Posts Tagged ‘Ash Wednesday’

Motivation 3-6-19

In this Ash Wednesday sermon, based on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, I explore an ironic passage in which Jesus warns us against public displays of piety on the one day in the Lutheran world when we publicly display our piety.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/motivation-3-6-19

You can also follow along with the text of there sermon here.

May the grace and peace of our Triune God be yours, now and forever. Amen

When I got into the office this morning, the very first thing I did was move around the church to bump up the heat for this evening…so I went down stairs to the two different thermostats in the basement, and then I came into the sanctuary to bump up the temperature in here.

And as I walked up the aisle towards the thermostat located right over there…I noticed something…with our maroon colored carpet here in the sanctuary…any salt left behind by people’s shoes is blatantly visible…and considering the weather and the amount of salt that each of one us is walking over every day…you can imagine the MULTITUDE of salt that was left behind last Sunday…and since the cleaning ladies aren’t here until Thursday, that salt wasn’t going anywhere.

This is one of those moments that qualifies in a job description as “any other duties as required.”  And so I busted out the vacuum to give the carpet a quick once over and clean up the majority of the left over salt. Now as I was vacuuming, I just kept thinking about a statement that Jesus makes very pretty early on in the Sermon on the Mount…about a chapter or so before the portion that I shared just a moment ago…one that perhaps sounds familiar to you. (pause)

If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored. It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. (pause) But…evidenced by my work this morning…what Jesus failed to tell us with that pithy little saying…once the salt is trampled underfoot, it sticks to our shoes, and it will be carried back inside again.

And with that realization…along with awareness of what today is, I present to you a new statement…Remember that there is salt…and the salt it will return. (pause) Now its not much of a stretch to go from that statement to our actual statement that applies tonight. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. A phrase which is spoken to each one of us tonight…as a reminder of where we came from…as well as where we will return…a statement that we will hear along with the tradition of smearing ashes on our foreheads…a visual sign of our mortality…a tradition which we do each year to kick off the season of Lent.

This action is a physical statement of our faith…an action that we participate in as a way to physically live out that faith…and there’s a word for this type of thing…piety…a way that we show reverence to God or a way that we act that fulfills a religious requirement…that’s what piety means. And tonight…in one of the rare instances here in our Lutheran tradition…tonight as we hear those words, and receive those ashes on our foreheads, we publically practice and display our piety…

And I don’t know about you…but I can’t help finding a sense of irony tonight…because on this night when we do just that…public displays of piety…our gospel lesson is a warning from Jesus against…public displays of piety. (pause)

And with that…we have a couple of different choices right now.  I can stop now, offer up a prayer of repentance, we could all say amen, and sheepishly sneak out the back…or we could take a closer look at just what Jesus is talking about here…I’m gonna lean towards the latter if that’s ok. (pause)

Now sure enough…Jesus does offer this warning about 3 different types of religious practices…but what’s strange about it…is that none of these things are bad.  Giving alms…offering as we know it…though giving directly to the less fortunate would probably be a better description…that’s a good thing.

Praying…nothing wrong with that one…its something we do here in worship every week and its something that we do individually whenever we talk to God…prayer’s good right? (pause)  And fasting…maybe not the most common practice in our tradition…but fasting as a way to focus our attention back to God isn’t a bad thing either…and many participate in this spiritual discipline.

So I gotta ask…Jesus…what are you talking about in these three warnings? I wonder…why is he warning us against them…or is he?  Does Jesus tell his followers not to give alms…not to pray…not to fast?  Or does he give a warning about the motivation behind these actions? (pause)

If we consider each of the three statements…I think we’re getting closer to his intention.  When you do these things…when you practice your piety…do not be like the hypocrites…they do these things publically…and they act to draw attention to what they are doing…so that they might be seen by others.

The motivation behind our actions…behind our tradition and our practices…that seems to be the key…because who are we doing it for? Who is our audience? Is it other people? Or is it God? That’s the big question that we need to be asking ourselves…especially tonight as we have gathered to do something similar…and maybe, just maybe…the whole thing can boil down to the final statement that Jesus makes for us tonight.  Where your treasure is…there your heart will be also.  Jesus is talking about our ultimate desires…because if we’re simply playing the crowds…or we’re acting in a way to get ourselves something that the world tends to value…we need to remember that all that is fleeting…but treasures in heaven…I think that’s something altogether different. (pause)

I’ve had a lot of conversation over the years about what these heavenly treasures might be…conversations that are often tied to questions about what heaven’s going to be like…what will we experience in the afterlife? What will we see or hear…what will we think or feel?  And when we’re honest in those conversations we have to acknowledge that we don’t know…but when I find myself in these conversations…often times with an individual who is looking at the rapidly approaching end of this life…I tell them that whatever it is that they will experience…they won’t be disappointed.

And that right there probably brings us around to the important aspect of this day…and this worship service…and this public display of our piety that we will all participate in.  In a few more moments, each one of you will come up this aisle…and I will look you in the eye, smear ash on your forehead and tell you “remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

Those words refer to your mortality…they refer to your death. They are an acknowledgement that this life you are leading…is fleeting.  I’ve shared with you before, that this action that we share tonight is one of the most personal and powerful moments that I have every year…because with each passing year, the depth of the relationship that I hold with you as individuals deepens.  I’m your pastor…I consider many of you friends…I have family sitting out there.

For some of you, I have buried your spouse…or your parents, or your siblings.  Some of you young ones out there…I baptized you…the nature of our relationships differs from person to person…but as I look you in the eye and say words that speak of your death, its hard.

I’m not sharing this to toot my own horn or to make you feel sorry for me…but rather I want to highlight the importance of relationship that lies between us…and not only that but to remind you of the importance of the relationships that you hold with one another…and to go one step beyond that…perhaps most importantly tonight…to remind you of the relationship that you hold with God.

