Ash Wednesday sermon from First Pres, Boonville.
I remember when I first graduated from college and moved back to the town in North Carolina where I grew up. I was 22, single, and ready to conquer the world with my brand new Philosophy degree in hand. On my first Sunday back, I decided to attend services at the large suburban church where I grew up. I spent a little extra time getting ready that morning. I had been an awkward, shy kid as I grew up in that church, but in college, I really came into my own. I was much more sure of myself than I used to be. “This time,” I thought, “I’ll impress them all with how intelligent and charming I can be.” So, for my first Sunday back, I dressed to the nines and gave myself the once (even twice) over in the mirror before I left the house. “Yup,” I thought as I walked up the sidewalk to church, “This is the beginning of a whole new era.”
This church had a large Sunday school class for young professionals, so I decided to show up early, make some new friends, maybe even check out the dating situation. I shook some hands, learned some names, and then sat down as Sunday school began. I was super-excited because Tim, the pastor leading the class, had been that church’s youth pastor when I was in junior high and high school. He was funny and wise and had guided me through some tough times in those years. I was looking forward to hearing him speak again.
As class was starting, Tim asked if there were any newcomers to the group. I raised my hand and introduced myself. Tim exclaimed to the class, “I remember this the guy from junior high youth group!” And then, abounding in affection but somewhat lacking in tact, Tim began to tell stories to this room of a hundred young singles; stories about what I was like at age 12. Suddenly, that awkward and shy, 7th grade version of myself was on public display for all to see. My carefully rehearsed image was shattered and, as the sympathetic laughter grew around me, my face turned the same shade as the maroon shirt I had so carefully picked out that morning.
People in our society invest a lot of time, energy, and money in their image. They hang their diplomas and awards on the wall. They keep a careful watch on the clothes they wear, the cars they drive, and the neighborhoods they live in. People spend millions on face-lifts, tummy-tucks, Botox, Bow-Flex, and (when none of it makes them truly happy) psychiatrists. We want to appear confident and competent in front of our neighbors. We want the beauty of youth with the benefit of experience. We idolize life and success.
So, it seems odd then, when Christians gather together each year and celebrate Ash Wednesday, an entire holiday apparently dedicated to failure and death. We talk about sin. We talk about death and returning to dust. We talk about our total failure to maintain that perfect, practiced image in front of the world. In fact, we even mar that perfect image with smudges of ash on our foreheads. Isn’t that morbid? Why spend an entire day focusing on the very things that society teaches us to hide? Is the Christian God really interested in humiliating us?
I don’t think so. And I don’t actually think it’s all that morbid to spend time meditating on these things. In the end, Ash Wednesday is not really about guilt and death. It’s about honesty. Our faith in a loving God gives us the courage to face honestly those things that the rest of the world would have us hide. In a culture that glorifies youth and beauty, we make a point of remembering our death. Youth and beauty are wonderful things to celebrate, but they cannot tell us who we are as human beings. Youth and beauty pass away with time, but who we are as God’s children lasts for eternity. We do not need to fear death because we know that the God who loves us and has held us throughout our lives will continue to love us and hold us in eternity. God’s love empowers us to face death with courage.
Likewise, in a culture that worships success, we make a point of confessing our failures. In any other setting, that would be a career-ending move. But here in church, we celebrate the God who loved us, even while we were yet sinners. Our constant failing and flailing about in life neither impresses nor threatens God. God is not moved by our resumes or achievements. Likewise, God is not frightened at our failures. God’s unconditional and undeserved love is a given. God knows your every fault and every flaw, but does not stop loving you for them. Theologians have called this aspect of God’s character “grace”, which means “unmerited favor”. This grace is what we celebrate on Ash Wednesday.
We celebrate the fact that the grace and love of God empowers us to get honest with ourselves and the world. We now have the ability to live as free and forgiven people. We are free of the rat-race and the beauty myth. We wear our ashes as a token of our faith that love is stronger than death and grace is stronger than sin. Empowered by this love and grace, we can go out into the world with the gift of honesty. We can live as real people in a world that would rather cover up its flaws.
My attempt at constructing a new confident and competent image didn’t last long. My pastor’s affectionate faux pas taught me something about honesty and love. He taught me that true love is not blind. Real love sees the truth and loves anyway.
In my moment of red-faced embarrassment, I didn’t know what to say except, “I love you too, Tim.”