I love almost everything about bonfires. I love the warmth that a bonfire gives. I love the color of the flames. I love the smell of the burning firewood. I love the crackling sound the fire makes. I love when the marshmallow blends over the chocolate in the s’more. I love the good conversations that take place by a blazing fire. I love almost…almost…everything about it.
There is only one thing that I don’t like. No, in fact, I detest: Cleaning out the fire pit.
As a young adult, I spent a summer as a maintenance guy at Luther Park, which is one of our good, Lutheran Bible camps, up in northwest Wisconsin. It was a good summer gig, and I had a blast. Except for those days, probably every two or three weeks, when my boss would walk into our office carrying an old shovel, and with a kind of a cruel smile on his face, would hand it to me. “It’s time,” he would say. “But I just did it!” I protested. “It’s time.”
You see, down on the peninsula of land that stuck out into the lake, the camp had a giant campfire ring, surrounded by benches. It had to be 5-feet across, and was surrounded by a wall of built-up logs. It was a beautiful setting.
And pretty much every day, one of the cabin groups would build a fire and cook out there to make their lunch. And then every night, we would have the whole-camp campfire there, with a giant, blazing fire. And so the fire pit would keep filling up…and every few weeks we’d have to dig it out, and cart away the ash.
It was a dirty, nasty job. You’d get all sweaty, and the dust would just cover you, and stick, and it was multiple wheelbarrow loads to haul it away. When the job was done, I would be covered…head to toe…in gray ash. It was pretty gross.
When complete, I didn’t even want to walk into my cabin to take a shower…I was too disgusting. I would simply walk out on the dock, and fully clothed, just dive into the lake and then “spin” and agitate, to wash off the coating of ash.
Well my friends, tonight, I’ve got good news, and bad news for you.
The bad news first: Tonight, we all get covered in ash. Ok, so maybe not head to toe. But tonight, we continue the ancient ritual tradition of having ash marked on our forehead, in the blobish shape of a cross, and we hear the words “remember you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.” And in that moment, we are reminded of our mortality, and of our sinful nature.
Every year, on Ash Wednesday, we come forward to receive the ashes. We do this every year because the knowledge of our mortality slips from our minds again and again and we need to be reminded. Pastor and author Amy Ziettlow puts it this way. She writes that: “This dust-formed cross confronts our desire to avoid facing the inevitability of death and the gravity of our humanity. Dust wins. Dust holds power over our plans, our personae and our perceptions. The cross on our forehead proclaims, “we are not God – We are dust.”
We are not God. We are human. We are mortal. We are not in control. We are dust.
The root of human sin is the desire to be in control. We want the decisions we make, the words we speak, to be the final word. We want to control our lives, and our environment, and even the people around us. Deep down inside we wish that all these things would bend to our will.
But Ash Wednesday is a reminder that we are not in control.
In 2019, Trinity pastors did funeral services for 35 of our members, plus other funerals for people in the community who did not have a church home. Ask any of those families how “in control” they felt during that time. Or ask anyone who is hospitalized, or who has a loved one in the hospital. Or anyone with family problems, or emotional issues, or whose finances are spinning out of control. Pretty universally, the answer is “not at all.”
To wear the ashes is to recognize this truth. We are not in control. There is only one God, and try as we might, we aren’t it.
The Gospel lesson we heard tonight is the Gospel for Ash Wednesday every year, because every year, we need to be reminded of this honest and hard lesson. This scripture challenges us to remember that the good things we do, whether it is prayer, or fasting, or service, or compassion, or caring…we do these things not for recognition or acknowledgement. No, Jesus tells us we do these things quietly, reflectively, and we do them simply because they are good things to do. Our intent matters. And when we do good things for the wrong intent, for recognition, or for acknowledgement. Jesus reminds us, we are trying to maintain control over our image, over what people think of us, instead of remembering what God thinks of us…that we are beloved.
To seek public recognition for the spiritual practices which draw us closer to God and to each other is to do it for all the wrong reasons. When we live that kind of life, it’s like we are wearing ash…every day.
So the bad news is (to quote our confession liturgy) that we are captive to sin, and cannot free ourselves…that we all wear this ash. But here’s the good news:
The ashes wash off.
As a matter of fact, in the ancient church, the tradition was that at the Easter vigil service, the night before Easter morning, the congregation would step forward to the baptismal font, where the pastor would take a cloth, dip it in the water of the font and wash the same spot on your forehead where the ashes went 40 days before, in a symbolic reminder that it is through Christ, we are made clean.
And just like I dove off of that dock and into the lake, through Jesus, through the resurrection, we are made clean…As people who follow Jesus, we know that Easter is coming, and the resurrection is a deep dive for all of us; the ashes of sin and brokenness are washed away and we are made whole…and our relationship with God is restored.
But that is then…this is now. And so tonight, we turn our attention to these next forty days of the season of Lent…the season of reflection, prayer and repentance…the season that prepares us to receive the gifts of God’s grace that come through the resurrection.
These forty days of Lent invite us to slow down, to see the ash that we wear every day, to name it, and to recognize that this does not need to be our life.
Sin. Ash. Brokenness, does not need to be your life.
God is calling you to something different. God is calling you to turn…to return…to the water of your baptism.
Because Jesus wants to reach up, and to wash the ash from your forehead as you experience God’s great and wondrous love for you, found in the gift of the resurrection, that will be found on the other side of Lent.
Thanks be to God!