The relationship that you hold with the one who made you in the first place…remember that you are dust…know where that comes from?  Genesis…and God making humanity out of dirt…and God being a little on the nose in naming this mud person Adaam…from the Hebrew Adamah which literally means dirt. And then following the creation of humanity out of dirt or dust, God calls us Very Good…and being there in relationship with this very good creation that in which God finds delight.

God finds so much delight in you…that God will not be separated from you…and so through whatever it was that God was accomplishing through the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ…God is making that ongoing relationship with you a reality…one that not even death can stop.

Because despite our brokenness…God has offered us healing…and we will hear that tonight as well…because immediately after you hear the words that speak of your death…you will also hear the body of Christ broken for you….the blood of Christ shed for you…and remember this has been done for the forgiveness of sins…it has been done…for…you.

This is a promise that we cling to…and that is faith…believing the promises that God has made for you and to you…let us each hold on to that faith…let us each hold on to that promise, and be motivated by the love of the one who made us in the first place…and let us act accordingly…whether we are doing it in public or in private…may we each be motivated by gratitude to the one who loves us and made us in the first place. Amen.

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Remember Who You Are 2-14-18

In this Ash Wednesday sermon, taken from Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 I explore the prophetic call to turn back to the Lord. This is a fitting idea to recognize on a day when we are reminded of our mortality, and yet are given the promise of God’s claim upon our lives.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/remember-who-you-are-2-14-18

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

There are two actors that arguably have the greatest voices ever. Their voices are utterly distinct and carry a gravitas that cannot be matched. Now one of them is Morgan Freeman, an actor who has perhaps becomes synonymous with a mental image that we have of God…he’s even played God in two different movies. And his voice is amazing.

Now the second actor is James Earl Jones…and he has lent his voice to some pretty amazing projects.  He’s the voice of Darth Vader…for years his dulcet tones announced “this…is CNN.” And he’s the voice of Mufasa from one of my favorite movies…The Lion King. (pause)

Now it occurs to me, that The Lion King must be pretty much the perfect movie…and apparently its chock full of scenes and dialogue and images that fall into the Theological realm…because as I’ve looked back I’ve found several different sermons where I referenced this movie…and I’m gonna do it again tonight…admittedly, I’ll probably use it again in the future as I’ve come nowhere close to exhausting the different references from this gem of a movie.

Now there’s a scene about 3/4 through…quite of the bit of the story has already happened…Simba, the hero, has gone off on his hero’s journey…Mufasa, his father and the former King lion has died…and Simba encounters the wise old sage Rafiki…a baboon who carries a stick and knows Kung Fu…seriously, this movie is perfection.

As Rafiki and Simba talk to one another…Simba is starting to come around, knowing he needs to return home, and he says “If I go back there, it won’t be easy…I’ll have to confront my past.” And WHAM!!! Rafiki knocks him on the head with his stick. “OWWW…what did you do that for?” “It doesn’t matta…its in the past.” “Yah but it still hurts.” “Ahh yes, the past can hurt…but the way I see it, you can either run from it…or learn from it.”

Now the “past” that they/re talking about includes the death of Mufasa…but just before this back and forth…Mufasa, who seems to take a page out of God’s book from some of our recent scripture lessons, and he has appeared in a cloud to Simba…they talk and forth and then as Mufasa is disappearing we hear in his amazing voice…Remember who you are. (pause)
It would seem throughout this scene…and these different encounters, that the main character needs to come to grips with the truth of his identity…and then he has a choice to turn away from it, or to turn back to it. And this is where we connect into tonight’s reading from Joel.

Now Joel is one of the Minor Prophets…a batch of short prophetic writings toward the end of the Old Testament…a batch of guys that we don’t know a ton about. We can’t put a pin exactly in what period of Israel’s history that Joel was active, we don’t really know…but the best guess places his ministry in the range somewhere between about 400-350BC.

Now what we do know is this…in the first chapter of Joel…he describes an utterly devastating plague of locusts that has descended upon the land…destroying everything. Now I’ve never seen a locust swarm…but I’ve heard it described as being so thick that it will literally blot out the sun as they fly over…an image that connects pretty well into the way that our reading starts tonight…the day of the Lord is coming…a day of darkness and gloom…of clouds and thick darkness, like blackness spreading over the mountains as a great and powerful army comes. (pause)

Now lets think about this for a moment. A plague of locust, might be just that…or it might be prophetic imagery, because he also talks about this great army that comes…and now let’s think back in our history to this point where we think Joel was active. By this period late in the 4th century before Jesus, the Babylonians had already laid waste to Israel and hauled them off into exile…that was actually a couple hundred years prior…and then the Persian empire had risen up and taken over…and they let the Israelites return…Jerusalem had been rebuilt including the temple…but now there’s a new empire on the rise…the Greeks, which soon would be led by a famous guy named Alexander the Great…who led an incredible army that would eventually conquer all of the known world…an army that would spread over the earth like locusts perhaps?

That’s just a glimpse of what’s going on in the history…but all imagery aside, whatever it is that Joel is describing…it doesn’t seem good does it? Not a lot of positivity in these opening couple of verses…Blow the trumpet…get EVERYONE’S attention, because judgement and wrath are coming…something the ancient Israelites understood to be the day of the Lord. (pause)

Now we’ve got a gap in the reading, and through this gap we hear more of the same…destruction and death…war and anguish…all pointing to the same thing, this day of Lord…and it ends by saying “Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible indeed, who can endure it?”

Doesn’t sound very peachy does it? Sounds like something you’d want to avoid…something you’d want to run away from if it was possible…to hear this prophetic imagery points us to something that will hurt to say the least…but Joel doesn’t stop there…and when we pick back up in verse 12 we hear this.

