An Ash Wednesday Sermon

Don’t Need Nuthin!
(
Ash Wednesday 2011)
Rev. Peter K. Perry
Psalm 51, Genesis 3, Isaiah 30

Jill Fankhauser gave birth to baby Olivia on Sunday. Olivia and mom and dad are doing well. Olivia came a couple of weeks early and she needs to grow a bit stronger before coming home. So the doctors and nurses are helping Ken and Jill give her the things that she needs to thrive.

Babies, even full-term ones, need special care. They need someone to feed them, to keep them warm, to hold them and comfort them, to change their diapers and teach them to walk and talk and sing and pray, to ride a bike and tap dance, to appreciate beautiful music and art and how to make a pizza. You see, babies grow up and become children, then youth, then adults… and though we may in fact reach some levels of self-sufficiency in some parts of our lives, the truth is that there are always places where we need something.

 

There once was a little second grade boy who went off to the first day of school with an attitude.  All morning long, he was cocky and sure of himself, rude and selfish. But when lunch time came around, he discovered that he had forgotten his lunch. When all the other children opened their sack lunches and lunch boxes, he didn’t have anything. The teacher noticed this and, being a good teacher, and ignoring the fact that Jimmy had been mean all morning long, asked him if he needed anything: “Jimmy, do you need something to eat?”

Jimmy stood up straight and with a look to kill, said to the teacher, “I don’t need nuthin!”

She said, “Jimmy, what you just said is a double negative. Two negatives make a positive, so when you say, “I don’t need nuthin” it means you need something…” So let me ask you again, do you need something?

He said, “I don’t need nuthin!” again, and his teacher took half of her sandwich and one of the apples she had been given that day and gave it to Jimmy and said, “Here, eat this…”

Tonight is Ash Wednesday, and it is n important  day in our church calendar, but not because on this day somewhere around 2000 years ago Jesus smeared ashes on the disciples’ foreheads. He didn’t. This ritual isn’t a commemoration or or re-enactment, like communion or baptism. No, this is a theological observance. This night tells us something about what we believe about God, how we are connected to God…

 

There’s a bit more liturgy than we are used to, and some heavy scriptures to be read in this service… pretty wordy and heady stuff… The words remind us that from the very beginning, since Adam and Eve and that darn apple, we people have been in a relationship with God that is marked by a sense of brokenness, of separation, and of sin.

Have you ever disappointed anyone? Maybe a friend or co-worker? Maybe a parent or a child? Maybe a spouse? You’ve done something you shouldn’t have done, or you’ve not done something you should have done, and now they think less of you? You feel guilty… you feel sorry… you wish you could have a do-over… but you can’t. It’s done, and you have to live with the consequences.

Living with the consequences of our actions or inactions is at the heart of the Christian idea of repentance. Repentance is not simply sorrow over the offending deed done or left undone… it is a commitment to change, to grow into a new way of being and doing this thing called life.

One of the earliest descriptions of Ash Wednesday is found in the writings of the Anglo-Saxon abbot Aelfric, whose life spanned the turn of the first millennia, 1000 years ago.  In his book, Lives of the Saints, he writes, “We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.”

It is an ancient tradition, this Ash Wednesday discipline, as the pastor applies ashes in the shape of the cross on the forehead of each person who comes before God’s altar with a promise of repentance… a promise to change, to grow into a new way of being and doing.  And that promise is the first step in “getting right with God,” in rebuilding a relationship with the One who created us, the one who offers us grace… not because we are sorrowful, but because God is gracious.

So let not this sign on your foreheads remind of your sin or your sorrow, but of God’s grace and your intention to live in that grace all the days of your lives. God wants you to live rich and abundant lives connected always to the source of that life, a source of love and mercy that fills every need we may bring.

No, I don’t need nothing.  I need something. And that something is God.

Yes, we need God’s forgiveness. Yes, we need God’s call. Yes, we need God’s purpose and God’s vision. Yes, we need God’s strength and God’s courage. Yes, we need God’s peace.

I need God! Would you all say that with me?

I need God!

Hallelujah, say it again!

I imagine that’s like music to God’s ears… Isaiah said these words:

The LORD waits to be gracious to you;

The LORD will rise up to show mercy to you.

God knows the truth… God knows we need God, even when we don’t know it… or won’t admit it… God knows it. And God is waiting for us to come with repentant hearts, hearts ready to hear God say, “This is the way. Walk in it.”

Tonight we have the opportunity to remind ourselves that we need God,,, and so we come, confessing our sin, and rejoicing in the promise of grace. The grace which is the good news that that the God we need is here for us, always and forever.

As you come forward tonight, you will hear the words spoken. “Repent and believe the good news!” And the mark will be made upon your forehead… but the true mark is the one God makes on your heart as you recommit your life to God’s way.  Come… God’s good news is for you!