05 March 2014

Sermon for Ash Wednesday: "I can't... I won't..."

Sermon texts:  Psalm 23 & John 10:1-18

January's always bitter
But Lord this one beats all
The wind ain't quit for weeks now
And the drifts are ten feet tall
I been all night drivin' heifers
Closer in to lower ground
Then I spent the mornin' thinkin'
'Bout the ones the wolves pulled down

Charlie Barton and his family
Stopped today to say goodbye
He said the bank was takin' over
The last few years were just too dry
And I promised that I'd visit
When they found a place in town
Then I spent a long time thinkin'
'Bout the ones the wolves pull down

Lord please shine a light of hope
On those of us who fall behind
And when we stumble in the snow
Could you help us up while there's still time

Well I don't mean to be complainin' Lord
You've always seen me through
And I know you got your reasons
For each and every thing you do
But tonight outside my window
There's a lonesome mournful sound
And I just can't keep from thinkin'
'Bout the ones the wolves pull down

Oh Lord keep me from bein'
The one the wolves pull down

        Tonight we come to an end.  We come to what we hope is the end of a long, hard winter.  We come to the end of the season of Epiphany.  Most importantly, we come to the end of believing we can make things right on our own.
500 years ago, an Old Testament professor named Luther posted a list of statements or “theses” for discussion about the practice of indulgences.  The first was this:  “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said ‘Repent,’ willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”  This is our business here tonight.  We publicly state our repentance.  We gather to admit, before God and each other, this simple truth:  “I can’t.”
I can’t control my temper.
I can’t maintain my patience with my family.
I can’t think well of the people around me.
I can’t stop wanting what my neighbor has.
I can’t get my priorities in the right order.
I can’t make everyone happy.
I can’t trust in God above everything else.
I can’t…I can’t…I can’t…
That Garth Brooks song is all about what we can’t do.  It’s been running in my head ever since I saw that our gospel text for tonight was John’s story of Jesus the Good Shepherd.  “January’s always bitter, but Lord, this one beats all.”  It’s March, sure, but it’s all we’ve been talking about these past few weeks.  This winter’s been so very hard, in so many ways.  We just can’t overcome it.  And with that particular “can’t” weighing so heavy on us, all the others seem that much heavier.
I’m also afraid to say it gets worse before it gets better.  Sometimes we have to admit that “I won’t” is as much or more of a problem than “I can’t.”
“I won’t forgive him after what he did to me.”
“I won’t ever let anyone treat me like that without paying them back.”
“I won’t believe that God could ever love someone like that.”
I won’t…I won’t…I won’t…
When we read the 23rd Psalm, or this wonderful passage from the gospel of John, we put ourselves in the role of the sheep that Jesus is protecting.  But that’s not the whole truth of what Jesus is saying.  The whole truth is that sometimes we are the thieves, the bandits, the strangers and the hired hands.  The whole truth is that sometimes we are the enemies sitting at the table Jesus has set for someone else.  We won’t, and we can’t, and we come to the end of any hope that righteousness is something within our ability to achieve.
But our end is not the end.  We have hope in something other than ourselves.  The apostle Paul wrote, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”  Jesus is the one who promises that death and dust and destruction will not be our final end - and it is our hope in him that sustains us even as we are nearing the end ourselves.
So we come to this Ash Wednesday, wolves, thieves, bandits, strangers, hired hands and sheep, to be marked with ashes and to remember:  we are dust, and to dust we will return.  But we will not go alone.  We have gathered because we know the voice of the Good Shepherd, the one who calls us home and leads us through the darkest valleys, where death and winter and all that is bitter and cold threaten us.  We remember that it is the breath of the Shepherd’s Spirit that made us more than dust, and we trust that when the last winter of death has come and gone, that breath will raise us out of the dust and lead us home one final time.
So, come.  Take your place with your brothers and sisters.  Be marked with the cross of “I can’t.”  Admit to the ashes of “I won’t.”  Be the dust that has no hope of life within itself, and be raised by baptism to new life in the Good Shepherd who welcomes us all.

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