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Ash Wednesday

The following sermon was preached by Kurt K. Hendel, Bernard, Fischer, Westberg Distinguished Ministry Professor of Reformation History, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Wednesday, February 17, 2010.


Mt. 6:1-6,16-21

Joel 2:1-2,12-17
2 Cor. 5:20b-6:10
Ps. 51:1-17
Mt. 6:1-6,16-21

“Return to the Lord, your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (Joel 2)

Dear people of God, we are embarking on a journey today, the first phase of which is actually a return home to this gracious God of ours. This assumes, of course, that we need to return, and we clearly do. Admitting this fact is actually the initial step in our journey, because, unfortunately, we may not even be aware that we have abandoned our home.

We must, therefore, recognize and then admit that we have been wandering about, sometimes intentionally and with a particular goal in mind, but at other times quite aimlessly because we have simply lost our way. Admitting that we have strayed requires utmost honesty on our part. It requires careful introspection and diligent self-examination in order to discover who we really are, what priorities shape our lives, where our paths have led us, how much we have enjoyed our new surroundings, how little we miss our home.

Such intense self-examination is possible only when we look into our hearts with absolute honesty, and we need God’s law to do that since it functions like a brilliant mirror that reflects with striking clarity who we are, blemishes, wrinkles, warts and all. It is also a persistent reminder of God’s vision for our life. Thus, when we look into the mirror of the law we recognize how often we have left home; how far we have strayed; how broken and bruised we are; how much we need to be healed, renewed and restored. Meditating on the God’s law is, therefore, a crucial aspect of our Lenten journey, our journey home.

Such meditation is not intended to be an exercise in self-denigration. Rather, it is a necessary discipline that fosters realism and honesty. Such honesty is crucial if we are to know ourselves; if we are to be realistic about our relationships with God and others; if we are to recognize where we are, whom we follow, where the road we travel is leading us. It is crucial if we are to repent, to make confession, to ask for forgiveness, to turn around and walk back home.

Absolute honesty, accompanied by sincere repentance, can be freeing and healing, but it is also challenging. It is, therefore, crucial that we connect with the One to whom we seek to return through persistent prayer and meditation. Our meditation cannot focus solely on God’s law. It must focus particularly on the Christ, on His earthly ministry, on His revelation of God’s will for humanity and the whole creation because it is in Christ and through Christ that we recognize and experience God’s gracious will for us. Such prayer and meditation will refresh us on our journey, inspire and encourage us and remind us why we desire to return home.

Of course, it is also advisable that we do not embark on our journey alone. We may need solitude at times in order to reflect, to meditate, to find our way, but it is also important that we connect with our sisters and brothers who are on the same journey. They will help point us in the right direction when we are not certain where to go, when our travel is too challenging and when we are inclined to go back to where we have been. They will walk with us and encourage us when we grow weary. They will share stories about home. They will help us carry the baggage we still bring with us, and they will share nourishing food and drink when we become hungry and thirsty on the way.

Most importantly, they will remind us, as we will remind them, why we need to go home. They will assure us that we have a God who eagerly awaits our return, who loves us and who will welcome us. They will point out that we are never whole when we are away from home because our lives are complete only when we live them coram Deo, in God’s presence. Without this radical good news, without this reminder, we will surely not want to go home because we will expect God’s anger and rejection rather than God’s gracious welcome and embrace.                             

Our Lenten journey, then, is a return trip. That is, after all, what it means to repent. It means to turn away from who we have been and what we have done, from our wanderings away from God. It means to walk in the other direction, back home, back to God where life is lived to the fullest and where we are God’s dear daughters and sons.

However, there is still more to our Lenten journey. We return home so that we may go out again and again, not in order to leave our home and to forsake our relationship with God. Rather, we embark on journeys of loving service, but always from our home base which we now strive never to abandon. Indeed, God accompanies us on those journeys and inspires us to be God’s instruments of grace and love in the lives of others. Thus we are never away from home when we manifest our faith in loving service of others.

Works of love are, therefore, also an essential part of our Lenten, indeed, of our life’s journey. They are a clear sign that we are connected to our home, that we are God’s daughters and sons, that we walk with our Brother, Christ, whose whole ministry was an expression of loving service to the whole creation. This is, of course, also radical good news for those of you who are Seniors as you pray about your regional assignments and anticipate your rostered ministries in the church. You may be assured that Christ walks with you wherever your assignment and call processes lead you as you seek to express your faith in loving service of God’s people.

It is crucial to remind ourselves, of course, that our Lenten journey is not pursued in order to make ourselves acceptable to God and to merit God’s grace. It is also not a means of inspiring public admiration and personal glory, as Jesus reminds us in the gospel lesson for today. We are not welcomed home because of our honest introspection and self-examination, our mediation and prayer, our repentance or our works of love, all of which are, nevertheless, essential aspects of our journey home. They are wonderful exercises which teach us good spiritual habits, which assist us in disciplining our sinful inclinations and which nurture and heal us. However, they are not the reasons why God eagerly awaits us. Rather, we are welcomed because of who God is, and God’s essence has been revealed in Jesus Christ, the Son of God and our Brother, whose love has no bounds and whose grace reaches out to each one of us. It is because of His journey, which we remember and celebrate again during the weeks to come, that our journey home is possible.

We can never merit God’s welcome or acceptance, no matter what we do or avoid doing. God welcomes us for Christ’s sake, because God has already accomplished all that is necessary in order to make our return possible. God has already prepared the way for us and provides all that we need to make the journey. This gracious and loving God welcomes us home, again and again and again. Therefore, we are now free to embark on our journey, to look deeply into our hearts, to make confession and hear the assurance of forgiveness, to pray and to meditate, to give thanks and to busy ourselves with works of love.

May God bless us all as we travel home during this holy season.
Amen

 

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