Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday - March 5, 2014 (2 Corinthians 5:20--6:10)

Where are we headed?

After the fourth winter storm this year and the umpteenth snow day, that’s the question a lot of us have been asking lately, isn’t it? Poised for the Robocall from the school system that announces closings and delays…checking the Twitter feed every minute each evening…glancing back and forth between the icy roads outside and the squirmy, bored schoolchildren in our houses, that’s the question that owns the day: Where are we headed? Back to school? (Dear God, yes…please, back to school) Or just back to bed?

Where are we headed?

That is also the unwelcome question this congregation has been forced to ask itself fairly often over the past year. Transition Task Forces, interim pastorates, Call Committees and congregational surveys…they’ve all been undergirded with that persistent question: Where are we headed? Once we get that answered, it seems, then the rest of what we need to do might fall in line. The question, itself, acknowledges that a congregation is not a stationary club, that the people of God have movement, direction, and that they might even make a wrong turn.

Where are we headed?

It’s also the question that God poses to his people, time and time again, to get them to pause and reflect upon their lives’ ultimate goal. In the words of the prophets throughout their history, Israel hears the same question and is urged to think about their relationship to those covenants they had made, their relationships with each other, their relationship to the other nations for whom they were supposed to be a light. Throughout their existence, and especially when things get particularly hairy, God calls on them to stop whatever they’re doing, come together and ask themselves, “Where are we headed?”
As it turns out, even though there are plenty of ways to re-phrase it, that’s also the essential Ash Wednesday question. As much as it may have been driving you crazy during these past two months of snow or during this past year’s transition process, that is the question that forms the backdrop for all the personal reflection that we do this evening, too, the question that lies underneath the Scripture texts for this solemn experience.

Where are we headed?

Perhaps we’re accustomed to hearing it put in language that sounds a little more theological or philosophical, in words that sound more like a sermon and less like something you’d ask at a roadside gas station. For example, we might ask, “In what ways has sin estranged us from our Creator, and how do we get back?” While putting it like that might be helpful in some ways, in actuality the line of questioning we use to best prepare ourselves for receiving what God graciously gives isn’t any more or less complicated than what we ask Andy Jenks, the school systems’ spokesman, each time a snowflake falls: Where are we headed?”

burning last year's palms to make ashes
The answer, of course, as we reflect upon it today, will be rudely marked across our foreheads here in just a minute. With that ashen road-sign swiped upon our brows, Ash Wednesday is all about being honest about where we are headed. We are headed toward death. As children of a fallen humanity, as creatures in a world broken by sin, as people so prone to focus inwardly, we are headed toward death. Even the words that are said as the ashes are placed there imply motion, travel, direction: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

To dust is where we’re headed.

Let’s face it: this reminder of our true destination is uncomfortable. Some of us are faced with it everyday and we’d like to forget it. Others of us have slowly been lulled into thinking, thanks to all our daily and yearly goal-setting, our schedules and routines and efforts at staying productive—or, as is more often the case, staying afloat—that that particular end will never come. Like that popular book, Oh, the Places We’ll Go! by author Dr. Seuss, whose birthday many schoolchildren celebrate this week, in our imaginations we are encouraged only to end our lives on an “up” note,  reflecting only on all the wonderful directions our lives can take. To think we’re headed toward dust is nothing but a downer.

But, on the other hand, asking such a question can save our life. Taking the time, no matter the discomfort it causes, to reflect on our road toward death, can actually rescue us. For to God’s people, you see, “Where are you headed?” is not just a question that anchors some liturgical worship service. It is actually one of the most fundamental questions of faith. Only when we are finally come to terms with that question—“Where are we headed?”—can we really begin to look to God. We realize that all our worldly aspirations and our frantic efforts at productivity are framed by that ultimate destination we can open ourselves up to hearing about a different destination, one of life, one of hope, one of resurrection. That is where the journey of faith begins. Although we may use this expression from time to time, no one ever arrives at faith, as if faith is an ending point. One begins and then continues with faith, and God is the true goal.

So, tonight, as you ponder, “Where are we headed?” I invite you to think about how God has now given us an alternative answer to the ashes on your forehead. This Lent, as you ponder your life’s trajectory toward ashes, hear also how God has intervened to stop that movement and put you back on track to him. God’s intervention took the form of a man who also made a journey and came to know exactly how dusty and deadly the human experience is. Paul states it very clearly (but a tad theologically) this evening:“For our sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus Christ, his Son, is God’s way of getting humankind back on track toward life.

Jesus himself journeyed, quite literally, through the towns of first century Palestine, heading through fishing villages and along dusty roads on an itinerary that puts him eventually in conflict with the leaders in Jerusalem. If you visit Jerusalem today one of the most famous and holy places you can see is not even a single, solitary site but, rather, a path—the Via Dolorosa (“Way of Sorrows”)—he took from the trial to his crucifixion. The fundamental question of faith, therefore—the question that undergirds all the other things we say and ask about ourselves—actually doesn’t turn the focus on our destination, but on his: “Where is Christ headed?” From the moment of his birth, Christ is headed to the cross, and in faith we come to understand that he headed that way for us…he came to suffer for us…he headed here to defeat death and reconcile us to the way of God, which is to life eternal and right relationships with all these fellow sojourners around us.

Francisco de Zurburan, 17th c.
The apostle Paul makes sure he emphasizes this journey feature when he talks about this reconciliation by talking about it as a process: he says that because of Christ’s death we might become the righteousness of God.” It is not something we immediately are, but, rather a process, something we are becoming. To put it differently, the righteousness of God is a reality to which we are headed, not something we already—or always—are.

This Lent, may that overarching question guide your reflections as you intentionally think about your actions and your motivations, whether you’re taking on a discipline or not. Ask yourself: do certain things you do on a regular basis—the actions you take, the attitudes you present—suggest you are headed towards God and reconciliation with him, or do they further demonstrate and promote the way of estrangement from God?

And on Wednesdays during this Lent, to compliment your reflection, members of our staff and congregation will offer a series of meditations on journeys from Scripture. There is a journey of just about every kind in the Bible—journeys into the promises of God, journeys through doubt, journeys in fear and into forgiveness. Ultimately they all echo in some way the journey God wants us to make toward home. Ultimately they all call us from the dead end of estrangement and death, these places “where rust destroys and moths consume” to which our own paths will naturally take us, and instead to the journey of living a reconciled life with God.

Sure, just like our lives reveal, there will be “afflications, hardships, calamities, labors, sleepless nights, hunger...” Any worthwhile journey will have its share of those things. But in the midst of it all, God remains faithful to his people, again and again setting them back on the track so they eventually arrive in his grace.

Therefore, tonight, let that ashen road-sign on your forehead be an emblem of the way Christ heads for you. Do not sit in worry, waiting for the Robocall of life to give you direction. Do not languish in despair, as though you have no rescue. You may be treated as one who is dying, but in Christ you are alive! You may regard yourself as having nothing—not a chance, not a step—but in Christ you possess everything.

So, then, where are we headed, today, tomorrow? I think we should let good ol’ Mr. Jenks tell us if we should head to school.

But I know this: that cross says you’re headed to God.

Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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