Yet even now says the Lord, return to me with all your heart…with fasting, with weeping, with mourning. Rend your hearts and not your clothing…then we hear it again. Return to Lord your God.

Joel talks about offerings…he talks about fasts and sanctifying the assembly…of gathering EVERYONE, the young and the old, infants and children, even the priests and ministers…Joel talks about rituals that they need to do…all aimed at the same thing…bringing everyone together to return to the Lord…to turn back to the one who is gracious and merciful…the one who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…the one who relents from punishing.

There’s a word for this…this returning…this idea of turning back…the word is Shoov…it literally means turn around…to go back…might as well use it for Simba as he gets smacked on the head and decides its time to return home.

This is what Joel is calling the people to do…to gather for a ritual aimed at turning back to God…a ritual aimed at repentance for the way they have lived…for the way that they have walked away…for the path that they have taken.

Now I can’t help but think that this sounds familiar…here we are on Ash Wednesday, a day when we practice a ritual aimed at recognizing our own limitations…our own brokenness…our own sinfulness…and the consequences that come with it.

As we hear the words tonight, remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return…we come face to face with our mortality…with what can perhaps be best described as the darkness that looms at the ending of each of our lives…that unknown barrier that rests out there.

Its not quite the same thing that Joel is describing for the people to gather and do together…but its not far off either…for both are a call to turn back…to see the darkness that lies before us…to acknowledge not only the brokenness of our past, which can and does hurt, but to also acknowledge the brokenness that lies right here in front of us…and then to turn back to the one who is able to do something about it.

And as we hear from Joel…we are not the only ones who turns back…who Shoov…but we hear that the Lord will turn back as well…that the Lord will turn from punishment and wrath because our Lord is merciful and gracious.

This is what I love about Ash Wednesday…and why I find this worship service to be among the most powerful that we participate in throughout the year.  For in just a few moments, we will come forward one by one…and we will each hear those words again. Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return…words that speak of our death…but immediately after you hear those words you will also hear the body of Christ broken for you. The blood of Christ shed for you.

We acknowledge our brokenness and the consequences of it…but we also hear the promise that the one who is able to do something about it has already done it. We hear the words of promise that we have been claimed by the one who will ultimately get the last word in the story of your existence. The one who has claimed you. (pause) Mufasa told Simba remember who you are…and with a slight tweak we do the same…Remember WHOSE…you are. (pause)

Now I can’t help but laugh tonight as I consider the date. Today is Ash Wednesday…but its also Valentines Day. A day that celebrates love overlapping with a day that acknowledges brokenness and death. But maybe putting love and death right up next to each other isn’t the worst thing in the world…because the Love of God is shown to each one of us through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ…love is found as life meets death.

You might notice that there’s a plant sitting down here on the piano tonight…its small palm plant…one that I was given about a year ago and it sits back in my office most of the time. Now, you’ll walk past it right after you’ve received the ashes and communion and as you do I’ll invite you to take a look at it…I’ve been watching a couple new leaves develop over the past couple of weeks and which are just now starting to open up…and as I was looking closely at it, I realized that there’s one leaf that’s mostly dead right next to that new leaf that’s forming…death and new life, all wrapped up together…and this is what we recognize within ourselves tonight.

We acknowledge our own death…something that creates the ultimate separation…but we hear a word of promise from the one who claims us…even beyond the point of death…and so we turn to the one who has already turned to us…

Tonight we remember who we are…But more importantly we remember…WHOSE…we are. Amen.

 

Say What You Need to Say 3-1-17 Ash Wednesday

In this Ash Wednesday sermon, I explore 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10. We are reminded of death, a theme of this day, but must recognize that death does not get the last word.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/say-what-you-need-to-say-3-1-17-ash-wednesday

You can follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

A couple days back, I was texting back and forth with a fellow pastor, jabbering about our respective sermons for tonight. She had already written hers, but she was worried that it was too short. I thought about it for a minute and then shared a bit of wisdom that my old preaching professor from seminary told us.

When you’re preaching, step into the pulpit, say what needs to be said, and then get the heck out of there. (pause) Now maybe this is a bit of a Lutheran notion…especially when compared with the preaching approaches in some different denominational bodies…where sermons can carry on for 30-40 minutes…but it’s a lesson that I’ve taken to heart, as most of you have probably figured out by now.

But that being said…there is one style that I just can’t wrap my head around…and that is the ongoing preaching in an old style revival. Now I’ve never been to a revival…but I’ve heard stories of the proverbial old school Baptist minister…getting up there and railing away for hours…eventually the suit coat comes off…the collar gets loosened…the shirt sleeves get rolled up…and when I’ve seen images on tv it always seems like its happening in mid-summer because everyone is all hot and sweaty…waving themselves with fans while the revival goes on and on and on. (pause)
Now, as I mentioned…I’ve never been to one…but I remember seeing a revival depicted on tv…on the classic show…the Waltons with John Boy and Mary Ellen and the rest of the Walton clan…Now, I remember seeing this episode as a kid, because my parents loved the show and watched it in syndication constantly…and not only that, but quite recently this particular episode was on in the background when I was visiting one of our members recently.

And the revival is depicted just as I described it a moment ago…as the visiting preacher rails on and on…focusing in on various individuals…and preaching fire and brimstone their direction…now one of the Walton boys catches an attack…and pretty quick he comes up to the front in a bit of an altar call…and later on in the episode he ends up in the river getting baptized…but then the preacher turns his attention to John Sr…who the show depicts as being pretty absent from worship most Sundays…and starts railing on him about the fires of hell…and John gets fed up…stands up…and walks out. (pause)

Now thinking about that whole scene reminds me of a portion of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, our featured passage for this evening…if there’s an overarching theme to this reading…and in fact to the entire letter of 2nd Corinthians in general…it’s the theme of reconciliation.  Somewhere in between Paul’s 1st letter to them and this one, the relationship has gotten strained…we don’t know what happened…but Paul is attempting to repair the breach…both for the sake of their own personal relationship and reconciliation, as well as for the sake of the gospel that he has taught them in the past.

