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.