New Ashes

sermon for Ash Wednesday (Luke5:30-38)


Acacia and I have been working on home improvements as we prepare to move closer, remodeling our house to be lived in. Some projects are smaller, like wiping down cupboards or patching holes in the wall. Others require more effort, with the sledgehammer I’ve been walloping old kitchen floor tiles. It can get still more extreme than that: along my bike route to church, there’s one house that has been completely torn down in recent weeks and they’re starting from scratch on that lot.

This isn’t a check-in on settling in a new place so much as a theological question of Ash Wednesday. As we confess our sin and enter a time of repentance we can be asking what this project involves and just how extensive it is. Are our lives basically in order, just needing some tidying up, getting cobwebs out of the corners and an occasional coat of paint to freshen us up? Or are we in rougher shape, needing more diligent and intensive work, a serious upgrade, of tearing out and gutting what’s gone wrong? Or, finally, is the only thing to be done to start over, to get rid of the entire corrupt former structure and go completely back to the beginning?

This may feel like a personal matter, dependent on your circumstances. You may feel self-satisfied that overall you’re doing what you should. There are always things we could do better or do more of, those points of correction. But you may consider mostly you’ve got it figured out. If so, you may find Ash Wednesday strange, since this seems more extreme and intense than suggesting tweaks to your behavior.

Given that Lent is 40 (or so) days intended as an extended chance to focus on spring cleaning and discipline and—in the literal meaning of the word repentance—“turning” your life around, perhaps the in-depth nature of our confession tonight and the severity of the smudge on your forehead indicate a bigger task, requiring serious evaluation and careful planning.

This is reinforced by a pair of observations: first, we are invited to be serious about this. Second, we are not isolated. Faithful examination and reflecting on how God wants us to live ought well be the core of life, including evaluating community. As an example, we may claim to be keeping the commandments if we haven’t committed murder lately. But when we notice the homeless who need shelter, the hungry who need food, the sick needing treatment, creatures who need habitat, prisoners desiring rehabilitation, the strangers who’ve been left out—we see we’ve fallen short and come to realize that withholding or obstructing life is anti-Jesus and so becomes equivalent with murder. And it’s exacerbated by our society. We’re complicit with wars and special interests and internal combustion engines and prejudice and greed and ignorance. We have much to confess together.

That may be more miserably severe even than the mark of ashes on your forehead. With such a culture around us often identified as going exactly the wrong direction, we may wonder what we can do and just how originally revolutionary our faith is, whether it’s best to tear things apart and start over from scratch.

Speaking against that is the fact that we are called to care, to love, to adjust our behavior. If there’s no incremental gain, then there’s no point in trying. We might as well give up.

But speaking for the view of rebirth or regeneration is much of our Christian witness, right up to the Bible’s last pages that expect a new creation. That isn’t just a tapering of chaos and sorrow and death, but a radically different establishment. “Everything old has passed away,” it says. This is our language of baptism, too, daily a death of the old self and a rising with Christ to newness of life. This is the fertile belief of the “happy exchange,” where Jesus takes away death and gives you life, takes your sin and in forgiveness shares righteousness, removes sorrow and weeping and fear to fill you with joy.

In the paradoxical view of faith, this remains both accomplished yet also unfulfilled. Your sin has been washed away, though we continue gathering to confess and practice forgiveness. You still strive after improvements even as you expect a total renewal. You have the promised newness of life, and yet wear that burnt remembrance of death.

Amid this faithful discernment, we may associate the terms of renovation and innovation. Literally, renovation is renewal, while innovation is bringing something new in. You renovate a fixer-upper, but an innovator starts with fresh creativity and previously unexplored directions.

One further word with these Latin roots, we might as well also go to supernovas, flashes of brightness that are enormously new in the heavens. Not just linguistic play, they quite directly can be seen as part of Ash Wednesday. See, the explosions of supernovas are what have dispersed the elements fused in the cores of stars across our universe. The smudge of a cross marking the remembrance that you are dust includes the stardust that has formed the elements of your body.

Yet then comes the phrase “to dust you shall return.” Supernovas dispersed stardust that went on to become you. And one day in death you will disintegrate, again dispersing your elements to be reused—somehow it must be seen, to renovate—the world around you. But is it all, then, a matter of entropy, of dispersal and disintegration? Again in church language, is this only about God’s mission, sending us out? Do we expect a time of reintegration and restoration, of being re-membered into the body, gathered back to reunite with those heavenly stars that were our origin in ethereal lightness? Is there no going back? And what’s our way forward? What’s the point? What’s the ultimate end?

Further, then, outside of the discoveries of science, our faith expects new beginnings, resurrection, rising from the ashes of our past, a fulfillment to come. Compared with the conservation of matter—that your atoms can’t be subtracted or added to, of how you’re recycled cosmic materials that will go on to other purposes—comparatively this consummating belief is huge, an almost incredible innovation.

Not to summarize but a last bit more to promote pondering: in the ancient novelty of this day: your ashy forehead, at the very least is fertile soil for new growth, as fires don’t only destroy but foster birth, like our prairie restoration. You also, then, are meeting a restoration, a renovation, the innovative, creativity from God, in ways from small to grand, from momentary to eternal, from personal, to societal, to universal.