Ash Wednesday 2016

Bible Text: Matthew 6:1-6, 14-21


I read a great article some years ago about an interesting man named Andrew Horton.

I’m certain you’ve never heard of him. I hadn’t either.
But he got just a bit of attention when he died in a subway tunnel fire at the intersection of Lexington and 63rd in NYC at the age of 43.

I suppose he was a lot like many other street folk. His friends said he was a gentle guy, but as a child he bounced from one foster home to another, and eventually he had trouble with addictions.

He got arrested quite a few times, and developed the sense that he just didn’t fit in.

As a result, he spent most of his life underground, in the tunnels of the New York subway system in the dark.

You and I would have never heard of him except that when the firefighters pulled his body from the rubble, among his things was a manuscript for a graphic novel entitled “Pitch Black.”

A novel that was actually published about 8 years ago.

So maybe he was a vagrant, and a bit of a troublemaker, but he was also an artist and a writer.

And his novel described some of what he’d learned living underground in the dark:

  1. Always carry a light
  2. Anything you need can be found in the garbage
  3. Always have more than one spot, and
  4. Always have a way out that is different from the way in.

That last bit is hidden in the Gospel for tonight I think

We try to do our best, but we get dinged up and sometimes we get broken and sometimes our lives get reduced to darkness, or even ashes.

And yet, the church is such great stuff. Here Jesus asks us to pray, to let Him know what we need and build on a relationship with Him. In our prayers he gives us the chance to trade ideas and information.

He leads us to remember what he’s done for us in the past, and he lets ask for what we’d like in the future

And then suddenly somehow we’re on the street corner showing off, if we are still praying at all.

Jesus also asks us to be generous to the poor.

It’s a very simple fact that the world works best when we all give a real 10% to the Church, and then, on top of that, we always have some alms for the poor

So that you and I can do some double-barreled good in the world, and live with an open heart and open hands

And then suddenly somehow, we’re giving to show off, not to show love, if we are still giving at all.

Jesus asks us to fast, and that’s a little strange for us, especially for us Lutherans. Because, more often that not, we don’t know how.

But fasting is a habit. And sometimes it’s hard to get started.
But Jesus tells us that there are some demons who will only go away with the combination of prayer and fasting.

So if we never learn, and we get discouraged, and we wake up on an Ash Wednesday in 20___, and we are 50 or 60 years ole, and we’ve never fasted, not even once, it means that particular brand of demon still holds sway among us.

You’re not bad people. I love you and I love this place. After all, you’ve come out on a Wednesday night in the snow, and you’re about to be smudged.

But sometimes for whatever reason: bad breaks, or bad parents, or bad kids, bullies, painful stuff that we just could not control, innocent suffering, illness, death, the devil, the world, our flesh,

We get roughed up and we lose our way, and sometime we even curl up and stop doing what we were always meant to do.,

And sometimes, we even hide in the darkness.

It is way more common than any of you think.

But the church knows this about us. And so every year we carve out the next 40 days until Easter to push back the darkness.

Lent reminds us that there is another way out.

And it is very different from the way that we came in.

So what’s next?

Sometimes church should be as practical as possible.

Come up and receive your ashes. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

That means, “Listen, folks. Your days are numbered. And if you want a life that Jesus can make good use of, some things will need to change.”

We need to move out of the darkness and into the light.

You got it? Good. Good job. Done. Jesus forgives you.

Repentance and forgiveness always come first, just as they did in the liturgy tonight.

But then what?

Always have a way out that is different from the way in.

And that means trying something new.

The Gospel is very clear, so try this.

Go home tonight and say your prayers.

And for the next 40 days, set a time and a place.

Even if it is just one minute in the morning to say the Lord’s Prayer.

Try it. Do it. Fail at it. Repent of that. Come back tomorrow. Try it again. Do it better.

Have fun with it. Rejoice in it. It’s all forgiven.

That’s how you build the habit of prayer in Lent.

Next, go home and get control of your money. It’s been long enough now.

So in the next 40 days, rearrange your finances so that you can not only give a tithe of 10%, but also, as Jesus says tonight, you have an alm for the poor.

In the Scriptures, alms always presume faithful giving first.

And those two together is what Jesus is talking about tonight.

So go home tonight, and try it. Do it. See if you can enjoy it.

Go ahead and fail at it. Repent of it. Try it again tomorrow. Do it better.

Have fun with it. Rejoice in it. It’s all forgiven, you know.

That’s how your build the habit of tithing and alms during lent.

Finally, go home tonight and try fasting. Give something up, and when you feel the pinch, remember that when you push against darkness, darkness pushes back.

So if you’ve never fasted before, then choose a little thing.

Something you can manage: chocolate, beer, facebook (?). Whatever it is; it’s your call.

And see if you can go without that between now and Easter.

Much harder than that. The next level, is not to give up a material thing, but to give up a bad habit.

To fast from complaining, or gossiping, or anger, or plans for revenge.

And to build a new habit, such as counting your blessings:

The billions and billions of things He does for you every day.

You probably should get a notebook (you should probably get two), and you probably should write them down. 40 days from now, you’ll be surprised at all the good the Lord has done to you.

You should try it, and try to enjoy it. Do it. Fail at it. Repent of that. Come back tomorrow. Try it again. Do it better. You should have fun with it. Rejoice in it. It’s all forgiven.

If you’ve never done any of these  things, things about which Jesus talks so much, start tonight. Not because you must, but because you may.

Because these things are a gift to you. You are already saved, and that is certain. Your salvation is a promise that has been signed, sealed, and delivered. But forgiveness is the first word and not the last word. And, as a brilliant theologian once put it: “There is life after life after death.” Which is to say, you are living your new life now. So let’s go!

You’re going to struggle, but that’s ok. Because struggle is better than a descent into darkness.

And when you struggle, you reach up and touch your ashes, and confess the trouble, and receive forgiveness, and in that, you flee from darkness.

And you have the chance for a fresh start.

Maybe, just maybe, if we could all have some fun this lent, maybe we could get better at what Jesus asks of us.

Lent means that we don’t go out the way we came in.

It means that Jesus comes to us with all our troubles, and all our fears, and all our frustrations and all our limitations, and all our bad habits, and all the subtle (and not so subtle) ways we’ve sinned.

And our time with Jesus is so utterly transformative, that we are completely changed.

And he makes it possible to go home by a different way.

So tonight is the first of 40 days of different way.

A way that follows Jesus all the way to a full cross, and then to an empty tomb.

Happy Lent.


Thanks again are due to Pr. Bruzek for this sermon preached my first Ash Wednesday in his congregation.

About Pastor Hopkins