Tag Archives: ash wednesday

Nothing but Ashes

Joel 2:1-2,12-17

Return to the Lord, your God,

for he is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,

and relents from punishing. (Read the whole passage)

Tonight we stand at the bottom of the mountain, down in the valley and our perspective has changed. Just a few days ago on top of the Mountain of Transfiguration, Jesus stood between Moses and Elijah as Peter, James and John looked on. And there, Peter wanted to set up shop up on the mountain. You see, the perspective from the mountain top makes everything look great. The world below looks idyllic, like a perfect paradise in every direction. Yet, the story ends as Jesus sets off down the mountain with his disciples in tow.

And now that we are down from the mountain, and the idyllic view of the world is no more. Up close, down in the valley things are less paradise and more real, more authentic. There is no veneer, there is no benefit of distance, there are no flaws that can be glossed over. In the valley, there is brutal honesty.

Jesus didn’t take us up the mountain to be dazzled and amazed. Jesus took us up so that we can witness the prophet of the most high named by God and then sent to God’s people. Sent down to the valley of humanity and death. Down to us.

And down in the valley, down with humanity, the truth is revealed. We are revealed for what we are.

And down in the valley, our worst fears are confirmed. All that we thought about ourselves, all that we thought we could accomplish, all that we thought had meaning, all that we thought was significant is not what we thought at all.

Down in the valley of Ashes, we aren’t just sinners needing forgiveness.

We aren’t just the suffering needing consolation

We aren’t just dying needing good news.

We aren’t just the dead needing new life.

Down in the valley of Ashes, we are nothing. Just like the ash that will mark our brows

We are nothing.

Sin and death turns our lives, our beings, our selves into nothing.

All our living and our doing and our being will mean nothing once we are dead and gone.

This is what this valley of Ashes reveals:

A process that we have no control over, no power to stop.

And so just as the prophet Joel tells us how the people of Israel faced destruction and desolation, faced being blotted out from the earth by conquering armies… they gathered together in worship, gathered around the only real and honest thing they knew.

We too gather around the ashes, gather around prayer and the Word of God.

We gather before the One who brought us down from the mountain.

Before the One who stands beside us in the valley of Ash.

Before the One whose cross gives shape to the nothingness that will mark us.

And we confess and repent and pray and hope that this One will do the thing that we cannot do.

That this holy One of God, this prophet of the most high, this Messiah sent to save…

We hope that this One will turn our nothing into something.

And just as the prophet Joel tells us how the people of Israel faced destruction…

They were met by the One who is gracious and merciful,

The One who is slow to Anger.

The One who is abounding in steadfast love.

And this One did what they could not.

This One turned their nothingness into something. Their ash into a cross. Their death into life.

And this One who met the people of Israel comes also to meet us.

This Christ comes down the mountain and finds us in our valley of Ashes,

and reminds us that this cross stamped on our forehead was first stamped in baptism.

This Christ comes down the mountain and gathers here with us, here in this moment of brutal honesty, this moment of our final hope in the face of destruction.

And this Christ declares that our nothingness is not the end.

The Christ declares that our death is not the end.

This Christ declares that our sin is not the end.

This Christ declares that our suffering is not the end.

This Christ declares that we are not the end.

This Christ declares that God IS our end

And our life

And our hope

And our meaning

And that this Ash that marks our brows, that the flaws and imperfections and humanity that mark our being… they are no longer signs of our ending, but signs that we are not alone, signs that we are loved, that we are beloved of God.

This Christ reminds us that our creation began in the very dust and ash we are smeared with. And that out of the dust and ash, out of the mud and the dirt God formed and shaped nothing into something, God formed and shaped the Adam, the dirt creature, the muddling, the first of creation. And then God reformed the Christ out of the dust and dirt of grave, into a new creation.

And that Remembering that we are dust and to dust we shall return is not just to reminder that in our humanity we shall all die and turn to nothing…

but that returning to dust we will return to the God of life.

How can there be anything but death in the ashes?

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Jesus said, “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.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you… (Read the whole passage)

Just a few days ago we along with Jesus and the disciples as they came across a Blind Man. Jesus spoke words reminiscent of creation, “I am the light of the world.” And then reached down into the mud, touched the eyes of the blind man. And then after washing in the pool of Siloam, the Blind Man’s eyes were opened.

The light streamed in. The world was revealed to him in a brand new way.

He could see.

It was a story of Transfiguration. A mountain top revelation.

But that was then.

Because here is the thing about shining a light… it reveal things that we might not want to see.

Everything looks great from the mountain top, everything looks great when there has been only the dark ness for so long.

