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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Ash Wednesday 2/18/2015

A pastor friend of mine in Chicago who was one of my mentors while I was in seminary, talked about a time when he and a local funeral director and I think it was a Lutheran Brotherhood agent, were leading a workshop at his church on end of life issues. Apparently they were kind of treading lightly around this group of mostly older folks, particularly around the topic of death, being careful, not wanting to upset anyone, talking about death without using the word death, until one feisty lady in her eighties stood up and said, “What’s the matter with all of you? Do you think we don’t know we’re going to die?” After that, my friend said that things went much better.

On Ash Wednesday you come to church to be told that you’re going to die. We do other things too, but part of what we do is to acknowledge the reality of death: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.” It’s pretty blunt and it might even make you wonder why anyone shows up on Ash Wednesday, living as we do in a culture that does its best to avoid the topic of death, like my pastor friend and his colleagues did until they were called on it.

It’s true; we do live in a culture that says younger is better than older so, among other things, we try to fake out the aging process with medication and cosmetics and surgery. Back in the day, when someone died, the visitation was in the home so little kids weren’t shielded from the fact of death; then we moved the visitation to funeral “homes” which helped keep death out of sight. In addition to that, while there are good reasons for having them, nursing homes can have the similar effect of hiding from view the elderly and physically and mentally damaged; if you want to, you can pretend that those people don’t exist in our younger is better world. We say things like “Live this day as if it were your last,” or “Nobody’s guaranteed tomorrow” but we’re pretty sure we’re talking about someone else; it’s not my last day; I’ll be here tomorrow and mostly we are. Then there’s Ash Wednesday, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return,” but even then you can go home and wash off the ashes.

We do live in a culture that tries to deny the reality of death and Ash Wednesday does serve as a counter to that, a reminder that we are not immortal. Ash Wednesday says that life is a precious gift, but it comes with an expiration date. The ashes however, are not a mark of despair because they tell us that in life or in death, we are not abandoned by God. In Baptism we were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ, forever. The cross of ashes on your forehead tonight retraces that baptismal cross with the assurance that forever doesn’t end with your earthly life. You truly are a child of God, forever.

Even with that assurance though, confronting the reality of death also acknowledges the reality that each of us is only given so much time to be the person God would have us be. So every year, we mark this season of Lent as a time to recommit to the effort to be that person. In my February newsletter article I said that with a theology of grace we need a season like Lent because in addition to being a time when we are honest about death, it’s also a time when we are honest about life. Both in the words of Psalm 51 which we started with tonight and in the confession that we will use in a few minutes there is the recognition that things are not as they should be, that we have sinned in thought, word and deed by what we have done and by what we have left undone.

With that confession also comes the recognition that we can’t fix it, that we are dependent on God’s grace. What we say during Lent though, hopefully the rest of the year too, but especially in Lent, what we say is that as we walk our walk of faith we can do better, that we will try to do better. We do it not to earn our way into God’s good favor because with a theology of grace we know that we are already in God’s good favor. We do it instead in part for ourselves, to deepen our relationship with and draw closer to the God who has given us the gift of grace and we also do it for others, so that we can be the reflection of God’s love and grace in the world, for them.

The question that recurs every year is how do we do it, how do we make Lent meaningful. That conversation always starts with the traditional Lenten disciplines of fasting, prayer and almsgiving. All of them are good things, time tested practices and they can be useful spiritual disciplines, but they all can wind up empty of meaning too. Fasting for example; it evolved into the practice of “giving something up” for Lent and maybe you still do that, a lot of people do. I gave up candy for Lent one year but all it did was prove to me what I pretty much already knew, which is that I had enough self discipline to do it. It had nothing to do with bringing me closer to God. If anything it took me further away with pride in my self-discipline. With enough self-discipline who needs grace? I can do it on my own.

Giving something up might still be a good thing to do if it helps you to honestly reflect on those aspects of your life that keep you from being the person you want to be, from being the person God would have you be. That, to me, is what Lent is about. Are there things in your life that you have let become idols? The truth of it is that for all of us there probably are things that become idolatrous, in many cases they are good things, but they’re good things that have come to assume too large a place in our lives. Those things are hard to give up though, number one because we like them, and number two because we really don’t want to admit the fact that they do take too large a place in our lives.

Another way to approach Lent would be to think about the things you already do that help you to draw closer to God and then to try and find ways to make those things a larger part of your life. I would guess that you have those things and focusing on them might be more effective than trying to start a new practice that might just leave you frustrated; instead, identify and go with the things that work for you. Still, there is no one right way to “do” Lent; starting something new might be just the thing. Lent isn’t one size fits all. The important thing is to find a way or to be looking for a way that helps you to think about your life with God, what’s good about it and what may not be so good.

There is no bad time to do this, but one of the things about Lent is that every year we are reminded that “Now is the acceptable time” as it says in the second lesson tonight. In the service of Evening Prayer that will be the focus of our mid-week worship in the coming weeks, “Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation” serve as the opening verses. Let those words help you to stay focused in the coming weeks, let them help you to start again if your Lenten journey goes off track, let them help to lead you to a more meaningful Holy Week and finally to Easter joy because…now is the acceptable time.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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