Ash Wednesday Sermon 3/9/2011

Sermon for Ash Wednesday
March 9, 2011
Michael Coffey

Texts: Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Happy Ash Wednesday!
It doesn’t quite work, does it?
No day other than Good Friday carries such solemnity
in the church year.
So I’m not sure what an appropriate greeting is for this day,
but “happy” doesn’t quite work.

Or does it?
What if I said to you:
Ash Wednesday is the most humorous day of the church year.
What would you think?
The preacher truly has lost it, hasn’t he?
He used to be such a nice, normal guy, remember?
He’s confusing Ash Wednesday with Shrove Tuesday,
when we tell jokes and dress funny.
He just not getting enough sleep.

But seriously, this is a very humorous day.
Maybe not in the way we normally think of as humorous,
but it is all about humor.
Consider what we say on this day as we smudge our faces with ashes:
Remember that you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.
This is a stark reminder of our fundamental truth:
We live. We die. The rest is up to God.

A couple weeks ago I joined the Carlson family
in scattering Merrill’s ashes on the green earth.
As we did the scattering,
we said the words we say at all committal rituals,
whether burial or scattering:
Earth to earth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
It’s so true and obvious
that we have to say it out loud now and then
just so we don’t forget it.

But preacher, you say,
that doesn’t sound like humor.
Tell us a light-bulb joke
about Lutherans and Methodists and Episcopalians.
Tell us a funny story about how you forgot something important
one day and looked really foolish.
But stop talking about ashes and dust and earth,
because it’s just not funny.

And if that’s the conversation you’re having with me in your head
you would be right.
Death and our bodies becoming ashes and dust and earth
are not very funny.
But it is all very humorous.
You know the word for humor
comes from the same word as human,
which comes from the same word as humus,
which means soil or earth.
You know the name of the first human being created in Genesis?
Humorous one.
Person of earthiness.
Or in Hebrew: Adam.

Today is humorous
in the way a Charlie Chaplin film is humorous.
Chaplin’s genius was his ability
through story and facial expression and bodily actions
to make us see our full humanity
and love it for what it is by laughing at it, laughing at ourselves.
He usually makes us see the proud and the powerful
and the uptight and the self-righteous
as the silly and foolish people they are,
who think they are above their human nature,
and can never, ever laugh at theselves.
But the earthy, human, lowly, gracious people in Chaplin’s stories
are able to embrace human life
in all of its wonder and suffering and silliness and joy.
Chaplin stumbles and foibles his way through life,
but never loses his true human dignity and self-respect,
primarily because he can laugh at himself
while others cannot laugh at themselves
because they take themselves so terribly seriously.

At the heart of this day,
at the heart of Lent and our spiritual renewal it guides us to,
at the heart of all great spiritual teaching and leading,
is the work of encountering our own true humanity,
and embracing it for what it is,
and even, yes, learning to laugh at ourselves.
You might even say that at the heart of our sin
is our fear and unwillingness and false pride
that keep us from being the earthy ones,
the human ones,
the humorous ones that God created us to be
out of the humus.
More than a day about repentance for what we do wrong,
(though there is plenty of that)
Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance
from our denial of our true, mortal, wonderful
God-given and blessed humanity.

So here is the heart of the Gospel message for us today:
Stop taking yourself so seriously!
Be the fully human, humorous, earthy one God made you to be.
Stop fearing being human and flawed and funny and frail.
God seems to approve of it.
God seems to want us to be it.
God seems to value it enough
for Jesus to live it with us and for us
as our salvation from our deathly seriousness.
Take seriously the infinite love and mercy of God.
Take seriously Jesus’ journey of the cross
as the way of living a truly human life.
Take seriously the power of the Spirit to bring new life out of death.
Take seriously that injustice among humans causes suffering
and hunger and homelessness and oppression.
But don’t take yourself so seriously.
It’s a short trip,
and none of us is getting out alive,
and it’s OK to enjoy it along the way,
enjoy it together,
and enjoy God, which is what we were made for.

Jesus’ teaching about false piety and true piety
cuts to the chase about how religion so often
causes us to take ourselves too seriously,
instead of the love of God and the need of our neighbor.
Praying in order to impress?
Giving in order to be admired?
Fasting in order to look like you are suffering so righteously?
It’s all a game that no one wins.
Practicing religion in order to appear righteous and good and favored
is false and pointless.
It drains life out of us and those around us,
and does nothing to draw us closer to God,
or help us love our neighbor,
or live the truly blessed, human life God has given us to live.

Isaiah says the same thing,
as do other prophets in many texts:
What is true religion but to love God and your neighbor.
The Lord says in Isaiah:
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?

Why are we so likely
to bend our religious ways toward this false, empty practice
Jesus and Isaiah warn us about?
Why are we so quick to let love of our neighbor
become a burden instead of a joy?
Because we want to find a way
to rise above the truth and the reality
of being human.
We struggle to trust God in our mortal, soily nature,
and so we wrestle, and finagle, and hedge our bets with God.
We pile up and preserve and protect our stuff
rather than trust the God who provides all we need.

But what if…
what if the prophets are right,
and not only right that we are called
to love our neighbor with bread and home and clothing,
but also that God is merciful and loving toward us,
slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love,
always more ready for us to return to God,
then we are ready to turn away from our mistrust.

What if Jesus is right
and our relationship with God is like having a big daddy
who bounces us on the knee
and doesn’t need us to do anything to impress him
because just being what we are pleases him?
If we have such faith in the mercy and love of God
then we need not fear anything about ourselves
or our world, and certainly not about God.
Returning again to trust in God,
we could then actually be human,
take ourselves less seriously,
enjoy the life we have to live,
love others in their humanness,
feed others with the bread of the earth
and praise God for all that we are and have and will be.

Lent calls us to a humorous journey with God,
a humble one, even a solemn one,
but one of returning to God and to our true nature.
Ash Wednesday is the earthiest, most humorous day of the year.
But there is another day, too.
A day of high comedy and utter joy.
A day when the death marks of this day,
and the truth of Jesus’ journey of the cross
are transformed to joy beyond our human nature,
divine joy, blessed promise.
We journey toward that day with Jesus,
the truly human one,
who walks and skips and hops with us along the way
of our human life,
toward that day when death is not the last word spoken about us.

So the most loving thing someone is going to say to you today,
and maybe for quite a while, is this:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
It is loving, because it is true.
It is loving, because it is freeing.
It is loving, because it says you can be what you are, earthy dusty human one.
It is loving, because it makes us ponder God more deeply,
ponder what God’s mercy and grace and love mean
in the face of dust and death,
when they really matter,
and we can only trust and depend on God
to breathe new life into this dust of the earth.
Happy Ash Wednesday!


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