But it isn’t long until, when we go down into the valley, when we get up close to the difficult and challenging places of the world… that we begin to see the flaws and faults.

The scratch and chips and cracks reveal themselves.

And the perfect beautiful world that we could see from the mountain top, the brilliant colours streaming through to eyes that had so long been dark, the vibrant wold that seems to be so full of good… becomes tainted.

The longer we look the more something seems off. The more see, the more truth is revealed.

The world is good but it is also bad. There is goodness and righteousness out there. But there is also evil and suffering.

And then, after we have been looking long enough, after we come close to the reality of the world too many times, after we have been hurt, and burned, and sinned against… we realize that most of what we are seeing is the bad stuff, the hard stuff, the tragic stuff.

And that is when we see them.

And what is when we see the ashes.

The ashes of a scorched world.

The ashes of broken relationships, broken promises, broken people.

The ashes show us death.

And then we find ourselves searching. Searching for the incredible light we once saw. Searching for the bright and vibrant colours. Searching to see like we did from the mountaintop.

So we end up here.

And when we keep showing up here, week after week, year after year… we begin to see some mountain tops. The Angels singing to shepherds, the magi coming searching after the star, and of course a transfiguration on the mountaintop.

And then somehow, inexplicably, we end up here.

We end up here, on the night of ashes.

The night that reminds of all the things we don’t want to remember.

Sin and suffering and death.

How can we ever see the light again on this night?

How can we find life in the scorched earth of this world?

How there be anything but death?

How can there be anything but death in the ashes?

And so we come and confess our sin. We hope for mercy.

It is here, on this night of death and ashes that God says,

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

We are not the ones who find the light.

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return”

We are not the ones who bring life to scorched and ash filled world.

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

We cannot conquer death.

Christ does.

Christ is the light. Christ brings life from the ashes. Christ conquers death.

You see, God does something on this night that is not found in the light or on the mountaintop.

God finds us in the ashes.

In the very thing thing, the dark, mucky, staining residue of death…. God finds us.

Remember that you are dust.

Because in the very substance of suffering, sin and death… God finds us in order to something that we could have never imaged, something that our eyes would never let us see.

In the ashes of lenten sin and repentance and wilderness.

In the ashes of our demand for a warlord messiah.

In the ashes of our cries for crucified blood.

In the ashes of cross.

God finds us… God finds us with forgiveness for sin.

God finds us… with Messiah who brings peace.

God finds us… with a God willing to die on a cross.

God finds us… in an empty grave.

We come here tonight, looking for light, looking for the mountaintop, looking for goodness and hope in the midst our darkness.

And we find ashes.

Ashes that remind us that we are dead. Dead people walking.

And yet, in the ashes of death… in the dark, grimy, lifeless ashes…

God finds us

And God re-members.

God re-members us to life.

On Ash Wednesday, we confess our sins of Mardi Gras.


Last night parades marched down streets all over the world. Dancers in elaborate costumes danced. Partiers around the globe partied. Musicians played beats and sounds that kept party going. The crowds took in Mardi Gras or Carnival. Maybe some of us ate pancakes and maple syrup. Maybe we cut off or shrived the fat of ham and sausages for Shrove Tuesday.

Tuesday was the last day of normal. They last day of full flavoured enjoyment. The day to use up the fat and the sugar in the house. It was almost like the day to finish the Christmas baking, to leave the last of the holidays behind.

Because today the fasting begins. Today we begin towards a different part of the story. The wondrous births, the visits from foreign kings, the dramatic baptisms, the mountain top wonders are done.

Today, we descend into the valley of Ashes. Today we hear the words:

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

When God reached down into the dirt of creation, when God grabbed the dirt in God’s hands, felt the dust and clay between God’s fingers, do you supposed God knew that the Adam, the first human of creation, the dirtling, was what would be made. Or did it take a while for Adam to take shape? Did God need to work the dirt before Adam appeared?

Adam was created from dust and ash, from dirt. He was formed and moulded with God’s very hands, and Eve too was formed in the dirt, for she was split from Adam.

Did God know then, as God worked the dirt into torso and arms and legs that Adam and Eve would eat the fruit? Did God know as hands and feet were formed, as finger nails and hair, eyes and teeth took shape that the human beings would choose power and temptation? Did God know as God breathed breath into their lungs and brought them to life that the Adam and the Eve, the dirt creatures would choose the fat, the wild abandon, the risk of death? Did God know that they would choose Mardi Gras without knowing it would lead them to Ash Wednesday?

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. 

