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Grace & Ashes

Message from Sunday, February 12, 2023

The Rev. Megan Collins

Today we will talk about Ash Wednesday and the secret we all keep. But before we do that, let’s talk about something really important, Dave and I’s garage.

This is Dave and I’d garage and we are so proud of it. Until last week, for the past two decades of our marriage, we have never had a clean garage. We’ve never even been able to pull a car into the garage. It has always been a mess. Over those two decades, we have moved to four different houses. It’s like the messy garage followed us and then settled right in at each new place. The rest of the house is clean and tidy and we do our best to keep the yard looking at least presentable. But the garage was our secret shame. We always made sure to keep the garage door shut. If someone would ask if they could grab something out of the garage we would run out there to get it for them before they could see it, especially if it was our parents.

Part of the reason it was messy for so long was that we knew to really clean it out we would have to open the garage door during the day. Then we would have to empty the garage out onto the lawn for everyone to see. It felt a lot easier to just leave it alone. Who needs a garage anyway? But this week we finally dealt with it. We pulled out eight years worth of tools and kid’s bicycles and random treasures. Someone came by and asked if we were having a garage sale. Our neighbors slowed down in their cars to cheer us on. Yes, it was embarrassing. But to really clean out the garage we had to get all the things we had been storing out in the open even if that meant other people would see it.

We had to deal with the stuff outside we had been hiding inside.

I’m not telling you this to brag about our now clean garage, at least not completely. We’ve all got some stuff in our lives we keep hidden away inside from other people. We prefer to keep the door shut and only open it if no one is looking. There are things we should have gotten rid of already: the stories we aren’t proud of, the stuff we have done that we would rather not admit. We are all pretty much a mess behind closed doors, but we do our best to put on a good face and look like we are doing fine. We don’t want anyone to know the truth about it all. It’s our secret, each of us.

In the gospel of Matthew, chapter 23, Jesus is talking to the Pharisees. Pharisees you’ll remember are the religious leaders of Jesus’ time who were very committed to being rule followers and definitely rule enforcers. This meant on the outside they seemed like they had it all together. If they lived in your neighborhood they would be yard of the month. But even though they always seemed to be following the religious law on the outside, on the inside, they weren’t doing it to be close to God. They were doing it to be better than other people and to show how righteous they were. It was about what other people thought about them. So they showed off all the good deeds, and hid all their sin. Jesus was not interested in that kind of behavior. He says to them:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and of the plate, so that the outside also may become clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful but inside are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of uncleanness. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness."

Jesus isn’t concerned about how clean and righteous they look on the outside. Jesus is concerned with what is going inside, in their hearts. Jesus wants to open up the garage and have a look around. As is often the case, we have more in common with the Pharisees than with Jesus. Sure, we don’t have to tell everyone everything all the time. It’s okay to try and pull it together a bit when we go out into the world. But the big, core truth at the center of what we believe about Jesus is that God is Holy and we are not. God is good and we are sinners. But because of Jesus, who he was, who he is, and what he did, it’s okay. Because we are saved by his grace.

That should be something we are so excited about. It’s the best news ever, right? We should want to tell everyone we meet that even though we are a total mess, God loves us anyway. But somewhere along the way, we became pretty good at keeping it a secret. We look like we are keeping it all together and we hide away all the bad stuff. Then the longer we ignore the stuff we are hiding, the more okay with it we get. Just throw that on the rest of the pile and quickly shut the door, like hoarders of sin. Then we get so comfortable with it we might even stop confessing our sin to God. Sin becomes an “out there” problem, something “other people” do. Maybe you don’t even see the mess anymore and think you are doing just fine. Or deep down you feel heavy with shame, because you wonder what would happen if people really knew. Either way, your secret is safe. No one has to know about the sin.

But it has not always been so easy to keep sin a secret.

