Ash Wednesday Sermon (2012)

Ash Wednesday
Texts: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10;
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21; Joel 2:1-2, 12-17


What if you could attend your own funeral? Or — this is something you could do — what if you wrote your own obituary?

There’s an episode of the TV show Frasier (1) that begins with him getting in a fender-bender car accident and the air bag possibly breaking his nose. He goes to a crowded Emergency Room to get it checked out, where he gets put low on the priority list. The waiting is made more unbearable by a fellow person waiting who insists on trying to make silly small talk. In frustration, Frasier finally gets up and walks out. Sure enough, his name is immediately called after he leaves, and the scene closes with that annoying person using Frasier’s name to jump the line.

The next scene is Frasier at home with an ice bag on his nose, talking with his father with the evening news on TV in the background. They suddenly spot Frasier’s picture on the TV and turn the sound up to hear the anchor person pronounce, “We’re sorry to report that well-loved radio personality Dr. Frasier Crane has died tonight in a Seattle Emergency Room.” Apparently, the annoying man who answered for Fraiser’s name in the ER collapsed immediately and died of a heart attack. The story leaked out to the press before the hospital discovered the error in identity. The story hit the evening newspaper, too, so that Frasier got to actually read the obituary they wrote for him, as a local celebrity.

What happens next is the interesting part for our Ash Wednesday reflections. For the rest of the episode, Frasier uses the incident as a wake-up call. He ponders questions like, What should I be doing with the rest of my life? What are my priorities? The premature story of his own death has him realizing that there’s a lot of dreams he had for his life that he hasn’t begun to realize. He actually writes his own obituary as an exercise in goal-setting, so that he can begin doing the things he’d like to see in his obituary someday.

Ash Wednesday and the beginning Lent are meant to be a yearly wake-up call for us. We are confronted with our own mortality as the pastor traces a cross on our foreheads with the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” And Ash Wednesday is the first day in Lent when a traditional activity is to give-up something as a sacrificial gesture. But wouldn’t that practice make more sense as not just giving something up but rather as a resetting of priorities after the Ash Wednesday beginning of facing our mortality? It would be more like that Frasier episode, except done as a disciples of Jesus. In other words, instead of giving something up, we might begin with setting new priorities of things to do as disciples of Jesus. The new priorities might require you to give up some things you are currently doing, but they wouldn’t be for the sake of sacrifice alone. They would be for the sake of making more room in your life for being a better disciple of Jesus.

Christian writer Brian McLaren wrote a blog about this recently, and says:

Yesterday at church, our pastor offered some advice at the end of the service that, I thought, hit the nail on the head. “Don’t focus on giving up something for the sake of giving something up,” he said. “Instead, try to add something good to your life, and only give up what’s necessary to add that something good.” Then he suggested reading through all four gospels during Lent — which would involve giving up, say, a few sitcoms, or some internet surfing time, or some morning news programs. (2)

Doesn’t that make a lot of sense? And I like what McLaren’s pastor suggests about of reading the four Gospels, especially in this time of great change for the Christian faith when our picture of Jesus is changing so drastically. In fact, I’d like to add to that suggestion: I like just one more time to encourage us all to read together the book Simply Jesus, (3) by Anglican Bishop Tom Wright, who paints a new vision of Jesus. Then, we can read the four gospels again with this new vision in mind. (You can sign-up to order one of these books at reduced cost on the table in the narthex.) Here’s the question: Can we follow Jesus as his disciple without an accurate picture of who he is and what he calls us to do? Let’s read and study Wright’s book and the four gospels this Lent and refresh our experience the Jesus we follow.

What other good thing can you and I choose to do this Lent in order to be better disciples of Jesus? Being a disciple doesn’t call us totally away from our present lives to a different life. We don’t have to sacrifice everything. We can be disciples precisely in our other roles in life: as a spouse or parent, as a co-worker or student, as a neighbor or citizen, as a caretaker of this earth. As disciples we are also called to be temples for God’s Holy Spirit — the theme for our Epiphany season. We also grow in our discipleship, then, by taking care of our well-being. What good thing might you do for yourself this Lent in order to be whole and healthy in body, mind, and spirit?

I’ve told you about the class at the synod I’m taking one Saturday a month for ten months. One of our assignments has been very challenging: to make for ourselves a Rule of Life, like monks and nuns have done through the ages. They had to live by a daily rule in their monasteries in order to be disciplined in their living together in community. But each individual was also required to adopt their own Rule of Life, the disciplines they needed to be disciples. After all, the two words discipline and disciple have the same root word. So working with my Spiritual Director I am carefully writing and adopting my own Rule of Life. And I plan to step things up this Lent, as part of my lenten discipline. I’ve joined weight watchers online today, for example, and am committing to workout 2-3 times a week, for the sake of my bodily health. I’m committing to be more regular in my 20 minutes daily of contemplative prayer. [Extemporized briefly on how contemplative prayer helps to live with the kind of paradoxes with which Paul ends today’s reading.] I’m making commitments in the other areas of my life to be a better husband and father, and a better pastor. Fresh for me today is my commitment as a citizen, as I was there last night for the disappointing vote at the County Commissioners board. I’m currently reading a wonderful book called Healing the Heart of Democracy [by Parker Palmer], (4) for fresh ideas on how I might be a more engaged citizen in the political arena, hoping that I can play a positive role in helping to break the partisan gridlock with things we can do together for the common good of all. I’m sure I’ll have to subtract some things during Lent in order to make time and space for these things I want to add. But it’s the adding, not the subtracting, that’s the point.

What about you? Can you take this experience of being confronted by our mortality today and turn it into a lenten discipline or two for growing in your discipleship? And not just for this season only. Because we may begin this season facing our mortality, but we finish it with a celebration of the power of life in Jesus Christ that began renewing the Creation two thousand years ago. Being his disciple means being constantly aware of how we might be renewed in our living. It’s not just about transformed lives when we leave these mortal, earthly bodies behind someday in exchange for our heavenly bodies. But it is about how these mortal, earthly lives might also be changed and renewed and given new life. As St. Paul emphasizes in our epistle tonight, the time of salvation is now! Today! Let us commit this Lent to add some good things in our lives for the better. It will probably mean subtracting some things, too, that seem a sacrifice. But we follow the one who sacrificed himself on the cross so that we might begin to experience newness of life, so that we might have our lives transformed for the better. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, February 22, 2012

1. Episode 8 of Season 7, “The Late Dr. Crane,” first aired November 18, 1999.

2. Brian McLaren, “Naked Theology” Columns at, “Lent: Maybe It’s About Adding, Not Subtracting,” February 21, 2012.

3. N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters, HarperOne Books, 2011.

4. Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, Jossey-Bass, 2011.

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