On Ash Wednesday, we confess. We confess our sins of Mardi Gras. We confess our original sin. We confess that we choose ourselves, our own pleasure, our own comfort, our own security, our own fears, our own neurosis ahead of others. We confess that we cannot see beyond ourselves, we cannot escape our selfishness, we cannot stop getting in our own way.

Today, we confess our sins and we mark ourselves with Ash.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. 

Today, we cannot escape that the consequences of our choices mean death. Adam and Eve ate the fruit and they died. Abraham and Sarah laughed at God and they died. Moses lashed out in rage, and he died. King David lusted for Bathsheba and he died. Peter denied Christ and he too was crucified. Paul murdered Christians and he rotted in prison.

Their choices meant death.

And our choices mean death.

We let the weak and vulnerable fend for themselves. We make our world sick for the sake of stuff. We allow a few to hoard much and call greed “good business”. We call for war because we are more afraid of people on the other side of the earth than we are of the injustices and tragedies that are killing us here.

We keep choosing the fruit. The fat. Mardi Gras.

As if we forget that our choices lead to Ashes.

And so today, God says

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

But God doesn’t leave us in the dust. God doesn’t let our Mardi Gras choice be the end of us.

On Ash Wednesday God reminds who we are, but also who God is.

God says Remember that you are dust because I became dust with you.

To dust you shall return because I returned from the dust as well.

Remember that you are my dust and I am your dust.

Remember that I became dust on the cross, and returned from the dust as I walked from the empty tomb.

Remember that I returned your fruit. I returned your fat. I turned Mardi Gras into Ash Wednesday. And Ash Wednesday into Good Friday. And Good Friday into the 3rd day, the First Day of the Week.

Today, the choices of yesterday, our Mardi Gras choices, our choices of self before others, our choices of now before the future, our choice of consumption and destruction over conservation and reconciliation. Our choices lead us to ashes and to death.

Remember, that you are dust and to dust you shall return, says the Lord.

But remember also, says the Lord, that I am the one who formed you from the dust and dirt. I am the one who held you in my hands, who first loved you. I am the one who breathed life into you.

I did it once, says the Lord… and I will do it again.


This Ash Wednesday, I can’t do ‘Ashes to Go’ or ‘#Ashtag’

ashtag-selfie-ashwed-churchmojo-squareThis morning a blogger and writer that I like to read and whom I respect, David R Henson, posted an insightful blog post about the problems with #AshTag.

As I prepare for Ash Wednesday, my own thoughts have been swirling around how to approach and understand this first day of Lent. As David considered the problem of Ash Wednesday selfies posted to social media using the hashtag #AshTag, one line in particular caught my attention.

The systemic push within the church for Ash Wednesday selfies is an exercise in whistling past graveyards.

Needless to say, I won’t be posting an Ash Wednesday selfie (one would think that Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras would be the big selfie night).

AshestoGo4But another Ash Wednesday innovation that I have surprised myself by not being terribly interested in is ‘Ashes to Go.’ Ashes to go is where clergy go out to street corners and subway platforms to offer ashes to those passing by. Often clergy do this in full vestments.

I am all for getting out in the world. I totally agree that churches need to look beyond themselves for ways to connect with the world around them (see my last post). And I would never claim that the intentions behind these two practices(?) are not well-intentioned. Nor would I say that Ashes to Go, in particular, doesn’t produce some amazingly powerful encounters between clergy and folks about town.

But there is just something missing for me.

Again David Henson makes the point:

“The whole world saw Christians standing on the virtual street corner praying and making their fasts public spectacles. We did the exact thing the Gospel for the day asked us not to.”

For me, Ash Wednesday has a deeper context.

A few years ago, during a shared Ash Wednesday service with another congregation, I got to watch a good friend and colleague place ashes on the forehead of his six-year-old son. It was a powerful moment for this parent to have to declare to his own son, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This year, I will put ashes on my own infant son’s forehead and speak those words.

And over the past 6 years of ministry, I have scattered ashes and sand on many caskets. I have uttered the words “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” over the bodies of those who have died of painful, fast-acting cancer, over murder victims, over those who have taken their own life, over children, over those who have suffered for years with diseases like Parkinson’s or MS. The ashes are real in these moments, they aren’t just symbolic.

For me, the ashes are not to be taken lightly.

For me, the ashes are a reminder of my own tenuous mortality.

For me, the ashes cannot be separated from confession, from Gospel, from Eucharist.

For me, the ashes are not mine to give, but it is the church’s job, our job to receive them.

This is not to say that I would refuse anyone ashes tomorrow night. I wouldn’t.

But Ash Wednesday is the church’s chance to confess, to admit our failures, to declare that we are dead, that our bodies, blood, sweat and tears – that even our buildings and budgets –  will all be ash one day.

