March 1, 2017
Ash Wednesday, Youth Director Katie LeClair
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, 2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
South of Green Bay Wisconsin, in Manitowoc County, there is a small town called Valders, where I attended school, all the way from Magic Ladder Nursery School through graduation. Valders is a village of just over 900 people, farming families – Norwegian Lutherans and friendly German Catholics too.
About this time of year, each year, I have a very strong memory of the middle school lunch table talk. The subject always came up… why do some classmates not eat “meat” on Fridays in the spring leading up to Easter? Fish was okay, just not “meat.” And our little middle school brains and mouths always attempted to make sense of it.
Abstaining from “meat” on Fridays seemed like an odd way to mark out faith. I went to a Pentecostal church- we didn’t even talk about Lent! We just plowed right thru and made a great big deal about Easter. The fish Friday thing? I didn’t get it. The Lent thing? No clue.
Then when I started hanging out with Lutherans after college, I found out that there was even more dedication – it wasn’t usually fish Fridays, but somehow many people managed to give up chocolate for over a month! What?
My work with teenagers now through the Confirmation process and their faith formation drills at these questions. What does it mean to be a Christian? Where is God? What is the proof that God’s love is active in this world? What is the proof that am I a child of God, that Jesus loves –me-? Our 10th graders this month are finishing up their Credo Projects. You’ll be able to see them the last Sunday in April. These are visible public displays of what their faith means to them after four years of studying Lutheranism. Maybe when they were in 7th grade their understanding of the Journey of Jesus was kind of like how I heard about Fish Fridays – it’s something we do – a tradition that I don’t have a lot of words for–… and now maybe after a few mission trips, after some Confirmation retreats, small group service projects and Bible studies they are able to illustrate more than just one symbol or ritual or sign of devotion – like giving up chocolate for Lent – or the cross we will wear today. We are hoping and praying that now more of their faith has a deep meaning – that there are some words that go with it, and some questions that are shaping who they are becoming.
And it’s private thing. But we also make it public.
This text in Matthew would seem like a quick way out. Thankfully I haven’t had any 10th graders come running up to me yet asking for a pass on the assignment because of Jesus’ words. Can’t I just keep my faith private – just between God and I. Don’t make a show of it. Do your acts of charity in secret. Right?
Here we have the definitive word – that Jesus doesn’t need our outward show. It’s almost like Jesus is telling us to put our light under a basket. This little light of mine? Just keep it little! Don’t let it shine too much! Pray, sure – yes – but don’t become a fanatic. Don’t be preachy – don’t take it to the streets – just be cool.
Look back at the text.
Is that what Jesus is after? If that’s the case, we’re really going to get it wrong today. In a little bit we’ll invite you forward to be physically marked with the sign of the cross made out of dark ashes. So are we disobeying what Jesus said?
This is why I encourage our teens to read broadly the Scriptures. We took a whole month during January when we asked everyone to bring their own Bible and we learned some tools to help us see how the Scriptures are woven together. Here, taken alone, Jesus’ words might at face value encourage us to keep it cool and not get too heated up for Jesus.
But we read and sang before this the gripping and anguishing confession from Psalm 51. Where the psalmist is torn apart by his own sin and knows he’s at fault and won’t feel forgiven or free until he says it. Have mercy on me O God. Rescue me. Please save me. Here it gets so personal.
When these words were written, it was common for pious Jews to fast – to abstain – this was a way of focusing attention and energy on the task of prayer.
And ashes were sprinkled on heads, having many symbolic meanings as you can imagine – Ashes could be used like a cleansing or cleaning agent when ancient people didn’t have soap. So there’s this ancient cleansing idea going on today with what we’re doing. And ashes are also a dusty reminder that we will return to the earth where we came from. Some who were here with us last year aren’t here today. And some of us won’t be here next year. Death is part of our strange lived reality. We are finite – with an unknown expiration date.
In that way, this is kind of a day of sadness. Psalm 51 helps us look inward. That’s part of Ash Wednesday.
The prophet Joel warns of a coming army – it sounds like the end of the world – he calls together the whole community and says wake up! Let’s wake up together. With the noise of trumpets let’s do this right. As a people, the prophet says, let us fast and weep and pray and confess our sins and cling to the goodness of God to get us through this. So this isn’t secret – it’s not really private. It’s anguishing. It costs the people something. It is disruptive and it’s dark before it gets light. But it’s not just all about death and our sin.
Ash Wednesday is the marker in our church year where we call one another back to the center. Then we take a break for 40 days to examine our baptismal identify – really coming back to the main reason we are a community – the cross – the love of God on display for all. Like we have in Joel, here, the community rallies together and gets back to the main thing of their existence: the goodness of God.
Today is a day when we become marked with the reminder of the paradox of the love of God. The cross is both our death and life.
But now what? How do we live? So when we read broadly, we can look at what Paul and company talked about in 2nd Corinthians. And what a list! Look it over!
As Paul said, with the mark of the true Christian life upon us – maybe beaten up, maybe working hard, working late, maybe jailed, but in gentleness and holiness, with honest love, telling the truth, even when we’re blamed or slandered, we who will be ignored by the world will be recognized by God, terrifically alive, as the Message translation says.
You can nearly hear the verse from Amazing Grace – thru many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come…
Or Just as I am—though tossed about With many a conflict, many a doubt, Fightings and fears within, without—
O Lamb of God, I come, I come. The ashes might symbolize the dust of the journey for you.
Put another way – when God looks at us, God sees Jesus. Imagine the love of God, looking right at you, today, marked with that cross. God sees Jesus when God looks at us. What good news.
For me, Ash Wednesday is a day when I can be physically reminded that WHEN GOD LOOKS AT US GOD SEES JESUS. In Faith Formation, I’m always challenged to find ways to help young people, to help all of us, not just learn intellectually but to taste and see. To feel and experience. And then to publically tell & live that story.
During this season of Lent, let us also encourage one another by telling those Christian friends we are with that we see Jesus in them. Commit to tell one another, “I see Jesus in your life. And I want to walk this dusty journey with you.” Have conversations that cause people to wonder about what Jesus is up to in your life, whether it’s Fish on Friday or your commitment to be here for worship these Sundays and Wednesdays and the Three Days that conclude with the Easter Vigil – Try living your faith out loud this Lent.
YOU HAVE BEEN MARKED WITH THE CROSS OF CHRIST FOREVER. Amen.