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Ash Wednesday…

February 24, 2009

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“The LORD knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.” Psalm 103:14

The Hebrew scriptures provide various examples of  “sackcloth and ashes” being a sign of grief and sorrow…repentance and humility.  I did not grow up in a tradition that practiced the imposition of ashes or talked about Lent that much.  My experience with repentance is much more sterile.  Private.   Even so, without having ever participated in an Ash Wednesday service in all my forty years, tomorrow we will enter this unfamiliar space as a worshiping community at SMC.  I will have the opportunity as pastor to look at those who come to this station and say, “From dust you came and to dust you will return” as black ash is smudged on their forehead or palm in the shape of a cross.

We will provide opportunity for the gathered community to write confessions and receive the imposition of ashes as symbols of repentance.  We enter this practice as a community that is situating our tribal story (Anabaptist) within the whole.  We name the fact that discomfort is part of the journey of being a learning, growing community.  We respond to the invitation of Christ to face our weakness, our sinfulness, our brokenness and to receive forgiveness, mercy and hope through the cross.  We press our roots deeper into the soil of the church and receive a nourishing gift of grace.

Perhaps it is important to name another reason the embrace of this practice is significant in a Mennonite context.  Persecution (16th century) by the Roman church and magisterial reformers is a part of the Anabaptist story.  We have often interpreted our faith story as a renewal movement offering a prophetic critique to the Constantinian church.  In a post-Christendom context, perhaps this practice is a way of opening ourselves up to encounter with God and seeing the possibilities of mutual treasures across varied Christian traditions and streams.  We receive this gift not as a sign of conformity to Christendom power structures, but as a way of uncovering the reality that we are both sinners and saints who called to confront both life and death, sin and salvation as a part of the whole community of Christ.

We receive other gifts of grace that are a part of our tribal story.  We will practice footwashing tomorrow evening as a symbol offootwashing humility and service.  For some this practice may also feel new and different–even uncomfortable.  Nevertheless, we enter this practice as a sign of submission to Christ.  Submission to Christ is not just internal–private.  Spiritual realities are expressed through the physical.  So we hold the foot of our brother or sister.  We cup our hands and pour water.  We dry with towel.

The physical expresses the spiritual.  So I have to figure out how to transform the palm branches from Palm Sunday 2008 into ashes.  Someone will have to gather basins and towels.  As we submit to these kind of physical-spiritual disciplines, we are formed in such a way that calls us to embody the prayer–Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. This prayer requires many other expressions of embodiment.  Ashes and footwashing should lead to cups of cold water, welcoming the stranger, extending the hand of peace and reconciliation to enemies…

This is the wisdom of the church calls from beyond the pragmatic values of consumer-driven individualism.  We once again open ourselves up to practices which will help form us into the likeness of Christ.  We open ourselves to becoming more authentically human.

And so Lent will begin tomorrow.  With words that come from the Book of Common Prayer we listen for the invitation of the Spirit “to the observation of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditation on God’s holy Word.”

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