The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Ash Wednesday Sermon – Noon and 7pm Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
Scripture: Joel 2:1-2,12-17, Psalm 103:8-14, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
Every year when I come to Ash Wednesday,
I struggle with the question of why we go around
wearing crosses of ashes on our foreheads,
when Jesus explicitly warns us not to
“disfigure (your) faces so as to show others
that (you) are fasting.”
This year I decided to look up the history of Ash Wednesday,
and I was interested to learn,
that up until about one thousand years ago,
up to the eleventh century,
The church used Ash Wednesday for those individuals
whose sins had been so notorious,
that they were excommunicated from Ash Wednesday through Maundy Thursday so that they could
observe a public period of penitence for their sins.
The imposition of ashes,
happened in the service right before those penitents
were asked to leave the church, so that the rest of the people
could receive communion,
and it was in keeping with the old testament tradition,
that penitents included putting on uncomfortable sack cloth,
Then the church decided,
about a thousand years ago,
that we all need to observe this period of penitence
so that we can all experience the joy of
the resurrection through Holy Week and Easter.
Why should you only get the benefit of penitence and forgiveness if your sins are notorious?
Maybe the church started to see,
that just because we become good at covering up our sinfulness, doesn't mean sin is not a burden
we all bear, and all need to be released from.
Time changes many things, and as we look at the
way things have changed over the past thousand years,
I also see a distinct pattern emerging that puts,
our religious values in direct conflict
with the values of times, the patterns of the year,
that people outside the church practice.
I believe it is when we observe our participation
in the cultural practices we are immersed in,
that we see where our pattern of life conforms more
to the world, than to God's Kingdom.
Lent and Advent are two times of the year where
that contrast becomes clearer than at other times.
Today is all about entering a sanctified time,
sanctifying the rhythms of our everyday life,
to prepare our hearts for that great and glorious
celebration of new life at Easter.
For most of us here, Sundays are the only sanctified time in our weeks, for most people outside the church,
even Sundays are not a sanctified time anymore.
The pattern I observe in some of my neighbors,
and certainly in the stores and ads around me,
is that these days people move from superficial holiday,
to superficial holiday,
where the time of preparation gets confused
with the celebrated day or season itself,
and one switches the day after that holiday,
to the next one.
There's a house on my street,
that started out with massive halloween decorations,
for the whole month of October,
replaced on November 1st by Thanksgiving decorations,
until Black Friday when the Christmas lights went up.
On December 26th all the Christmas decorations
were taken down,
and pink and red lights were hung on the trees,
until February 14th,
and the day after that those lights were switched
for green ones, which, I presume,
will be up until March 17th.
That is the kind of display that Jesus was criticizing
in his own time, when people would observe
the required clothing or ashes as a superficial sign
so that other people would see that they were celebrating.
But it has nothing to do with marking an internal change,
or a pattern of life founded in the heart.
Consequently, when people follow the pattern,
the world tries to sell us,
of course so that we will buy more stuff,
we pay no attention to our inner need,
to seek forgiveness, and to be restored to right relationship,
with the One we know in secret.
We are encouraged by the world around us to move
from celebration to celebration,
without a time of fasting and penitence in between.
And within all that feasting,
we find that our spirits are starving.
The world is constantly telling us to indulge ourselves,
it says, “get yourself this,”
“treat yourself to that.”
“You deserve it!”
But God through his prophets and his Son,
calls us to sanctify a fast,
a sanctified time of self-denial,
so that we can feed our starving spirits,
and discover real wholeness,
From the start of his ministry,
Jesus preached the coming of the Kingdom,
and told people to prepare with repentance and fasting.
We still preach what he began,
that coming of the Kingdom that he started,
and which is yet to come in its fullness,
and the way to prepare for it is still
with repentance and fasting.
In two thousand years,
as the message of that Kingdom has spread,
the anger of the enemy has only increased,
and so the disparity between our life
and the spirit-starving life of the world
has only become greater.
I was reading in Thomas Merton's
“Thoughts in Solitude”
about how holy men and women used to go into the desert,
to find a place where they had to depend on God
and where through that radical dependance they could
grow closer to him.
Jesus did that when he was lead by the Spirit into the desert,
and not only did he find his mission there,
but he was tempted by the enemy as well.
In the 1950's Merton wrote about the way the desert was becoming developed for profit,
and though he did not say it directly, I thought he was referring to Las Vegas,
when he described cities as
“brilliant and sordid smiles of the devil
upon the face of the wilderness,
cities of secrecy
where each man spies on his brother,
cities through whose veins money runs like artificial blood,
and from whose womb will come the last and greatest instrument of destruction.
Can we watch the growth of these cities
and not do something to purify our own hearts?
When man and his money and machines move out into the desert, and dwell there,
not fighting the devil as Christ did,
but believing in his promises of power and wealth,
and adoring his angelic wisdom,
then the desert itself moves everywhere.
Everywhere is desert.
Everywhere is solitude in which man must do penance
and fight the adversary and purify his own heart
in the grace of God.
The desert is the home of despair.
And despair, now, is everywhere. . .
This then, is our desert: to live facing despair,
but not to consent.
To trample it down under hope in the cross.
To wage war against despair unceasingly.
That war is our wilderness.
If we wage it courageously,
we will find Christ at our side.
If we cannot face it, we will never find Him.”
What I'm trying to say,
Is that a Holy Lent is an opportunity
to set right the seasons and times of your life.
The whole world conspires against us,
but the pattern of spiritual training
has been laid out before us,
the Kingdom of God is still at hand,
This is a time for you to use,
to prepare your heart to accept the Kingdom,
Choose your spiritual discipline,
for all discipleship involves discipline,
or perhaps you find yourself in a time of life,
where your natural circumstances
are all the discipline you can handle.
If that is the case, it is not a bad thing,
simply live into that circumstance, whether it is grief,
or illness, or suffering, and allow
God to sanctify you through that experience,
But if you are in a time of life where this year feels very much like last year,
where you are going day to day,
and the repetition is enough to cause you to despair,
engaging in a Holy Lent,
by the practice of discipline,
can be just what you need to push yourself
into the next deeper phase of your spiritual life.
If you're still concerned about these ashes,
and are worried you'll seem a hypocrite to wear them
after the service, it is perfectly acceptable
to do as Jesus said, wash your face.
All of our efforts are for God, our Father
who sees in secret,
and in secret as well is our reward.
I hope you experience that secret this Lent.