A few years ago my family visited Yellowstone National Park. One thing that really struck me about the experience was this scene. The forest had been decimated by fire. It was black and barren.
This painting reminds me of a stark reality. Everything burns. Burning is simply the process of something falling apart. It is energy being released as the molecular bonds are broken and what was once a beautiful piece of wood is reduced to a pile of black and grey ash.
Everything falls apart. Cars break down. Paint flakes off. Flowers wilt and turn brittle. Skin wrinkles, hearts fail, flesh decomposes.
Hopes and dreams burn, too. Jobs are lost. Children rebel. Families break apart. Churches split. In the end, it all turns back to ashes.
Everyone has ashes. Everyone has something that has fallen apart in life. And now it lies there – our sins, fears, disappointments, and failures – in a pile of ashes.
What does your pile look like today?
As I look out across this room, I am overwhelmed by what I see. Each of you are marked. This is a special day. Usually you come to this place with your best face on. You come with smiles and laughter, even if you don’t feel like it.
But, not today. Today you come to do something very significant. You have come to be marked with ashes. You display on the outside what you feel like on the inside. Look around for a moment. It is quite remarkable.
We are marked today for a special reason. Today marks the beginning of a journey that we will take together. It is a journey that most of us have traveled before. We know the destination. It is the resurrection. We know the end of the story. It is joy and victory. And yet, we must take this journey each year. For the next 40 days we will journey together…marked by ashes.
As we stand here at the beginning of this journey, displaying these ashes for all to see, I want us to remember first of all that this is a two-fold journey. And that these ashes have a two-fold meaning.
The double journey is this. First it is an inner journey that we must take. We will look deep within and ask the spirit to show us places that need to be cleaned up and healed in our soul.
The word Lent means Spring. I have a confession to make. I don’t like winter. It is cold and dark. Winter has a negative effect on me in many ways, but one way that it impacts is in my garage.
This picture was taken last Wednesday. This is my garage. It is so cold out there during the winter that instead of taking the time to organize things and clean up after myself, like I usually do in the summer, I just throw stuff out there and run back in as fast as I can. Over the course of the cold, dark winter I develop bad habits and my garage looks like this.
When the weather warms up I look forward to cleaning out my garage. I will give my Garage a Spring cleaning – a Lent Cleaning.
So, Lent is a Spring Cleaning of the soul. During this introspection we will hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness. We will practice the discipline of fasting and prayer in order to bring our appetites under control, to slow down, and to listen to what God wants to tell us.
But, there is also a second journey. It is the outer journey. It is the journey that takes us outside of ourselves and into the world around us. We will look at those who hunger and thirst in the world.
We will be reminded by the prophet Isaiah that a fast that focuses only on ourselves is, well, a selfish fast. As Isaiah said in our lesson, Isaiah 58:6–7 (NRSV)
6Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
For the next several weeks we will focus on this journey of Hunger and Thirst.
So tonight, I want us to focus on these marks we have on our foreheads. These ashes.
There are two meanings for these ashes. On the one hand they are Ashes of Ruin. They remind us that everything burns.
They remind us of our mortality. When we placed the ashes on your forehead, we spoke the dark and familiar words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is good for us to remember how frail life is. As much as we hate to admit it, one day each of us will be reduced to dust. Our flesh will fail. Through these ashes we are reminded that life is a gift from God, not to be taken for granted.
The Ashes of Ruin also remind us of the messiness of life. No matter how hard we try, or how much we pretend, we mess up, don’t we? Look around again. Look at the person that you think has it all together. Now look at their forehead. They don’t. They harbor bitterness, or envy, or greed, or pride, or lust, or malice, or fear. Just like you.
On a day like today we come together to be humbled by our sin. Like the prophets of old, we are called to repent. We are called out on the carpet and we admit that life is messy and we are imperfect and we are powerless to make ourselves clean.
