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Watered Gardens: a sermon for Ash Wednesday

February 8th, 2008 by isaac · 2 Comments

Title: Watered Gardens
Date: February 6, 2008, Ash Wednesday
Texts: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Isaiah 58:1-12; 2 Cor 5:20b-6:10

The fireplace was dirty. We’d been having lots of fires since it was cold out. It was time to clean it up. I grabbed the kitchen trash can, and a dust pan, then went over to the fireplace. I cleaned it all up—scooped every bit out. I even took some paper towels to it. The fireplace had never been so clean. I immediately took the trash can outside to dump it out because I didn’t want that ash to blow through the house.

I put the trash can back in the kitchen, then went to the fireplace to shut the glass doors. And as I bent down to do that, I was surprised to discover our cat in there, curled up in a corner. I laughed, then pulled him out. But he was covered with ash. And I thought I did a good job cleaning up the thing. Anyhow, he was a mess. I tried to it off, but the ash had oil to it that made it difficult to get it out of his fur.

Ash Wednesday is how we join my cat in the fireplace. We spend an evening rolling in ashes. We take a moment to remember that we come from ashes and we will return to the ashes. Or, as Genesis puts it, “You are from dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This isn’t about feeling miserable. Ash Wednesday is not about feeling sorry for ourselves. And it’s not about self-flagellation. Instead, Ash Wednesday is about being honest with ourselves about our lives. It’s a day where we attempt to unmask some illusions.

And that’s why we remember that we are dust. Not to feel miserable and insignificant. But to speak the truth and recognize the truth about our lives: that we are dust. This stuff we call flesh, is made up of dust, of ashes. The truth is that we are dust, held into existence by the love of God.

And that’s scary. We spend our lives running away from what we are. We spend our lives trying to make ourselves into something we like, into the sort of person that we can accept. And our trouble is that we are our worst critics. We can never satisfy ourselves. And the people we want to be, and the lives we want to have, are not real—they are given to us by fantasies.

But God won’t let us keep on destroying ourselves. Joel says, in 2:12-13, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful.” We run away from our fragile lives and try to find a secure future. But God says, return to me. Re-turn. Turn around.

It’s not easy to do. We don’t want to give up the lives we’ve created for ourselves. We like the trajectory of our lives. We’ve worked hard for what we’ve got. We know the good life we’ve always wanted is just around the corner, if we keep on going the way we’ve been going.

But we are lost and driving faster in the wrong direction. And God says, Stop… return to me. God has made us clay, malleable clay, ready to be formed into pieces of the kingdom. But we’ve started to make something of ourselves—we’ve become our own experimental project. We’ve put ourselves on the potter’s wheel, and spun ourselves around, trying to make ourselves into something nice.

And God says, Return to me, stop spinning yourselves out of control, making life monstrous. Ash Wednesday is about repentance. It’s about returning to that soft clay so that God can reform us, so that God can make us into something wonderful, so that God can turn our lives into good news, that we may be good news.

That’s what Isaiah’s message is all about: be good news, be the good news that God has created us to be. Verse 10, “if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” At our core, we are supposed to be good news—to one another, and to the world.

“Now is the acceptable time,” Paul says. “Now is the day of salvation.” God has saved us. God has breathed the Spirit into ordinary dirt and created us. And now God wants us to give our lives to the mysterious movements of that same Holy Spirit, who moves like the wind, unexpectedly, full of surprises, down unknown streets, and in those detours we may discover the Kingdom of God.

Where exactly will this Spirit lead us during Lent? How do we know we are going in the right direction? Isaiah breaks it down for us so we don’t have to think too hard and be creative. Isaiah 58:7, “Share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house.” I’m not saying it’s easy. But it does seem like we already know what to do. I’m not sure I will do it—I don’t have the guts.

But the good news of Ash Wednesday is that we don’t have anything to loose. We are dirt after all. “You are ashes, and to ashes you will return.” And that means we have everything to gain—the kingdom of God, God’s love poured out for the world, for you and me, for strangers and enemies, for homeless and rich, the afflicted, for all creation. And it happens, the kingdom happens when follow that same Holy Spirit that breathed life into dirt, and breathes life into broken bodies, bodies like Jesus, bodies like ours, as we await resurrection, as we await that abundant life mentioned in Isaiah, 58:11, “You shall be a watered garden, like a spring for water, whose waters never fail.”

During Lent we wander in the wilderness, unmasking mirages, so we can let the Holy Spirit transform us into good news for a thirsty world. We shall be a watered garden whose waters never fail. Come and drink from the waters of life.

Tags: sermons

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Matt Chism // Feb 8, 2008 at 4:48 pm

    Hi Jason-
    I meant to tell you this on Wednesday, but I really enjoyed your homily (I think that’s the liturgical term- not a true “sermon”...). I thought it was well organized, lucid, and engaging. Thanks for it!
    -Matt

  • 2 Jason // Feb 13, 2008 at 2:37 pm

    Thanks for the encouragement Matt. Good to know something was communicated despite my edgy nerves :)