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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Ash Wednesday 03/09/2011

There's a story you may have heard about a woman who dies and encounters St. Peter at the pearly gates of heaven.heaven. "Why should I let you in?" he asks her. "Well, I've gone to church regularly my whole life." "That's true," St. Peter says, "but sometimes you've been kind of mean to some of the other members of your church and you've also caused problems for some of the pastors." She knew he was right so right away she started to get a little defensive. She quickly changed the subject saying, "For years I brought groceries to my elderly neighbor; every week I made sure she was taken care of because I thought that's what Jesus would have me do. "But you also sometimes used her money to buy things for yourself without telling her," Peter responded. "Is that what Jesus wanted you to do?"

The conversation went on like that for awhile with the woman trying to justify herself while getting increasingly nervous and defensive every time St. Peter reminded her of her indiscretions and imperfections. Finally the reality hit her: she might not be good enough to get into heaven, at which point she fell at Peter's feet and said, "Have mercy on me, I'm a sinner." At that moment the pearly gates swung open and St. Peter said, "Welcome, my child."

"Have mercy on me O God, according to your loving kindness." Those are the first words of Psalm 51, the first words of Lent. They are words that we will hear repeated throughout this Lenten season which is good, because they really do get to the heart of what Lent is about, the reason for the season if you will. It's a time when, before God anyway, we take off whatever masks we wear and like the woman at the pearly gates, we acknowledge our sin, and by that I don't necessarily mean a litany of all we have done and left undone, but more that we acknowledge that we are by nature sinful. Lent is more about our sinful condition.

Mardi Gras was yesterday. We don't do much with Mardi Gras around here except eat those paczkis that sit in your stomach like lead for the rest of the day. Personally I've never been to New Orleans or anyplace else that makes a big deal of Mardi Gras either. My impression though, is that it has pretty much degenerated into drunken debauchery, but as is the case with many such things, Mardi Gras does have religious roots. One of the things they do as part of the celebration is to wear costumes and masks. The history behind the masks is that they represent one final chance to pretend, to hide from God before taking off the mask on Ash Wednesday to appear honestly before God, no more pretending, no more hiding.

Understood that way, with the mask off it does leave us only able to say, "Have mercy on me O God, according to your loving kindness."

You might know that Psalm 51 is said to be a prayer of King David, after he committed adultery with Bathsheba and then complicated his sin by arranging for her husband Uriah, one of David's most loyal soldiers, to be killed in battle. Putting this psalm on the lips of David on this occasion may or may not be accurate (there isn't much certainty about such things regarding the origin of any of the Psalms) but if it is David's psalm, he still didn't offer this prayer until Nathan, one of his court prophets, confronted David with the reality of what he had done (remember, prophets were truth tellers and that's what Nathan did).

In other words he had to help David take off his mask, he had to let David know that he could hide from himself, but he couldn't hide from God. "Against you only have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight," David then says and some are bothered by that wondering if he is oblivious to how he has hurt others, Bathsheba and Uriah most notably. I think it's more likely that David knows full well the personal damage he's done, but this confession is more about the recognition of his sinful nature before God, a sinful nature that no doubt includes other indiscretions. This revelation on the part of Nathan may have helped David to remember other masks he had hidden behind.

As I said, Ash Wednesday and Lent are less about specific sins and more about our sinful condition, but like the woman at the pearly gates and like David, it might take acknowledgment of those specific sins to bring us to the truth of our condition. As we do this we also have to be careful about going easy on ourselves with the tendency to categorize some sins as being worse than others and figuring "I haven't done any of the real bad ones." It's another caution in hearing Psalm 51 as being about David because his sin seems so awful. Certainly none of us has done anything that bad!

But we've all got those things that maybe only we know about, thoughts and attitudes we don't want to have, but we have them anyway, things we know we shouldn't do but we do them anyway, things that make us realize that like David, all we can do is offer that prayer, "Have mercy on me O God, according to your loving kindness." We've all got those things that if deserve had anything to do with it, would place us outside of God's forgiveness; we've all got those things that make us realize who we really

are as David did, and that all we can hope for is God's grace and loving kindness.

It's more than hope though. If there's anything we can have confidence in it is God's grace and loving kindness and forgiveness. It's not that there aren't other ways God is portrayed in the Bible, but the image that keeps coming back is grace and forgiveness. In Jesus we believe we have the ultimate expression of God's grace and forgiveness mysteriously revealed to us in his death on the cross.

Tonight we begin Lent with ashes in the form of a cross on our foreheads. It's a somber and grim reminder of sin and frailty and death with the words "Remember you are dust and to dust you will return." Those words and a smudge of ashes are a harsh dose of reality, but even with that, there is hope. We remember that with a cross of ashes we begin the journey to another cross, the cross of Christ. Be we don't stop there either. Beyond the ashes and beyond the cross we will finally come to the fire of Easter Vigil, a fire that will be lit outside in the parking lot and brought inside with a new Paschal Candle that will burn through the night and into Easter morning. "The light of Christ!" we will proclaim as the fire that gives light to a dark and sinful world is brought into our midst.

That's where we're headed, but to appreciate that moment there is this journey that starts with ashes; and so we begin.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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