That’s why we fast during Lent. Through fasting and prayer we deny ourselves of something good in order to slow down the pace of our lives. Fasting is the process of purposefully bringing ourselves into the wilderness, to join Jesus as he spent 40 days in the desert and then was tempted by Satan. It is a time to let God search our hearts with a microscope to see what needs to be cleaned out.
How will you fast this season? I am going to cut out sweets. That will be hard for me. So each time I feel the urge to grab my daily tootsie roll from Kim DeVries office, or scoop up my Tuesday night bowl of ice cream, I’m going take that urge and turn it into a prayer.
I’m going to pray for many things, like my family. But this season I am going to focus my prayer and fasting on something very specific. I’m going to pray for our students, especially our 8th grade students who are about to make a huge step this year into high school and entering into the Own Your Faith process. I encourage you to focus your prayer and fasting on something specific. Ask God to show you how you should pray.
So, these ashes of Ruin break us down, and call us to prayer and fasting. With soot on our faces we are humbled and reduced to the pile of ashes that we are.
We are humbled, But we are also encouraged. We are encouraged because these ashes have a second meaning. Not only are they the remains of our burnt up lives, they are also Ashes of Rebirth.
I came across a wonderful essay on a blog called Seeds of Shalom, written by Daniel G. Deffenbaugh. He reflects on the ashes and connects them to the creation of Adam. He says…
“Adam is in fact a play on words, for the first man was formed from adamah, the Hebrew word for the good, dark humus into which God sank his knees when breathing the breath of life into the human form beneath him. ‘And the man became a living being … Lent is surely Adam’s season, for if the truth be told, his weaknesses, his fears, his very fallible nature, his grubby face, are still very much our own, and they will be until our return to the earth from which we were made…Like Adam being brought forth from the earth, I want to wear on my forehead the ashes of creation. I want to take strange comfort in the fact that from dust I came and to dust I shall return.”
I also learned something else about ashes this week that was pretty cool. I learned how soap is made. Soap is the combination of ash and fat. That’s right. Back in the old days, people would save the ashes from their fires and save the grease drippings from their cooking, and then combine them to make soap.
So, the next time that you go camping, you don’t need to pack dish soap. Just take the ashes from your fire and mix them with the fat from your bacon, and – viola! – you have soap.
Do you know what is on your forehead right now? It is a combination of the ashes from the burnt up palm branches of last year’s Palm Sunday combined with Olive Oil. Oil is fat. Ashes and fat. You have soap on your forehead.
Plus the oil is the same oil that was used when you were baptized, to be the sign of the Holy Spirit in your life. Isn’t that just like God? The black smudge that represents your sin and disgrace is the very same thing that represents the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit at work in your life.
You see, while Lent is a season of fasting and introspection, it is also a season full of hope and excitement. We don’t have to mope around.
As we take this journey of ashes for the next 40 days, we need to be reminded of Jesus’ words about fasting that we heard in the Gospel reading.
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Matthew 6:16-18
Diane Butler Bass says it like this-
“The journey to Easter is not a mournful denial of our humanity. Rather, Lent embraces our humanity – our deepest fears, our doubts, our mistakes and sins, our grief, and our pain. Lent is also about joy, self-discovery, connecting with others, and doing justice. Lent is not morbid church services. It is about being fully human and knowing God’s presence in the crosshairs of blessing and bane. And it is about waiting, waiting in those crosshairs, for resurrection.”
Let’s come back to the painting. While we were in Yellowstone, I learned something about forest fires. There are certain kinds of trees that need fire in order to reproduce. Their seed pods will only open under extreme heat. So, periodically, by God’s design, lightning will strike a dead tree, it will catch on fire, and a devastating fire will sweep through the forest and leave nothing but ashes in its wake. But then, in the dark soil of ruin, new life begins. A green shoot forces its way up into the sunshine and the forest is reborn.
My prayer for you, for our congregation, and for our world Is that these ashes we bear today will help us to let the fire of God’s Spirit burn away the junk this season. So that the water of God’s spirit and wash us fresh and new as we look forward to the day of resurrection.