And I cannot deliver that message in 30 seconds on a street corner.

Perhaps, I could stand on a street corner in full vestments make confession to strangers and ask passersby to put ashes on my forehead. Maybe ‘Ashes to Go’ would make sense to me then.

But more importantly, I can’t leave Ash Wednesday at the ashes. I can’t just stop at the part where I am dead. I have to hear the Good News. I have to hear that God makes me alive. That God makes us alive.

And as a preacher, I need to preach that news too. I need to invite the Ashen Assembly to the table of the Lord, to receive the bread and wine that makes our dry bones and ashes come to life.

To me, smiling goofily into my smart phone for an #AshTag selfie, or standing on a street corner in my vestments handing out fast food ashes has missed an important part of Ash Wednesday.

The reality that we are really dead, like body-in-a-casket-being-lowered-into-a-grave dead.

And the reality that only God can make us alive.

The thing is, we need Ash Wednesday, all of it.

And the ashes aren’t really the point.

What is Ash Wednesday for you? Have you received Ashes to Go or have you #AshTag-ed? What was your experience? Share in the comments, or one the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

Ash Wednesday – The Bell Tolls for You

A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

The flashing red lights of firetrucks and ambulances at an accident scene.

A “Code Blue” announced over the intercom at a Hospital, followed by doctors and nurses rushing down hallways.

A doorbell rung late at night and a door opened to a police officer or pastor bringing bad news of a loved one.

Intrusions all of them. Harsh images that force us to see how fleeting and impermanent we are. They take away the cares and concerns of real life. The price of gas, keeping coffee appointments and promotions at work hardly seem to matter in face of these images.

And it is not out of morbid curiosity that we all slow down to drive by and gawk at that road accident. Or that all conversation stops in a hospital waiting room when all the staff rush away for a Code Blue. Or that we peer out our windows to see why there are those late night and officious looking visitors at the neighbour’s house. We don’t stare because it is fascinating. We stare because it could have been us. Deep within us, we all have the sense that if the wind blew hard enough, we might just drift away like dust in the wind.

ash-wednesdayTonight, on this night of Ashes, we are practicing. We are practicing for the moment when it will be us. “Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust” and sand in the shape of a cross will be laid on our caskets as we wait to be lowered into the grave.

This is a harsh reality that we rehearse tonight. Sin and Death are real. The palms that we waved last year on Palm Sunday have been burned to remind us of this. No matter how much attention we give to all the other goings on in life, no matter how much we care about work, family, sports, entertainment, politics, fashion, money or whatever, we are all subject to the effects of Sin and Death.

And not just sins like lying, stealing, or cheating. We are subject to Sin. To the reality that we are born into brokenness. That we are always on our way to death, from the moment we are born. We are the walking dead.

This is what the Ashes say to us. Just as ancient peoples covered their heads in sack cloths and ashes, as the ashes are placed on our foreheads, they speak of the shame of mortality that we all bear. The shame of being alienated and estranged from each other, and alienated and estranged from God. The shame of having tried to be like God in garden of Eden, and the shame of failing to be like God ever since.

But the shame that the Ashes speak to us is not only our shame. The ashes speak also of God’s shame. The shame that God willingly took on when Christ was born into our dusty flesh. The shame that God willingly endured by living with those who could not understand, those who pridefully mocked, those who maliciously persecuted and those willingly deceived. The shame that God then took to the cross, in humiliation. The shame that God took to the grave in powerlessness.

But out of the shame of the grave, God began the undoing of our own shame. God began the reversing of our mortality. God began the birthing of Life in the face of death. And while the Ashes remind us of sin and death, the cross shape in which they are placed reminds us that Sin and Death have been conquered.

The Ashes will be washed away, but the cross on each of our foreheads remains. Because that cross was placed there in Baptism. It was sealed to our dusty bodies as a permanent sign that out of death comes new life.

The Ashes mark the beginning of our journey into Lent. The beginning of God’s journey down with us into the water’s of baptism. The place where the power of death is washed away. And under the waters, we too die. We die to our shame and to our sin.

And over the next 40 days of Lent, we will be continually washed in baptismal waters, we will be made ready to dine with Jesus at the Last Supper, we will be made ready to lay at the foot cross, we will be made ready to preach the good news of an empty tomb.

But tonight, on day one, as the red lights flash for us. As the Code Blue is announced for us. As the door bell is tolled for us. As the sand is tossed on our caskets, We will confess that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.


Share your Ash Wednesday thoughts, or Lenten Disciplines in the comments or on Facebook: The Millennial Pastor Page or on Twitter: @Parker Erik