Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Star Children (Ash Wednesday Sermon)

Tonight we are invited into what is for many the most moving season in the Christian calendar.  Advent is filled with joyful anticipation, Christmas with the astonishing discovery that God chooses life as one of us, and Easter with the radical fulfillment of our highest hopes: death is no more. 
But Lent – Lent is that season in which we come face-to-face with the great mystery of each of our lives: We are born, and we die.  We are born, quite literally, as star children, for we all bear within ourselves stardust: elements which were once bits and parts of the heavenly bodies above.  (Yes, this is true – almost everything on earth was at one time part of a star, now scattered across the universe.)  And when we die, we turn to dust once again, to earthly dust, to the ground – itself stardust --from which Adam, whose name means “made of the earth,” was created. 
And in between – in between we live lives worthy of both stars and earth.  Lives in which we aspire to the skies, to great deeds and expansive love.  And lives in which we are often grounded by sorrows and suffering.  This night, this season, pull us back to our groundedness, to the reminder of our mortality so necessary to our understanding of the dazzling magnificence of resurrection.  But it also turns us toward the stars, as we prepare to receive the ashes, the dust, which remind us of who we are: creatures of stardust. Creatures of light as well as of earth.  Creatures of life as well as of death.
On the first Sunday of Epiphany, back in January, many of you received star-words, words which I hoped you would put in conspicuous places and would ponder from time to time. To what, I asked, might your word be inviting you this year?  How might it expand your life, ground you, challenge you, encourage you?
Tonight I ask you to consider you star word once again.  How might you live out the Lenten season, how might you journey toward Easter, in light of your star word?  How might it guide you into a deeper experience of this season?
Our text tonight, from Matthew, awakens us to the three church practices of Lent: generosity, prayer, and fasting.  And in this passage, Jesus admonishes us to do these things in private.  How confusing!  So often we rejoice, as a church, in community, in the doing and understanding of things together.  We give together – our weekly offerings are pubic events, and much of the good work we do – the meals, the thrift shop – are done in community.  We pray together every week, in worship and at Bible study.  And when we give up food – we like to let people know, don’t we?  In fact, we ask others to be our support system when we try to relinquish our hold on something really important – like chocolate!
But sometimes, sometimes, it behooves us to practice our faith in private, or silently, or without drawing attention to ourselves.  We give something without anyone knowing about it.  We pray quietly and alone in our own homes.  We sacrifice something, whether chocolate or some other desirable food or activity, without fanfare.  Sometimes we are called to journey deeply into the deserts of our lives, into those places in which it seems that suffering and sorrow reign, into those lands in which confusion and bewilderment hold court, and to do so quietly, seeking the companionship of God alone.  The silent land, author Martin Laird calls it – that place without distraction, without the clamor of community, without the burden of the expectations or hopes of others – that place in which we might find a new clarity, a new discovery, a new recognition, of who we are and of who God is.

What might your star word convey to you, how might your word lead you, into the silence and toward this renewed openness toward God?  When you receive ash on your forehead or on the palm of your hand tonight, you might ask: What does my word suggest needs to die in my life?  What do I need to release? What attachment is holding me back from the fullness of life?  And when you consider your star, and the stardust from which you are make, you might ask:  What does this word invite me to? What is longing to be born in my life?  What am I called to embrace?

In a few moments, the sign of the cross will be marked in ash upon your face or hands.  The cross – a symbol of death, and life.  The ashes – from earth, and from sky.  This is the season in which we remember that we are creatures, not gods, but creatures of both: of death and of life, and of earth and of sky. And that we are called to turn to our God in wonder and in awe, recalling our mortality and awaiting new creation.

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