Ash Wednesday: The Grace of Ashes

Scripture: Joel 2:1-2, 12-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10

Sometimes I think I don’t believe in grace.

That may be a shocking thing for a pastor to say, and of course it’s not completely true.  I believe in grace, theologically.  I could define it for you, as God’s unmerited favor.  I can tell you all about how John Wesley thought it worked in the life of a Christian, how it is present in our lives before we even know it, how it leads us to the point where we can say yes to God for ourselves, how it continues forever to shape us into holy and loving people.  I can tell you about how we are saved by grace alone, not by anything we do or don’t do or have done or haven’t done.

I mostly believe in that for other people.

It’s just that sometimes things in my life go well, and I feel like I should be able to take the credit for that.  I worked hard and I did it, and that says something about me and my value to this world and to God.  And on the other hand sometimes things aren’t going so well.  Those are the nights I lie awake worrying about how I just don’t measure up to what anyone expects of me.  My words don’t say enough and my church isn’t big enough and I make so many mistakes as a mom and I’ve forgotten to be a good friend.  And again, the personal value judgment: I, myself, am not enough.

I hear a text like Joel, which is heavy on the judgment before it get to words of hope, and I can get behind it, because I can believe I am being judged; I feel it all the time.  Judged by people who are cooler than me or have it more together, judged by my supervisors and teachers, judged even, I fear, by God.

The thing about Ash Wednesday, though, is that it reminds me that all of that is a lie.

Not because I’m not sinful or broken, not because I am enough, all on my own, but because I don’t have to be.  Because in the end, in the face of eternity, even my wins and my successes and my achievements are nothing more than dust.  The goal was never to be enough.  But I am, by God’s grace.

I’d be the first to say that we shouldn’t move too quickly from cross to resurrection.  We need time to repent of the ways we have fallen short without glossing over them too quickly and excusing ourselves.  That time is the gift Lent gives us.

Somehow, though, it’s in ashes, in this very sign of my own brokenness and mortality, that I find the freedom to receive God’s grace.

I wonder sometimes what it would mean to really live by grace, to live as though I believed in it, to live as though I depended on it?   I’m sure it doesn’t mean giving up on love and holiness and all the things I’ll never measure up on – that would indeed be to receive God’s grace in vain, as the Apostle Paul puts it, as if grace didn’t demand anything of me.  Instead listen again to how Paul describes his ministry:

As servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 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.

Grace certainly demanded something of him.  In fact, at first glance it maybe sounds like one more way to measure up: wow, I’m not going through beatings and imprisonments and riots and all those things that Paul did, so what does that say about my faith?

But at the same time I want what he had, because he was able to stare death and suffering in the face, and find life.

And in fact maybe it was because he faced those things that he could find the life that was more than them.

Back at the beginning of 2 Corinthians he says it this way: We felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we could rely not on ourselves, but on God, who raises the dead.

That is grace: life that is only found in the face of death; wholeness that only comes when we recognize our own brokenness; the freedom that comes from never having to be enough on our own.

Everything else?

Ash.

The world’s expectations of me? Ash.

The amount of money in my bank account? Ash.

To to-do list that never gets checked off? Ash.

The goals I will never reach? Ash.

The ones I will? Ash.

My good deeds? Ash.

All the ways I fear I’m not enough? Ash.

My very mortal life?

Ash.

These ashes help me believe in grace for myself.

Because when everything else is ash, grace is all that’s left.

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