Paul’s fear is that their irritation with him, whatever that might be about…will sour their opinion of the gospel that he had proclaimed…and so the theme of reconciliation…the need for it…particularly in terms of their relationship with God…and for a brief moment…I could almost imagine Paul as that Revival Preacher…NOW IS THE TIME…NOW IS THE DAY OF SALVATION. (pause) Whatever else Paul might be talking about…this small portion of the passage gives us a sense of urgency…that they must be reconciled now in this moment.

Now interestingly enough…Paul doesn’t get all fire and brimstoney on his audience…there’s no sense of trying to scare them into faith…no ultimatum of “Accept Christ or burn in hell.” And honestly I’m grateful for that…because I’ve never been partial to that style of proclamation…yes…Christ’s sacrifice frees us from the power of sin and death and condemnation…but if we are proclaiming Christ for the sole purpose of a get out of jail free card, then I think we are missing the point…for Christ desires that we be reconciled to God now…that we be in good relationship with God and our neighbor now…today…in this life. (pause)
But that being said…today is Ash Wednesday…today is one of the few days in the church year when we take an honest look at the end…and with that in mind…maybe, just maybe that sense of urgency isn’t a bad thing.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return. (pause) God formed humanity out of the dirt…God gives us life…but at some point…that life is over…and we return to the dirt that we came from in the first place. That’s what we’re talking about tonight…and when I look you in the eyes in a few more minutes, and I smear some ashes on your forehead and say those words to you, that’s what I’m saying. That at some point…you…will…die.

I’ll be honest…death is not one of my favorite subjects…and perhaps tonight more than any other Ash Wednesday that I’ve been a part of in the past…it seems particularly uncomfortable…There’s been too much of it in recent history…last fall our community and our congregation experienced several in a pretty short amount of time…some at the end of a long full life…and some shockingly early and unexpected.  And for me personally, it was all capped off with the death of my mentor in late November…a 57 year old man who was the pillar of health…unexpected to say the least…and wouldn’t you know it…I also got word this past weekend that one of my parents neighbors…a man that I’ve known since I was 3 years old suddenly died.

The thing about death…is that there’s no rhyme or reason to it…it comes out of the blue…and it catches us unaware…and if these unexpected deaths that have happened around all of us over the course of this past year have shown us anything…its that tomorrow is not guaranteed.

And while God may continue to display infinite patience with us in this life…it would seem that our death creates something of an expiration date…and so, Paul’s urgency…now is the acceptable time…now is the day of salvation…and yes maybe I sound a little fire and brimstoney here. Its not my normal style…but I can see today where Paul is coming from.

But here’s the thing…that salvation that he’s talking about…its already offered to you…its already been done for you…its already been accomplished for you. Christ did it at the cross…just how it works, I don’t know…just why it works, I don’t know…all I do know is that God loves us fully and completely…every single one of us…and God loves us so much that this blasted sin and the separation that it causes must be overcome and since we can’t pull it off on our own God stepped in through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and did something about it on our behalf…and this freedom…this salvation…whatever you want to call it is offered to you freely…now.

And the amazing thing about this…is that death…which has to be the worst part of our existence…both from the standpoint of having to watch it happen and experience the pain of loss that death causes for those still living…as well as the horrific reality of our own death, when our existence…our life as we know it ceases to be…and we cross into that great unknown that is lying on the other side of it…this horrific truth…this horrible thing…death, the worst thing that will happen to us…it is not the last thing that will happen to us.

If you’ve been to a funeral that I’ve led, you’ve likely heard me say that death comes for us all…but death doesn’t get the last word…God does…and we’re given a tiny little glimpse at that in the very last thing Paul says tonight…we are treated as having nothing…yet possessing everything.

You’ve all heard the saying “you can’t take it with you.” And its true. We come into this world with nothing…and we leave the same way…taking nothing with us…BUT…the promise of God assures us that we are made heirs of eternal life…WHATEVER that’s going to look like in the age to come…we are given that promise…it is spoken over us in the waters of our baptism…and it is spoken to us in the bread and wine of Communion.

Now in just a few minutes, I’ll look you in the eye and say words that refer to your death…but right after I say that to you, you will hear the words “the body of Christ broken for you…the blood of Christ shed for you.”  And this is done for the forgiveness of sin. Death is real, but the last words in the conversation belong to God. (pause)

Tonight we kick off the season of Lent…and we do it by acknowledging death…by recognizing our own limitations…and in about 40 days, Christ is going to be nailed to a cross where he’ll endure the true cost of our broken sinful reality…a cost that we can’t even begin to understand…he’ll endure it…or in actually he already has…because you have to go through death before you can get to the resurrection…but maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself there.

Tonight we remember that death comes for us all…and tonight we leave the conversation unfinished…which might seem strange…but I’ll make you a promise…or at least I’ll share God’s promise to you…this isn’t it…we’ll pick it up again at Easter with that tomb…is empty. Amen

 

Why Are We Doing This Again 2-10-16

In this sermon for Ash Wednesday, I explore Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21. In this passage Jesus warns us against public displays of piety, which is ironic considering this is a day when we are doing just that.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/why-are-we-doing-this-again-2-10-16

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

Ash Wednesday…the day, or in this case the evening, that starts off the season of Lent. In a moment of disclosure, I first started thinking about Lent as a whole back about Christmas time…as I started to mull over possible themes and characters that would take us through the season. But on thing that I didn’t really have to think about much was tonight…Ash Wednesday as a whole is pretty well set in terms of worship and liturgy by this point…and so about the only thing I needed to do was pick out what scripture lesson I would utilize for the sermon. This happens to be one of the days in the church year that uses the same set of lessons every year, and so in order to keep some variety, I made the overarching decision a couple years back that I would rotate the lessons.

