Return to the Lord – Ash Wednesday Homily

Joel 2.12-17

Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 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. 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? Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; 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. 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 people, ‘Where is their God?’”

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While I was growing up, I remember being jealous off all the Christians with ashes on their foreheads every year. I grew up in a church that did not celebrate Ash Wednesday and so it always came as sort of a shock when I would get to school on a Wednesday morning and a whole bunch of people were walking around with smudges on their skin. Part of my jealously stemmed from the fact that they were excused from being on time in the morning and got to miss part of a class. But the depth of my envy came from the fact that they stood out for what they believed.

Of course, at the time, I had no idea what the crosses stood for or why they used ashes, I just thought they looked cool. I can vividly recall the feeling of spiritual inadequacy I experienced because I felt like, even though I went to church every week, I would never compare with the Ash Wednesday Christians. For years I witnessed their piety and was jealous.

When I finally got to an age and a church that celebrated Ash Wednesday, and I sat down in front of a pastor like all of you are doing right now, I was shocked by the words I heard: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.

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For centuries Christians like you and I have gathered to mark the beginning of Lent with this solemn and holy service. Lent is a season set apart for renewal and repentance. Lent is a time for us to confront our brokenness. Lent is a time to give thanks for our blessings and stop taking them for granted.

These ashes convey our willingness to confront mortality. We hear, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” as a reminder that the bell will toll for us all. This moment is a public witness to our need to return to the Lord.

The prophet Joel describes our need for repentance and renewal through the voice of the Lord: “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. Return to me, for I am gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

We know not when our days will end, and because of this we need to embrace each and every day for the gift that it is. I’m not saying we should spend the next 40 days contemplating death every single moment, but instead this season should be a time filled with gratitude for all of our blessings.

Ashes are a reminder for all of us, young and old alike, that life is precious. Because when we hear the words, and when we feel ashes crossed against our foreheads, we confront our limited time on earth. These ashes should prevent us from moving through each day without reflection, they should caution us against rehashing the old arguments and frustrations, they should shock us into giving thanks right here and right now.

God encourages us to use this season, a time that begins right now, as an opportunity to return to the Lord with our hearts, with outwards signs like fasting, praying, and reading. Take this time and embrace the gift that it is by doing things like reconcile with people that you have been arguing with, open up your bibles and discover the richness of God’s Word, and resist the temptation to believe that you are invincible.

I’ve been a pastor long enough now to have placed ashes on individual’s foreheads and then eventually place dirt on their coffins as they are lowered into the ground. I have stood in this sanctuary and made the sign of the cross with ashes on people who have returned to the dust from whence they came. So take this sign, take these ashes, and make good with the life you’ve been given. Stop taking your blessings for granted. Love one another. Give thanks for what you have. And return to the Lord. Amen.

 

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Too Blessed To Be Stressed – Sermon on Ephesians 6.10-20

Ephesians 6.10-20

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of there, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

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Friends, I want to share with you the secret of being too blessed to be stressed. Have you felt yourself crumbling over the demands of life? Are you frustrated with your children and their inability to actually listen? Are you worried about your loss of independence? Well then, this sermon is for you.

I know that it might seem impossible to get to a place where being blessed wipes away all the stress of our lives, but we can do it!

Here are my top five tips on how to be too blessed to be stressed:

1) Walk away from the problems! Life is too short to worry about other people. When you start to feel that stress bubbling in your gut, just walk away. We are not our brothers’ keepers. We don’t need to let other people bring us down with their worries, so just walk away.

2) Read or watch something funny! Laughter is the cure to stress. The purpose of life is to be happy all the time, so it is time for us to start embracing the hilarity of life. Instead of complaining and being stressed, we need to turn on our TVs to that witty sitcom and let the laughter loose.

3) Stop procrastinating! Seize the day. Don’t put off to tomorrow what can be done today. Avoid procrastination and stress will disappear.

4) Give your money to church! You just have to plant that little seed, and you will be rewarded one hundred-fold. Money is the root of all evil, but the point of life is to prosper. If you give you money to church, you will start to receive even more blessings than you can imagine. Give your money to the church, and you will really be too blessed to be stressed.

5) Praise the stress away! Give thanks in the midst of your troubles and peace will start to slip right in. Just look at your problems and say to yourselves, “I am thankful for this” and everything will change. But what if your too stressed to even say a praise? Try holding your arms out to your side and take in deep breath, and as you breathe out, slowly lower your arms. Once you pushed out all the air, breathe in and out 5 times in quick suggestion. I would check with your doctor before trying this, because it might not be safe for everyone, but it sure works for me!