Some of you are reading through the Bible with us this year, and we have been spending the past week in Leviticus and Numbers. Much of the writings in these books deal with the offerings the Israelites had to make to repent of their sins. Leviticus 4: 27-31 says

“If anyone of the ordinary people among you sins unintentionally in doing any one of the things that by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done and incurs guilt, when the sin that you have committed is made known to you, you shall bring a female goat without blemish as your offering, for the sin that you have committed. You shall lay your hand on the head of the purification offering; the purification offering shall be slaughtered at the place of the burnt offering. The priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and he shall pour out the rest of its blood at the base of the altar. He shall remove all its fat, as the fat is removed from the sacrifice of well-being, and the priest shall turn it into smoke on the altar for a pleasing odor to the Lord. Thus the priest shall make atonement on your behalf, and you shall be forgiven.”

It has not always been so easy to keep sin a secret. It’s a lot harder to pretend you have it all together when you are dragging a goat past your neighbors to the temple for the fifth time this month. Before Jesus this is what it meant to deal with your sin. It was messy and expensive and gross and very, very public. As embarrassing as that must have been for everyone to know your business, it must have kept them honest. It’s so much easier to hide the truth about who we are from one another and from ourselves when confession is entirely private and personal and it doesn’t involve any goats at all. Hiding our sinfulness from one another so easily leads us to denying it. When this happens not only are we at risk of becoming the hypocrites Jesus called out in the passage from Matthew, not only are we at risk of becoming the kind of Christians that keep people from coming to church, but we also miss out on the joy of living everyday in the truth of what Jesus has taught us.

We are sinners. This is the secret we try to keep. You are a sinner. I am too.

This truth is foundational to our understanding of the gospel.

But you know what else? You are saved by grace. You are entirely forgiven.

Telling the truth about all of this is what the church is meant to be. The church was never meant to be a group of people who thought they were better than everyone else. It was created as a group of people who get together, week after week, to look at one another and say “We are a bunch of sinners, who are saved by God’s grace. Isn’t that amazing?” God should have gotten rid of all of us a long time ago but instead here we are. The loved and redeemed, broken and sinful mess we call the church.

This is why I love Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday is a day when we tell the truth about two things: That we are mortal and that we are sinners. Think about how freeing that is. The world around us lies to us all the time that you can be perfect and that you can be young and live forever. But Ash Wednesday is a day when we tell the truth. In the Bible, sometimes when people repented of sin they would sit in a pile of ashes. One day a year, we put all the pretense and pretending aside. We drag out all of the sin we have been hiding in the garage of our hearts and put it out on the front lawn for our neighbors to see. We wear a cross of ash on our forehead that marks us as a sinner. But even with ash on our foreheads, we should walk around with a big stupid grin on our faces because we are sinners, yes, but we are also saved by the grace of a God who loves us more than anything. Teri Daily writes this about Ash Wednesday:

Ash Wednesday is the one day we get to be who we really are—no pretensions of grandeur, no burden of looking at ourselves through the eyes of everyone else, no need to pretend to be anything other than finite creatures of God whose days on this earth are limited and who are destined to have our share of failures along the way no matter how hard we try for things to be different. Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent is the time we get to strip away all those accumulated layers of false self; we do the work of self-reflection and peel away the false assumptions about ourselves. And as we make our way back to the center of our being, we see ourselves again for who we truly are—beings wonderfully created out of the dust of the earth, beings who will one day return to the dust of the earth, imperfect beings who through the grace of God have been given this life and who only through the grace of God are given the gift of eternal life. See, this day may be about our human condition, our mortality, and our need for forgiveness, but it is also, and more importantly, about the graciousness of God. Ash Wednesday may remind us who we are, but in a much larger way it reminds us who God is—a gracious God who loves us beyond anything we could ever earn or deserve. And because that’s true, the honesty with which we approach this day leads not to despair, but to hope; it leads not to the chains of fear, but to the freedom of love; it leads not just to a look in the mirror, but through that look to the good news that embraces all of us. Who knew a bowl of ashes could hold that kind of grace?

You are a sinner. You are saved by grace. You are loved by God, more than you know.



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