So my first Ash Wednesday, I used the reading assigned out of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Last year, the old testament reading from the prophet Joel seemed to be in order and so, a month and a half ago when I started looking at stuff for tonight, it seemed like a no-brainer…go ahead and use the gospel reading from Matthew. I made the decision, marked it in my files for prep work, and moved on to other things.

Then about a week ago, as I knew that Ash Wednesday was pending, I figured it was high time that I start thinking about it…about this day…which is sort of the one time in the Lutheran church when we gather together to recognize our limitations and our sinfulness and the reality of death in our world…and as part of the whole deal, we receive the sign of the cross, in ashes, on our foreheads…in short…we display a sign of our faith…something that one might call a public display of piety.

And I was thinking about that very notion…this public display of piety…I opened up to Matthew 6 only to find…Jesus warning us against public displays of piety…this resulted in the most epic facepalm that I have ever endured…and my first question, was what in the world am I going to do with this one? (pause) Adding to the ironic nature of this whole deal, in the study Bible that sits on my desk…the one I utilize most often in my work…I had previously highlighted the final verse of Matthew chapter 5, which seemed to add insult to injury, as Jesus tells his audience “Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.”

That highlighted verse seemed to taunt me throughout this past week as I considered the notion that here on Ash Wednesday we are actively reminding ourselves of how much we are NOT PERFECT …of how much we ARE NOT…like our heavenly father…needless to say, this one has given me the feeling of being behind the 8-ball from the get-go.

But yet, here we are tonight…gathered together, to do all of this…to acknowledge our shortcomings…to remember that one day we will return to the dust that God formed us from back in in the beginning…and in the end to quite literally bear that truth right there on our faces.

And in the midst of it, Jesus gives us 3 different warnings…and if we are paying attention…all three really narrow down to the same thing. When you practice your piety…don’t be like the hypocrites who go out of their way to call public attention to it…because that attention is their reward…but when you do it, do it quietly and your Father in Heaven will see it. (pause) That’s the gist of all three warnings…and after Jesus has made each of these three individual warnings…he sums it all up…Do not store up treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in to steal.

Now I thought about that statement for quite a while…wondering just what this earthly treasure is that Jesus is talking about…and if we think about it generically, I guess it makes sense…don’t put all your stock in things that won’t last…clothes wear out…money can be lost or stolen…nothing in this world is permanent, no matter how much we might like to think it is…but what about when we start talking about this lesson…and these warnings against piety done for the purpose of public opinion? When we think along those lines, maybe this all starts to make a little more sense…because if we are giving alms…or praying…or fasting…and shining a spotlight on ourselves just to make sure everyone else knows what we’re up to…well then we pretty quickly fall into the trap of politicians…doing it all for the purpose of public opinion…and we all know how fleeting that is don’t we? And just like things wearing out…people’s opinion of us can be taken away pretty quickly, leaving us with a whole lot of nothing. (pause)
And so, on the flip side, Jesus tells us to store up treasure in heaven, treasure that will not spoil and cannot be taken away from us…but I found myself wondering…just what is this heavenly treasure? (pause) Certainly we could say that its eternal life…that’s what we’re after…or God’s favor and that’s true too…but I don’t think we should limit to just that…because if all of this stuff that we’re doing here…all of these things that we say and do…if its all just for the sake of building up some eternal life insurance policy…well then I think we’re missing the point of why Jesus entered into our reality in the first place…those things are part of it…but Jesus also came that we might have life and have abundantly…life, in the here and now…a life that’s fulfilling…a life that’s complete…because it is a life IN RELATIONSHIP with our maker….with the one that formed us from the dust in the first place….that’s a heavenly treasure.

But all that being said…I’m not suggesting that public displays of piety are a bad thing…Jesus isn’t really saying that either…he doesn’t tell the people to stop doing them…rather, he’s telling us that we better make darn sure to question our motives for it…what’s our reason for doing it…because if we’re doing it just to be seen…well then there you go…you’ve been seen…and having been seen by others…maybe praised…maybe scorned, who knows…but having been seen, I’ll ask the question…is that enough for you? Does it make you feel whole…good…complete…perfect even? (pause)

We can’t achieve perfect can we? And so I’ve often wondered just what Jesus was talking about with that passage…be perfect as your Heavenly father is perfect…but then I did a little digging, and I realized that this is a pretty awful and inaccurate translation. A better way to say is to be complete…be fulfilled…be ENOUGH…as your heavenly father is enough.

And God is enough…He really is perfect, even if that goes beyond our ability to understand…but the amazing thing about this…is that our perfect God…the one who made us in the first place…HE calls us enough…He calls us Good…and this is something that is utterly different than the notion of perfection…the notion of the ideal…the thing that we SHOULD strive for.

And interestingly enough…when we start thinking about creation…God never intended perfection in the first place…that’s a Greek idea…a philosophy…a way of thinking that came around WAY after the world was made…this is why when we see Greek sculptures and paintings from Jesus’ time, they all feature humanity in its perfect form…something that we certainly never see when we look in the mirror…but they thought that with enough work and training and study we can continue to better ourselves to the point of perfection…but reality…especially the reality made by God back in the beginning…well God had a different word for it…In the Hebrew, it’s the word TOV…kind of a fun word…and TOV…it means…Good.

During creation, we hear it over and over again…God makes something…and he looks at it…and its TOV…its GOOD…and then God makes humanity…he bends down and grabs a bunch of dirt…and he forms it into an image that mirrors God himself…and he breathes life into it…and there’s a man…and then he takes out a rib from the man and God makes a woman…2 parts that equally mirror the image of God…and God says…that’s TOV…and not just that…its REALLY TOV…its VERY TOV…its UBER TOV.

