2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 Ash Wednesday Greeting Card [Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21; Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-17]
March 5, 2014 – Caitlin Trussell
Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO
6:1 As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2 For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 3 We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4 but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7 truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8 in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9 as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
Matthew writes, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
In Joel, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 rend your hearts and not your clothing.”
The psalmist writes, “The sacrifice that is acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
For all this talk of hearts, Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent couldn’t be less sentimental. Imagine a greeting card: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, treasures consumed by moth and rust…” It just doesn’t work. Lent doesn’t translate into simple sentimentality. Oh how glad I am that it doesn’t. Because who among us hasn’t felt like the psalmist who offers God a broken spirit. It’s something that we may not confess as readily as the psalmist but many of us have been there or are there right now.
Broken spirits come from being acted upon. This is a tough one for a lot of us. That we are in bondage to something, anything, can be insufferable – and in fact often is insufferable. A spirit broken open is the opposite of self-control or self-determination; and it’s not the same thing as lack of self-esteem.
Some of us have brushed by a thin place that breaks our spirits open. It can happen in a flash, and suddenly it seems as though everything around us has shifted just ever so slightly while the light in the room has changed. Breaking open can happen in a living room when a dear friend blurts out they have cancer and it’s not treatable. It can happen when a child becomes so beloved that the parent realizes they are watching a piece of their heart walk around on the outside of themselves. It can happen looking up at the night sky, in the millisecond of awareness in which we feel our actual size. There are a lot of us in the room right now and, for as many of us as are here, there are hundreds and thousands of ways that this looks in our lives.
These events and people and moments that break us open have a way of reminding us of our fragility. Ash Wednesday is also such a moment. As ashes are placed on our foreheads, we are acted upon once again and brush by the thin place. It is not to dangle us over an abyss of perverse self-deprecation. But rather to uncover that which is already made known in our lives – our inability to save ourselves from ourselves…and God’s ability to do so.
And it is God who is being made known. Not in the abstract but in the particular person of Jesus. This is what Paul is getting at in Second Corinthians when he writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Our spirits are broken open and are a mercy seat for Christ.
Paul helps us get at this as he writes, “…be reconciled to God.” Another, less churchy, way to say this is, “Be forgiven.” Paul is talking about Christ’s action that makes God’s presence real before any action on our part. God is not irresistible. We can certainly run away. Being reconciled simply means that God is at your heels. God is there because Christ has already done the work of reconciliation, of bringing us back into God.
Paul’s laundry list of activities, after his comment about reconciliation, isn’t what brings the reconciliation. His and others actions simply come from life on the planet. Life as it’s lived in paradox – amid seemingly opposite things that are true at the same time. Paraphrasing Paul, we ARE living while we’re dying; we ARE rejoicing while sad. This list of paradoxes reveals the gifts of the reconciliation that are made known to us in the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.
The people of this congregation that interviewed me before I came here asked me a great question. They asked me many but this is one stands out in my memory. “What would you fight for?” My answer? “I would fight for the gospel.” The message that God takes our broken spirits, all we actually have to offer God, and brings us back into God through Christ.
Ash Wednesday lays this good news bare. Lent creates space and time for the magnitude of the gospel, the good news, to reflect off the darkness of the cross, off of the crucified One. This is a paradox of faith. Come with your broken spirit and be filled with hope.
 All Bible passages are from the New Revised Standard Version.
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near— 2 a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.
12 Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. 14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God? 15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; 16 gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. 17 Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, “Where is their God?’ ”
Psalm 51:1-17 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. 5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. 6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. 13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. 15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. 16 For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. 17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.