Ash Wednesday: Starting Again

(Note: I preached this sermon at Messiah Lutheran Church on Ash Wednesday, 2013)

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

About this time twelve years ago, I wandered into Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago. I was studying a poem called “Ash Wednesday” and the professor said that if we wanted to, we could go to church that week and see what the poet was talking about (I think he took it for granted that none of us would go out of religious habit or conviction).

So in a spirit of scholarly curiosity, I went to church. I thought a lot about God in those days. I read up on different religions. But I did not think of myself as a Christian. I did not go to church. I did not cherish any ideas about the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. I was not really going as a worshiper, or so I thought.

I remember almost nothing from that liturgy except that it was dark. We read Psalm 51. “That the bones you have broken may rejoice.” “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a troubled spirit.” And then, when the dean of the chapel invited us forward for the imposition of ashes, I found myself standing up with the rest. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” she said, and she traced the symbol of that faith I did not hold onto my forehead for all the world to see.

I walked out of the chapel that night with one thought: “I guess I’m a Christian now.” I started going to church that Lent. And, you know, here I am.

I tell this story for a reason. The season of Lent, which we enter today, was at first a time when people studying for baptism into the Christian community went through a period of particularly intense preparation. They were examined by the church. They fasted. They prayed. Lent was a sacred time for the new faithful. It was the last waiting room before you entered God’s kingdom. It was the end of your travels on the way of death. It was the start of your journey on the way of life.

But what is so special about Lent is that the baptized people of God fasted and prayed with them. For them, it was a return to their own initiation into Christ. The new Christian was starting. The old Christian was starting again.

And I think there’s something very true about this. I cherish Ash Wednesday because of that night in Rockefeller Chapel. When people ask me when I “became a Christian,” that’s usually the moment I come back to. But the truth is that God had been working on me long before, from even before my baptism, and God has kept working on me ever since. In the church we call this “repentance” or “conversion.” It is not something that happens all in a moment, when you “give your heart to Jesus,” or “accept him as your Lord and Savior.” It happens day by day, week by week, until the end of our lives.

This day, and this season, God invites us to start again. The prophet Joel invites the people of Israel to start again. King David pleads with God to start again. Jesus tells his disciples to start again, to recommit themselves to the practices of fasting and prayer and generosity, and in a pure-hearted and God-centered way. God invites us to start again because we remember, today especially, that we will also have an end. We remember, today especially, that God made us from the dust of the earth and that God will one day require that dust back from each of us, but that our faith, our hope, and our love do not die.

So I urge you, sisters and brothers, to consider starting again in your faith. There are countless ways to do this, but I will suggest three.

First, remember your hunger for God. That is what fasting was all about, back in Jesus’ time. You fasted in order to enter a spiritually heightened state. You fasted in order to meet God. It’s not about giving up chocolate or some nice thing that you maybe enjoy to much. It’s about rekindling your hunger for God. So what dulls your hunger for God? How can you fast so as to remind you, daily, that God is near? Find that fast, and try it. Don’t be alarmed if you don’t keep it perfectly. This is not about pleasing God with our good works. This is about meeting God, face to face, in our daily lives. If you can find friends to share your devotion with, so much the better.

Second, remember to pray. As Jesus tells us, this doesn’t need to be a rambling monologue directed at God. If you’re like me, that’s probably why you feel self-conscious about prayer, as if you need to come up with enough good, persuasive words. But that’s the opposite of what Jesus tells us to do. Try making three times a day in which you can pray the Lord’s Prayer, even to yourself. Or read the psalms carefully. Four every day and you’ll finish the whole book by Easter. Pray not to talk, but to listen. Pray not by yourself, but with all the faithful who are praying with the same words.

Third, remember to be generous. Give something extra, at church or elsewhere. Just a little. Generosity is liberating. That’s what Jesus is telling us. When we store our treasure in God, we are safer than when we stuff it under our mattress. If you don’t have anything extra to give, then give your time. Come to church on Wednesday night. Come to dinner. Come to church every week if you don’t already. Your presence here enriches your brothers and sisters, and it makes you no poorer. That’s exactly what Jesus is talking about.

All of us here are God’s beloved children. We are secure in his grace. We have nothing to prove and nothing to earn. But I pray today that a holy fire of yearning would burn within all of us–that we would answer God’s grace so eagerly that we wish to start again, that we wish to grow into the gift we are given, that we would be raised to the full stature of Christ in all of us. Amen.

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