God makes us…and God call us Good…and this is before the fall and the presence of sin entering the world…the world…and humanity was not made perfect and God never intended it…but God calls us Good…just as we are…but then when sin did enter in…and twist around this Good reality that God had made…and it separated us from being in relationship with God like he intended…well he still thought we were good enough…that we were enough for him to do something about it…and that’s why Jesus came into this reality in the first place…not to perfect us…but to bring us back into relationship with God…the one who calls us…TOV. (pause)

And so tonight…as we have gathered…one by one we will hear the words…remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return…and one by one we’ll have ashes spread on our heads…and we’ll display publically our acceptance of our limitations within this world…and as we do…may we remember that we are not doing it to be seen by one another…we are not doing it to earn the praise and admiration of other people…but rather we are simply acknowledging the truth of our existence…flawed though it is…but that in our flawed reality our God calls us Good…He calls us Enough…and worthwhile…God calls us…TOV. And if God believes we’re good enough…then maybe, just maybe, we are freed to believe it about ourselves. Amen.

Turn Away From Turning Away…Ash Wednesday 2-18-15

This sermon, which occurred in the context of Ash Wednesday, is based on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17. In the sermon I explore the call that God gives us to acknowledge our sin and turn away from it and back to God.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/turn-away-from-turning-away-2-18-15

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:
Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen
Have you ever heard the expression, life imitates art? In a moment of personal disclosure, I fought this sermon tooth and nail…not that I didn’t want to write it, but because I didn’t want to write it on Monday, which is normally my day off…yet the longer the day went on the more my mind kept coming back around to this sermon…to the need to write it…I just kept dwelling on it and as much as continued to try and blow it off and relax…that just didn’t happen…and before long I was pacing the house…round and round…lap after lap…cycle after cycle. (pause)
And the more I thought about it, the more the notion of cycles seemed to be significant…because life is just full of cycles…and the more I pondered on that particular thought…the more I got to thinking about a theme that has emerged this year in the class I teach on Sunday mornings with the confirmation students and the adult forum.
Those of you who have sat through those class will likely recognize this cycle as we’ve talked about it over and over again…but in particular we discussed this cycle early in the program year…starting last fall…as we discussed the narrative found throughout the Old Testament.
The people follow God…things go well…time passes…the people turn away from God…things stop going well…things start to get bad…things remain bad…the people can’t figure out why things are going bad…then the people remember God…the people turn back towards God…God once again blesses the people as they are following God…things go well…time passes…repeat…repeat…repeat. (pause)
Now perhaps I’m just keenly aware of this idea because tonight I’m preaching out of an Old Testament passage…and not just a regular Old Testament passage…but a prophetic passage…and not just any prophetic passage…but one of the passages featured in the category known as the minor prophets…namely the short books found towards the end of the Old Testament from prophets that we just don’t know much about. (Pause) And of course…I’m talking about the passage from the prophet Joel that I shared a moment ago. And here’s the skinny on Joel…we know hardly anything about him…period. We know his name and his father’s name…and that’s pretty much it. Scholars will tell you that Joel was active at some point between 2 and 10 centuries before Christ…so we’ve got a nice 800 year window of history…a history full of that very cycle that I talked about a moment ago…The people follow God, the people forget God, the people turn away from God.
And so as I thought about this passage in preparation for this evening, I found that it was extremely difficult to try and place this passage in any sort of context that might just help connect it into our lives…simply because we know so little about it…but then I kept thinking about the cycle…going round and round and round again…both the people through the history of the Old Testament as well as my own pacing round and round…
And as I pondered on this cycle itself…I got to thinking about what Joel is instructing the people to do…declare a fast…call an assembly…bring together the people…and in the midst of bringing everyone together…we hear the word of the Lord “Return to me with all your heart.” (pause)
In this random moment, at some unknown point in the history of the Jewish people…in the midst of that cycle that repeated time after time…we find ourselves at the point when the people turn away from what ever it is that has captured their attention…whatever it is that has pulled them away from the Lord…and now they are turning back towards God. (pause)
This notion of turning back…or turning away from that which captures our attention…this is where the theme of repentance comes from. A theme that has been present throughout Old Testament history…and one that comes all the way through the New Testament…and right up to today…because to repent means…quite literally…to turn away.
And its funny because the idea of turning away can really be found on both sides of the coin in terms of the cycle that we live out in our lives…because everyone…turns away from God…everyone gets distracted by something…or places something above God…everyone across the board…and when its gets right down to it…that’s sin…that is what hinders us…that is what stands in the way of our relationship with our maker…and none of us are immune to it…and because of this…because all of humanity is caught by the power of sin…we all turn from God…and because we turn away from God…God calls us to turn back…to fix our attention back to the one that has made us… (pause)
But at the same time…as easy as that sounds…in theory…we all know just how impossible it is to pull it off…we can’t do it on our own…and because of this…because of the human need to place ourselves above God…because of our inability to due to the will of God…all of humanity has been cursed by sin…with death. (pause)
And today is a day…one of the few in the church year…when we sit back…and acknowledge it…Ash Wednesday…Good Friday…and funerals when they happen…and when we stop and think about it…that’s really about it….maybe because death is painful…because death is the ultimate separation…and it is…any of us who have lost loved ones knows this…death creates a barrier that we cannot cross…and God knows this too…because death is the result of sin…death is the result of the broken relationship that humanity has experienced with God…death is the result of humanity turning away from God…not because we want to or that we chose to…but because we live an existence that itself has already turned from God. (pause) That’s the power of sin…not some bad thing that we say or do…but an active evil within existence…and active evil which has taken hold of us and offers us no hope of escaping by anything that we can say or do or accomplish. (pause)
Yet there is one that can do something…there is one that can overcome this separation…and that is God…and so as the prophet Joel tells us…we turn to the one who can do something…as we recognize whatever it is that holds our attention and has caused us to turn from God…and we turn away from that…back to God…we turn away from turning away…
This is repentance…this is turning away…and returning our attention…our devotion…our love to the one who can act on our behalf…who has already acted on our behalf…and who is still acting on our behalf…and we look towards the saving grace of God found in Jesus Christ…not the man who did the miracles…not the great teacher or healer…but to God himself who took all that sin and all the death and all the darkness upon himself as he hung on the cross…dying in our place…but then going beyond it so that one glorious day we may join with him in the resurrection…fully forgiven of the sin that entangles…of this sin that captures our attention…of the sin that turns us from God. (pause)
Now here’s the thing…the resurrection of Jesus is an amazing thing…it is a life altering…not to mention a death altering story…one full of hope and joy…And just last Sunday, this was the story that we discussed downstairs in confirmation…and after the lesson was over, and we gathered in groups to talk a little more about it…I was sitting with the adults…and rather than focus on the resurrection itself…our discussion centered on death…and that was hard…I think it was hard for all of us as we sat there…and for some it was harder than others…perhaps due to personal circumstances…and personal history.
And as I thought about that discussion, I wondered just what it was that took us from the glory of the resurrection back to the pain of death…and then I realized that we can’t get to the resurrection without experiencing the death first. Jesus couldn’t be raised from the dead until he was dead…likewise…we can’t join with Jesus in a resurrection like his until we experience our own death…and make no mistake…we will…because the wages of sin are death…and our belief in Christ as our savior does not excuse us from it…but it does open the door to what lies beyond it… (pause)
This is why we acknowledge death…because it is a reality…one that we will all share…and this is why in a few moments we will each hear the words “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This is death that we are talking about…but because of the saving of love of God expressed through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are able to turn away from it…we are able to turn away when we hear the words that we are forgiven.
And so tonight…immediately after you hear those words that acknowledge your own death…you will also hear the words the body and blood of Jesus Christ given for you for the forgiveness of sins. (pause) We acknowledge our sin…we turn from our sin…and we find the grace of God…not because we earn it…not because we’re entitled to it…but because God chooses it. (pause)
So over the course of the next several weeks, as together we travel through this dark season of Lent…the season that culminates on Good Friday with the death of Jesus Christ…remember this…we have to go through death to get to the resurrection…we have to go through the pain and the fear and the darkness…not as punishment…not as penance…but simply because it exists…but praise God that through Christ…through his death…there is something more and he has promised…that we…will…receive it. Because through the death of Jesus, God has made it possible each and every day for us to turn away from turning away…and so Even Now, declares the Lord…return to me with all your heart. Amen

