Here are my reflections from Ash Wednesday! We had a really lovely service at RCC – small, only about 40 people – but we roped off the side and back pews and had everyone sit up from and it felt a lot more intimate.
Rehoboth Congregational Church
March 6, 2019
A Faith That Is Normal
Do you think what we do here is normal?
Not just tonight on Ash Wednesday, but church in general – is it normal?
Every year I prepare the ashes for Ash Wednesday by burning the leftover palms from Palm Sunday the previous year. As a Church, we do this because it brings the church year full circle. The palms that close out one Lenten season open the next one. And, in doing this, it reminds us of the frailty of who we are as human beings, as sinners. We try, but sometimes we fail. We seek to do the right thing, but sometimes we fall short. Our shouts of, “hosanna!” become cries to, “crucify, crucify him!”
And yet, in all of this, there is hope, right? There is a God that loves us – ALL of us; who creates us, redeems us and sustains us. There is a light that shines, even in our darkest of moments. There is a love that is stronger than hate and division, that always wins. There is a grace that is more powerful than our imperfections and our shortcomings.
This is the Christian promise. This is why Jesus came to this earth. This is why we remember his crucifixion before we celebrate his resurrection. Because as people living on this side of the resurrection we know that this hope is real.
I think the process of burning the palms in preparation for Ash Wednesday is actually a really cool experience, so last year I invited the confirmation class to burn the palms with me. We had a meeting already scheduled for the Sunday prior to Ash Wednesday and, in so many ways, it even added to me experience to have the opportunity to share this process with others.
This year, I asked the Deacons – who had a meeting scheduled for Tuesday night (yesterday) – if they would like to burn the palms with me at the end of their meeting. This meeting, as I am sure most of you know, had to be rescheduled because of the visitation and funeral for Mark Johnson. I thought about burning the palms before the visitation began yesterday, but ran out of time; so I figured I would just do it after everybody left. I didn’t think it would be normal if I did it while people were still here from the funeral.
After Mark’s service ended yesterday, I looked at the crowd in Fellowship Hall and realized that I did not need to wait until everyone left to burn the palms. After all, this is part of who we are, as Christians; hosting an Ash Wednesday service is part of our identity, as a church. No one was going to mind – and even more so I thought people might appreciate seeing us live out the faith we had just proclaimed during the service.
And, as an added bonus, if the fire got out of control, half the fire department was there!
And so Missy, Nathan and Andrew, the funeral director, and I gathered up the palms from last year that had been drying out in my office. We took them outside and lit them; and we talked about life while they burned down to ash.
I think I had this idea in my head that burning the palms in community has to have some sort of formal worship element attached to it. Last year when I did it with the confirmation class, I prepared a little service and we sang, Amazing Graceat the end.
And that was wonderful, don’t get me wrong. But my experience this year was amazing, because real life was happening around us while we were doing it. People were gathered in Fellowship Hall talking and eating a telling stories, people were milling around the parking lot and people were leaving and walking to their cars. And it didn’t feel disrespectful to the process; it felt normal. It felt like the world inside the walls of the church and the world outside the walls of the church came together and what we were doing was normal.
And it gave me hope. It gave me hope that the work we are doing here, at the church, is meaningful, relevant and accessible to all people, no matter who they are or where they are on their journey through life. It gave me hope that when we leave this church tonight and wear our ashes out into the world, other people won’t stare or assume we are some crazy religious people, but that it will seem normal.
That church will seem normal.
That faith will seem normal.
And therein lies my hope for Lent. That we will not only strengthen our faith throughout this season, but that, on Easter morning, we will boldly proclaim resurrection in a way that is normal; in a way that people can hear and believe.
Tonight we gather to begin the Lenten season. We gather to repent and believe in the Good News. We gather to wear a sign of the cross on our foreheads; a sign that will remind us of what is to come, that boldly declares our sins and our shortcomings, but also that assures us that no matter where we are, what we have done and what our lives look like, that God is with us, that God loves us and that God will never give up on us. We gather because it is our normal.
Thanks be to God!