picked up not only the dirt of the road on his feet, but he picked up the dirt of our suffering, our worries, our cares, and yes even our sins. He got his hands dirty on that road touching the unclean to make them whole, lifting up the children and blessing them. He got his hands dirty. How does that fit into Lent?

There is a Lenten practice that I (and many pastors) have that you never see. Every year I burn the ashes used in this service. Now I could buy sterilized pre-prepared ashes that come in nice, clean packages ready for use. But every year I seem to forget so I have to burn the ashes myself. I used to make them out of the previous year’s palm leaves as tradition holds we should. But burning palm leaves has a distinct, rather awful, odor and I’m not sure I want the neighbors complaining. So this year, these ashes are out of paper… In fact they are from our paper shredder which means these ashes come from the mundane details of our life. Old bills, junk mail, notes no longer needed. And as I’m preparing the ashes, inevitably my hands get covered in the stuff. I get my hands dirty.

This year, for Lent, I am inviting you to get your hands dirty in the stuff of life. As we let Jesus take the lead, we are going to reflect on some real issues of our day, like self-esteem, and friendship, and work, and money. This Lenten journey is about discovering the true self, the real you and real me, along the way through reflection on real issues in our lives. Do we let friendships get in the way of faith? Or worse, do we block our friends sometimes from becoming who God intended them to be? Whose image of ourselves do we rely on most? Does our true self get lost in others’ opinions? Do we make our lives only about our work? Or our worries only about our money?

And as we follow Jesus we hopefully will learn that we can only find our true selves through self-sacrifice and even suffering sometimes. Our church identified some ways that you can give of yourselves for others this Lent — the food drive, the Peru mission trip, the Benevolence Fund. But more than these I hope you will keep an eye out for fellow travelers on your journey. Take time to talk to a neighbor, give an elderly person a hand, write a note of encouragement to a teen, listen to someone who’s grieving.

Where will Jesus lead us this Lent if we put him in the driver’s seat? Who will he ask us to meet along the way? What plans of ours will he ask us to change so that we can, following him, journey through the messiness, even the suffering, in life to find hope on the other side. May you have a blessed and life-giving Lent as we follow Jesus together. “With the possible exception of the equator, everything begins somewhere.” Right now, Right here, is a great place to begin.

My thanks to Rev. N. Neelley Hicks and the good folks at United Methodist Communications who created a wonderful Lenten resource, A Journey to Hope, which First UMC is using this year.  This sermon was inspired and resourced by this work.

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This week’s image

"A patch of fog" worship image

“A Patch of Fog:” Worship Image for February 19, 2012

One of my hobbies is creating worship images each week to match the theme we are focusing on.  Here is this week’s image.  It is Transfiguration Sunday – a powerful Sunday when Jesus is revealed in all His glory.  Laura, who will be preaching, will focus on the moment a cloud descends and God speaks.  What should we do when we find ourselves in a patch of fog and uncertain which direction we should turn?  We should listen.

That’s all Laura will tell me about the sermon. 🙂  I look forward to hearing more tomorrow.  If you are in Laramie, I hope you can join us.

“Hello Wind!” A Cold Lesson in Reverence

A Winter Wind

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ – John 3:8

As I walked my dog Suzy today, it was cold… and, as usual, the wind was blowing.  I live in Wyoming.  The wind always seems to be blowing here.  Most of the time, most of us around here have learned to ignore it.  Most of the time.  Unless it is really blowing. (some days it is blowing so hard if we were on the Gulf Coast they would call it a hurricane.  Here it’s just another day in Wyoming.)  Or unless it’s 10 degrees outside and there is 6 inches of snow on the ground.  Suzy didn’t seem to mind; I’m not sure she even noticed.  But then again she is a Great Pyrenees.  She was born for this weather I guess.  I don’t think I was.   Most of the time I turn up my collar, put my head down, watch my feet and keep walking… sometimes grumbling under my breath.  Today, I did something different.

I acknowledged the wind.  I stopped for a moment, lifted my gaze, and turned my face full into the cold of the wintery Wyoming wind.  I acknowledged the wind. In her wonderful book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes of ways we can connect to that More that we so long for in our lives yet often overlook.  It is in the often day-to-day practices, like paying attention and cultivating reverence, that we can connect to God.  She describes how her dad taught her reverence by, among other things, teaching her to clean a rifle or inviting her to watch a meteor shower from her balcony.  She describes a native american friend teaching reverence through an invitation to acknowledge a tree: “Do you know that you didn’t make this tree?”  ‘If they say yes, then he knows that they are on their way.’  It strikes me that her examples were a whole lot more comfortable than mine today.  The most uncomfortable experience of reverence she mentions is watching a mosquito as it bites.  The cold Wyoming wind bites a lot harder.  But I guess that is what I get for living in Wyoming instead of rural Georgia.

Still… I have a reverence for the Wyoming wind.  Barbara Brown Taylor quotes philosopher Paul Woodruff,

“To forget you are only human, to think you can act like a god–this is the opposite of reverence.”

Again Taylor writes, “Woodruff argues that true reverence cannot be for anything that human beings can make or manage by themselves.”  One thing is for certain, I cannot manage the Wyoming wind.  I can no more tell the wind to stop and it obey me than I can tell my eyes to turn brown.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Holy Spirit — that God’s very movement in the world — is like the wind.  We do not know from where it comes, nor where it goes.  We can only see it’s effects.  I must say I have never equated God’s Spirit with the bitter winter wind of Wyoming before.  Is God’s Spirit so…. cold?  Does it have a bite?  I have always at least hoped God’s spirit was a gentle breeze, warm and refreshing to the face.  But such an image limits God I think.  Jesus was not trying so much to comfort Nicodemus as he was trying (quite successfully) to unsettle him.  That too is part of reverence.  Awe.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. -Proverbs 9:10

I’m not sure many folks here in Wyoming are afraid of the wind but we respect it.  And, yes, some days as I hear it rattle the fence and whistle by the windows in all its strength I am in awe.  My house withstands the wind but it does not stop it.  And it is only one force in this world that God the Spirit gives life to.  I am in awe of God’s Spirit too.  Why should this matter?  Because awe is the beginning of wisdom.

Paul Woodruff and Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that if we can revere what we see greater than us – especially God – then we can respect what we see lower or weaker than us.  And that surely does make a difference… in how we care for this world God has given us, how we respect and love our neighbors and how we raise our children.  How much of the pain in this world has been caused not because one meant to hurt another, but because one simply didn’t see that other or understand how we are related.  How much pain has been caused not by malice but by foolishness?  Too much.  Way too much.

I lifted my gaze, turned my face full into its cold blast and acknowledged the wind.  And it greeted me as only it could, by making my cheeks tingle, then burn, and making my eyes water.  Not altogether pleasant yet life-giving just the same.  For that moment, I was more conscious of my own breath as small as it was compared to my companion.  My senses were awakened.  I knew my place in God’s great big world.  And, in a way, the wind acknowledged me.  Even as it turned my cheeks bright red and brought tears to my eyes, it had to alter its course ever so slightly in that moment in that place I stood before moving on its way.  We were related somehow.  How much more will God’s Spirit acknowledge me if I take a moment to lift my gaze, turn my face full into its gentle breath or awakening blast?  It may just choose not to alter its path, but be breathed in, and reside and give life.

Lord, may I acknowledge the Wind!  May I turn my face into the presence of Your Spirit.  May I breathe deep Your breath that gives life.  Teach me to be in awe of You and Your creation.  And as I stand in awe of what is greater than I, may I also bow to respect what is weaker, what is smaller, yet no less precious.  Amen.