Remember That You Are Dust 3-5-14

The sermon for Ash Wednesday comes from 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10. In this sermon I tackle the subject of death, a common theme on Ash Wednesday.

You can listen to the sermon here.
http://soundcloud.com/revdalen/remember-you-are-dust-3-5-14

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here. As usual, disregard the indications to pause and the odd punctuation.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…Amen.
Remember that you are dust…and to dust you shall return. We are all familiar with these words aren’t we? We hear them at least once a year on Ash Wednesday and as expected…we’ll each hear those same words spoken directly to us as individuals in a few minutes.
Have you ever wondered exactly where that phrase came from? I’ve heard various people try to explain it over the years, each focusing on the same central theme. God made Adam from the dust of the earth, forming him into a human being and then breathed life into him. Okay…fair enough I suppose.
But for a long time, that basic explanation just didn’t quite sit right with me. But then, in my early seminary days, I made a bit of an astonishing connection in one of my classes. It happened about week or so into my study of the Hebrew language. No admittedly, I don’t remember a lot of Hebrew. I’ve kidded around with the confirmation students as well as the high school students that Hebrew pretty much looks like chicken scratches and sounds like you are clearing your throat and that’s about all I recall from it…but in truth I do remember a few words and one of them stems from this realization that I had a few years back.
One of the vocabulary terms from that first week was the word ah-dam. Sounds familiar right?  As well it should. Ah-dam is the Hebrew pronunciation of Adam. But the important thing to note here is the root of the word. Ah-dam is taken from the Hebrew word ah-da-mah. Any idea what the translation of that word is? (pause…) That’s right. It means ground or land.
YES!!! Humanity was literally formed from the dust of the ground. So much that God named the first man…“Ground.” Certainly this was a light bulb moment for me. So students, remember that if you are ever grumbling about homework. It does pay off.
So, now we know where the first part of the phrase comes from. “Remember that you are dust…”  What about the second part? “And to dust you shall return.” I would think that it is quite obvious. If the first part of the statement refers our origin or birth if you prefer…then clearly the second part must refer to death.
Now is it just me, or is death a bit of a taboo subject? Something that people shy away from talking about? I know I’ve had times in my life when I shied away from the conversation. But I wonder why we avoid it. I’ve known people that don’t even like to say the word, preferring to say that a loved one is “gone” or has “passed away.” Maybe we’re hesitant to talk about it, because in the end, we are all afraid of it. Have you noticed that often in life, people will hesitate to talk about those things that scare them? They’d rather keep the conversation away from the scary stuff…because that way they don’t have to really think about it.
Tonight, I’m going to invite you to think about it. I’m going to invite you to come face to face with it. I’m going to ask you to close your eyes, and I’m going to tell you a story. I want you to picture this in your mind.
Imagine that it is a bright sunny day, 85 degrees and wonderful. You are standing on the shoreline of a lake. It’s the 4th of July. As you look around, what do you see? Boats everywhere, people everywhere. There is a family playing in the water. One of many groups of people on this beach. They are having a good time. As you watch this family, you notice one of the men looking out from the shoreline, out into the lake. He is looking out to the buoys floating a hundred yards off shore, boats floating nearby. That’s not so far out right? It wasn’t so long ago that he would could swim out and back twice over…no problem. Or so he thinks. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the man dives into the water and starts swimming out towards one of the buoys. He didn’t notice from the shoreline, but with all the boat traffic on the water, it’s choppy. He’s fighting the waves as he’s swimming. He’s doing okay, but is starting to strain much sooner than he expected. By the time he makes it to out the buoy, he is exhausted. Treading water isn’t an option…he grabs a hold of the buoy, pulls it down, drapes over it and floats there…thinking that he’ll rest for a bit before swimming back into shore.
The water has a different idea.
A big wave knocks him off the buoy after a few seconds…far too short of a time for him to get the rest that he needs, but he begins swimming back towards shore…he’s moving slowly, fighting the waves. He rolls over on his back, trying to float and rest his arms and legs, but the waves keep rolling over him. He’s fighting to stay on top of the water…just barely succeeding…he can’t swim anymore…panic sets in…he looks to the shore, but it seems to be miles away…he looks around at the boats moored nearby…he starts crying for help, but the people on the boats can’t hear him…panic is really setting in now…he’s totally exhausted. The man see’s death staring him in the face…and he is terrified. (pause)
