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A Season for Turning

For the majority of Christians around the world, it is now Lent - a season observed as we approach Easter. Though Lent has been a part of the Christian calendar for over a thousand years, it is a relatively new practice for me. So when I was asked to preach on Ash Wednesday, I was both excited and a bit nervous. On Ash Wednesday, many Christians are marked with ashes on their foreheads, and the words, "Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return," are spoken over them.  
Encouraging, right?  
Here's what I shared - drawing on the texts of Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 103:8-18, Matthew 6:1-6,16-21, and Psalm 51.

I went to university in my hometown, and though I lived on my own, I often borrowed my parents’ vehicle. On one particular occasion,  I borrowed it to renew my passport in a nearby town. My roommate went with me, and we had a great drive - until we got to the parking lot. It was tiny, and I was driving an 8 passenger Safari van. But I had learned to drive on this beast, so I carefully parked it, and we went in, waited, renewed our passports, and left. In all the fun of discussing our upcoming trip, I completely forgot about the yellow-painted pole that I had carefully maneuvered around on my way in. I didn’t think about the tight spaces, and felt overly-confident in my amazing driving skills. Of course, I kissed the post on my way out, scraping the side of the van and denting the gas cover.

The drive home was not as fun as the drive out had been. I felt sick, knowing that I needed to tell my parents what I had done, that I owed them an apology for my carelessness, and that I needed to be willing to pay for repairs, if needed.

Hearing this story, I am sure many of you can relate. I imagine most of us remember adolescent moments of irresponsibility for which we went humbly to our parents, heads hanging, wondering what the repercussions would be. And regrets don't end when we turn twenty. If we're honest with ourselves, do we not know other, heavier burdens and regrets that stay in our memory or continue to weigh us down?

Looking back, I wonder why I felt so ill, why I nearly cried over a scratch and a dent. But with hindsight, I am remembering something key; my parents had compassion on me. I know now that there was nothing to be afraid of, because I would be met with compassion and forgiveness.
In our Psalm this morning, we are reminded that our God is a compassionate God:

13 As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
14 for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.
15 The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
16 the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
17 But from everlasting to everlasting
the Lord’s love is with those who fear him.

He remembers that we are dust.

This is a sobering reality. We often do not remember that we are dust, that our lives are like grass, and that we will soon be gone. We feel invincible, we believe we are immortal and unstoppable.
But today, Ash Wednesday, is a day set aside in the Christian rhythm of life to remember that we are dust, a day to admit our mortality and recognize our need for God.

We are mortal.
We are frail.
We are imperfect and broken.

We stop paying attention, and scrape our parents’ car.
We snap at the grocery clerk when our sale item doesn’t ring through properly.
We rant about a difficult coworker on our lunch break.
We buy things we do not need so that others will think well of us.
We do not acknowledge the person begging on the street.
In short, we do not love our neighbours as ourselves.
And we do not love God whole-heartedly.

In today’s reading from the prophet Joel, the Israelites have similarly failed. They have forgotten to whom they belong, and they have failed to live in love of God and neighbour. And so God calls them to repent - that is, to turn towards God again, to realize what they have done, and remember to whom they belong. “Return to me,” is God’s plea. Which is precisely what repentance is. Returning to the relationship we have through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Returning to a relationship not forged out of our own efforts, but one initiated and sustained by an ever-loving God. It is here that we flourish, that we bloom like the flowers of the field.

If you’ll look at the passage from Joel with me, take note that the focus is on the character and goodness of God. In v. 13, we are told that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” This is the God the Israelites belonged to, and this is the God we call Father, the God we worship and love.

As many of you know, I have been married for approximately six weeks. So I’m no expert on marriage, but I will tell you one thing that I have already been learning; in marriage, there are always opportunities for repentance. Every day, I discover new opportunities in which I can choose to either turn towards my husband, or to turn away from him, to strengthen the bond between us or to tear it down.

This might surprise you, but sometimes, I make the wrong choice. Sometimes, without realizing it - and sometimes, fully aware - I act in ways that increase the space between us, that focus on love of self rather than love of neighbour - or in this case, husband.

And I am learning to keep short accounts. I am learning that this moving away and pushing against is inevitable, but that it is important to repent often, to turn back towards one another, to recognize when I’ve done something that has hurt or harmed, and to choose to do differently next time. I am learning to choose actions that draw us together, words that express love, and service that is freely given. I am learning that the more often I admit when I haven't loved him well, the more I realize that saying sorry to my husband is not a scary thing. Because when we are in relationship with someone we know to be compassionate, abounding in love towards us, when we know that repentance will restore our relationship - we have no need to fear!

And this is how it is for us and God - in this great relationship of love, we have been invited to walk through life together. Because we are ashes - mortal and frail and broken, this often requires repentance. It requires the choice to turn towards God when we realized we’ve wandered away, to apologize when faced with our wilful disregard of God or other people, and to engage in the process of perpetual reconciliation. It requires the formation of habits that heal and build and value the other. It makes our life less about me and more about us.

In our gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus instructs his followers not to give, pray, or fast for show. It is interesting to note that he does not instruct them to give, pray, or fast; he assumes that those are habits they will have. As we do these things, he tells us, do not do them for show. Do not do them for other people to notice, or praise. We are not a charity club looking to raise our good names, to be patted on the back for our generosity. We are not seeking a write-up in the paper or to be voted Person of the Year in our office or social club. We do them out of a longing for intimacy with God. At times, we do them in secret, and at times we join together as a community, seeking to become more aware of God's presence in our lives, to recognize where God is at work and to join him in it. And as we build these habits, as we find ourselves drawing closer to God, we will also find ourselves drawn closer together, drawn together as a community, and drawn to our neighbours outside these doors.

Psalm 51, which we will read together shortly, is an example of profound repentance, written by King David after being confronted with his poor choices... He saw a woman, and wanted her. He took her, and when she became pregnant, he tried tricking her husband into believing it was his. When that failed, he had her husband murdered.Then he married the woman.

It sounds extreme - and it is. But extreme sin comes when we lose our rhythm of turning back, when we stop remembering that we are mortal. All the power King David had was not enough to cover up his tracks. And all the power we have is not enough to keep us on track with God. So we remember that we are frail, and we remember that God is compassionate. We remember the baptismal vow we made to “persevere in resisting evil and, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.” We remember that we are dust, and we remember that God is abounding in steadfast love.

Lent is a season set aside to remind us of our humanity, to intentionally change direction, turning towards Christ, and setting or resetting habits that will keep us walking in reconciliation with God.
We begin this season of Lent with ashes, a tangible marker that we are dust, that we are mortal, and that we have limits and shortcomings. Yet this doesn’t leave us hopeless, because, as the shape of the cross on our foreheads reminds us, we are Christ’s ashes. Today, as we are marked with the cross, we are marked with his name, his identity, and the reminder that because of God’s abundant love for us in Christ, our reconciliation is already underway

And so we begin our journey to the cross.



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