If you follow my five easy tips, you will be too blessed to be stressed!

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Ok, let’s be real for a moment. Everything I just said, from the praising your stress away, to breathing in and out in repetition, I stole from other sermons. In just a quick search on the internet I found a seemingly limitless amount of prosperity-gospel sermons aimed at ridding stress, by being blessed. From the likes of Joel Osteen and others, I created a list of five bits of advice that I had found that guarantee to turn your life around.

Here’s the problem: All these promises of wealth, health and happiness by following a simple list, a guaranteed better life by blind faith, do not resonate with scripture.

The praise service had been hitting all the marks. The band was in sync, people had their hands up in the air thanking the Lord, and a few were even dancing in front of their fold out chairs. The gymnasium had been transformed into a space of worship, and they were quickly running out of room.

The sermon was delivered with a never ending smile, encouraging people to look on the sunny side side, celebrate successes, and praise God in all time in all places. Coffee was passed around to all the worshippers, and whether it was the caffeine or not, people were jazzed up for God.

Following the service, as was customary, the preacher waited by the door and shook hands with people as they exited. His smile had remained bright and white from the sermon throughout the whole service, and was now shining upon families as they departed. However, one woman paced back in forth at the back of the line before finally throwing up her hands and walking out.

Worried that he had done something wrong, that pastor apologized to the couple in front of him and chased the woman out the door. “Ma’am,” he shouted as she stormed off to her car, “Don’t forget to praise God!

She stopped dead in her tracks on the asphalt, made a quick 180, walked right up to the preacher, and put her finger up to his nose. “I’ve had it up to here with you and all your silly happiness and praise. I can’t stand coming to a church that won’t let me be angry.

As Christians, and as human beings, we are often told to “go with the flow” “chill out” and “relax” but Paul’s words to the church in Ephesus are a reminder to stand firm. Not with antiquated and backwards beliefs, but firm in our convictions. That woman stomped out of worship because her life was in shambles, and the preacher was telling her to be joyful and praise God. In not so many words he was telling her that being a Christian is easy, and requires us to be happy 24-7-365.

Paul’s words to the church were unpopular. We would rather hear from the prosperity preachers, and the praise preachers, that tell us how easy life can be if we only have faith in God, if we only “walk away from the problems”, if we only give our money to church.

Friends, being a Christian is not popular, nor is it easy.

Paul’s words are still unpopular because they are a challenge to such a secular society, particularly the one we live in.

Be strong in the Lord in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God. There will come times when the wiles of the devil tempt us at the very heart of our being. Our truest struggles are not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against rulers, and authorities that strive for injustice at every turn.

Following Christ means standing firm in defense of justice and love. Taking up our crosses means that we will suffer for the love of God, and if we are too blessed to be stressed, then we are not working hard enough for the Kingdom.

So, take up the whole armor of God and stand firm. God has provided us with the power of truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, the Spirit, and prayer. These are our tools to work against the evils of our world, we shall adorn them over our bodies for our lives, and we can remain steadfast in our convictions.

If we walk away from the problems of life, then we are not following Jesus’ command to minister to the last, least, and lost. Ignoring the stresses and injustices of life means that we are not loving our neighbors as ourselves.

If we give our money to church with the expectation that it will solve all of our problems, it will not! The offering plate of worship in not a cash register for a commodified exchange. We give as a response to God’s goodness, not as an expectation of blessing in return.

And if we try to praise the stress away, if we only want to hear about the joy, then we will continue to ignore the truth of reality and what it means to really follow Jesus.

Put on the whole armor of God because you will need it.

For a long time being Christian was just what everyone did. Most people were born into Christian families and went to the same church their whole lives without ever giving it a second thought. We lived in a Christian culture.

Interestingly enough, today following Christ means being counter-cultural. Imagine how strange a thing it is that we come back week after week to learn about being humble and risking unpopularity. We hear stories about how suffering and ridicule, if not worse, are part of our identity.

I like to joke that Jesus could use some new PR, because the stuff church offers doesn’t sell. There are no quick fixes and simple schemes. There are no “five easy steps to happiness.” Even in during Jesus ministry, the crowds grew to an incredible degree, but by the end, he was all alone marching up the hill with a cross on his back.