I’m going to stop at that point. Go ahead and open your eyes.
Death has entered this story hasn’t it?  That word that scares us so much. That word that we are often too scared to say out load. Well I’m going to say it again.
DEATH.
It’s real isn’t it?
Yes my friends, death is a reality that we must all face. At one time or another. From the moment that we enter this life as a baby, kicking and screaming we owe the universe 1 death. It’s unavoidable.  Death and taxes…the only two things that are sure in this world. My grandfather was fond of saying that very thing before his own death a few years ago.
So if it is a reality for each and every person…WHY ARE WE ALL SO AFRAID OF IT?
A few years ago, Max Lucado published a book called “Fearless.” In the book he shares a few quotations aimed at this very question. I’d like to share a few of them with you…Aristotle called death the thing to be feared most because it appears to be the end of everything. Jean-Paul Sartre asserted that death removes all meaning from life. Robert Green Ingersoll, an outspoken agnostic said life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities.
Certainly this paints a very bleak picture of the end of life doesn’t it. Unfortunately, in our scripture lesson for tonight the Apostle Paul doesn’t exactly paint an optimistic picture of life either. He discusses his life serving God as filled with afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, sleepless nights, and hunger.
However, Paul goes on. He doesn’t stop there. Listen to these words.  We are treated as imposters…AND YET ARE TRUE. As unknown…AND YET ARE WELL KNOWN. As dying…AND SEE WE ARE ALIVE.  As punished…AND YET NOT KILLED. As poor…YET MAKING MANY RICH. As having nothing…AND YET…POCESSESING EVERYTHING.
Yes, Paul speaks of hardships in life. He is even known to speak of death within the many books of the Bible that he is responsible for writing. But the difference between Paul and the “scholars” that Lucado quoted in his book is the eternal. Those men, each considered to be brilliant thinkers, failed to wrap their heads around one simple fact about death.
IT ISN’T THE END!
This life is not the only thing that is in store for you. Death…is not the stopping point of your existence. Paul knew it. He not only knew it he believed in it with every atom of his being…and he preached it everywhere he went. He said “Because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence.”
Jesus was born…just like us…Jesus died…just as each and every one of us will one day do. BUT JESUS…CAME…BACK.
Where oh death, is your victory…Where, oh death, is your sting?
These are famous words, also written by Paul, highlight a crucial fact. Death is real…he doesn’t deny it. But he does tell us that we have nothing to fear in it.
When Jesus defeated death, He created the bridge for us. Jesus reaches across the void which we cannot cross, takes us by the hand, and brings us into eternity.
When we realize that Jesus lived and died for this purpose, we begin to understand the journey of Lent that we embark on tonight. Lent is a season of preparation.  Preparation for the death of Jesus. 40 days from now, it happens. But three days later…HE COMES BACK. Jesus…comes…back…for…us.
I’d like to return to the story that I began a few minutes ago. There was another character that I didn’t mention before. A second man swam out to the buoy as well. He was in better shape and had no trouble swimming out. When the wave knocked them both off the bouy, he swam back towards the shoreline unhindered. But when the first man began to flounder, he was still nearby.
If you’re wondering, this actually happened. I was the first man…the man that was floundering. But my brother in law was there too. When I was in trouble, I cried out, and he was there. He came back for me. He took me by the hand and brought me where I could not go alone…He brought me back to the shoreline and I was still alive.
I cannot think of this story without thinking of the story of Peter walking on the water. Do you remember that story. Everything was going fine for awhile, but then Peter started sinking. In his fear…in his panic…he did the only thing he could think to do. He cried out “LORD SAVE ME.” And at that moment, Jesus reached down, took him by the hand, and raised him up where he could not go alone.
It is true, that Peter was afraid. I was afraid too. In the Fearless book Lucado talks about accepting death without fear. He says that we can do so because we are assured in our salvation and eternal life in Jesus Christ. He knows that Jesus comes back for us.
As we travel through this season of Lent, remember that you are all swimming in the lake of sinfulness. At some point, the waves are going to start crashing over you and your arms and legs will be too tired to keep your head above water. You can cry out to Jesus. “Lord save me…save me from sin and eternal death.” This is the simple act of repentance. Crying out “I can’t do this on my own…Lord I need you to save me.”
Then know this…Jesus will take you by the hand, raise you up, and will bring you where you cannot go.
Remember that you are dust…and to dust you shall return…but remember…Jesus…comes…back…for you. Amen.