Jesus speaks to us through the words of scripture today calling us to be counter-cultural, to stand firm in the strength of God’s power.

“I am too blessed to be stressed” is such a strange thing for a Christian to claim. Having faith implies struggle. Discipleship is a journey filled with wonder, joy, and hardship.

This is the kind of thing that we are bold to proclaim. That God came in the form of Christ to walk among the people and turn the world upside-down. That Christ offered stories and commands that help to shape our lives so that we can shape others. That Jesus went to the very limit of his life dedicated to the profound power of love and it got him killed on a cross. That three days later he rose from the grave, defeated death, and offered salvation to the world.

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We are not too blessed to be stressed. If we are anything we are too blessed to be content. When we remember all that God was willing to do for us and for the world, it ignites a desire in our hearts to start transforming the world. When we feel God’s love in our lives through a friend, we are given the strength to do the same for someone else. When we break down and raise our clenched fists in the air at God, when we pray from the depth of our being, God shows up and starts to reorient our lives through change.

We are too blessed to be content. The world is full of rulers, authorities, cosmic powers of darkness, and spiritual forces of evil. God has blessed us to stand firm against the injustices of life and say “no more!” We will not sit idly by while the world tells people they have no value, we will not participate in a system that perpetuates economic disparity, we will not give in to the evil powers of prejudice and presumption.

We say, “no more!” and we clothe ourselves with the whole armor of God and we go marching against the evils of the world. We wear the belt of truth and open our eyes to what is really going on. We strap on the breast plate of righteousness and live according to love rather than hate. We put on shoes that allow us to get on the move and declare the gospel of peace. We brandish the shield of faith, holding on to the promises of God. We adorn our heads with the helmet of salvation, hold the sword of the Spirit, and we persevere in prayer.

We say “no more!” to the rulers, and the authorities, and the cosmic powers of darkness because we are too blessed to be content. Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 118.26

Devotional:

Psalm 118.26

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord. 

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When Robert Griffin III came to Washington DC he was greeted as the new messiah of the Washington Redskins. For too long had the Redskins failed to procure a franchise quarterback, a leader that could take them to the playoffs and eventually the Superbowl. Finally, it seemed, the organization had made a bold move for a young quarterback who contained all of the qualities necessary for returning the Redskins to their former glory.

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His first season behind center was remarkable. RGIII was named Offensive Player of the Week numerous times, he set records for the highest passer rating by a rookie quarterback and highest touchdown to interception ration, and he led to the team to the playoffs  after winning the NFC East Division.

After sustaining an injury toward the end of the season, many fans and sports pundits speculated whether or not RGIII would be able to compete in the same fashion during the following season. This past year, the Redskins returned to form posting an embarrassing 3-13 season, the worst record for the team since 1994. Many people, of course, blamed RGIII’s limited mobility, improper coaching decisions, and lack of enthusiasm from other players for the disappointing season.

Within a year RGIII went from being the hailed messiah, to a questionable concern. Favor and optimism was quickly replaced with skepticism and doubt. Of course some of the die-hard fans remained committed to this young quarterback, but a large portion of fan favor was quickly turned in the opposite direction from one season to another.

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The crowds yelled “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” when Jesus enter Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. This man was their Messiah, the one they had been waiting for. They were so enthralled by this Son of Man that they pulled palm branches from the fields and placed them on the road as a sign of worship, devotion, and adoration. Incredibly, those shouts of “Hosanna! (Save us!)” changed to shouts of “crucify him!” within a week. The incredible favor of the crowds changed from dedication to destruction.

Our favor and devotion for the many messianic figures in our lives can change on a dime. How often have RGIIIs and others been hailed and rejected within such a short period of time? Yet, for us, our Messiah, the one who died for the sins of the world never gave up on us when we gave up on him. He rode on the back of the donkey knowing good and well what would take place by the end of the week, mounted the hard wood of the cross with the shouts of “crucify!” ringing in his ears, and loved us nonetheless.

Today, as we begin to approach Palm Sunday and Holy Week, I encourage you to consider the people in your life that you once supported and then gave up on. I’m not just talking about public figures such as RGIII or politicians, but also people close to your heart. Who have you given up on? Perhaps in these final weeks of Lent it is time to reach out to those who have fallen out of our favor. Maybe today is the day that you can reconcile a broken relationship and truly live into God’s love here and now.