February 14, 2018, Ash Wednesday – Getting Unlost – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000064
Ages and ages ago, when I was in my church’s high school youth group back in St. Louis, one of the elders took all of us kids on a hiking and camping trip in the wild and hilly woods of Missouri. It was a two-day, 25-mile hike, with really no modern conveniences. We hiked about 15 miles the first day and then we made a fire in a little cave on a hillside, and we dug sassafras roots to make tea, and found some wild watercress to eat with our dinner, and we all slept as close to the campfire as we could because it was frosty during the night.
But then, on the second day, my friend Becky and I got separated from the rest of the group, and we got hopelessly lost. We were slower than the guys in our group and we had gradually fallen behind the others until suddenly we realized that we couldn’t see or hear anybody anymore. It was late fall, and a grey and chilly day, and the woods around us and the forest floor were all a pretty uniform rusty brown, which made it really hard to distinguish the actual trail we were supposed to be on from the rest of the woods. It was a very scary feeling to have no idea where we were, no idea how to find our friends, and to see nothing but trees stretching on and on, on every side.
By the grace of God, and I think a bit of his sense of humor as well, we weren’t left panicking for too long, because within an hour we heard voices and footsteps and this whole troop of little boy scouts came jogging along. And they were delighted to show us how to get back to our trail, where we found the rest of our youth group. They probably got merit badges for rescuing us. I hope they did. But I will never forget that feeling of utter lostness and helplessness.
Since that day, I haven’t often found myself stranded in the middle of the woods like that. But I have many times found myself hopelessly lost. As human beings, we lose our way all the time, in so many different ways. As the hymn says, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.”
We get lost in our sadness and regret sometimes, when we are unable to let go of the past or unable to forgive ourselves (because we need to forgive ourselves seventy times seven times, too). And lost in our unforgiveness and self-hatred, we lose our way forward.
We get lost in anger, when we reduce one of our fellow human beings to the sum of what they have done to hurt us or offend us or disappoint us, so that we lose the path of love that sees them as our brother or sister.
We get lost in discouragement when we stop seeing ourselves as beloved children of God. We start believing the lies we tell ourselves, that we are useless, that we are too stupid or too old or not talented enough, until we find ourselves bogged down in self-pity and despair.
We get lost in discontent when we envy people who have nicer things or easier lives or more money than we do. We get so lost that we stop seeing the blessings all around us, we stop being able to be thankful for the unique good that God has put into our lives.
We get lost in fear when we lose our grip on our faith, and let our troubles loom larger than our God.
The whole human condition that we call sin is a matter of losing our way, of straying from the path that points us towards God. We all get lost, time and time again, throughout the short span of our human lives, and in the end, sin has its way with all of us as death itself catches up with us. That’s what it means to be mortal. No matter how well we care for ourselves, no matter how good we are about exercise and a good diet and good habits of all kinds, we all stray from the paths of wisdom and kindness and faith, and our bodies all grow feeble and achy and unreliable, and finally, we all give in. And really, the only human alternative to that bleak picture is when it all happens quicker because death strikes us suddenly and our sinful lives are cut short.
On this first day of the Lenten season that we call Ash Wednesday, we mark our foreheads with ash to remind ourselves of our mortality. It’s a healthy dose of reality in a world that would like to fool us into believing we can outwit death and decay with just the right combination of multivitamins and anti-wrinkle cream and positive energy. The smudge on our foreheads testifies to the truth that there is nothing we can do, in and of ourselves, to get the better of sin and death.
BUT – that’s not the whole meaning of the ashes. When I dip my thumb in the ash and mark your forehead this evening, I smear those ashes in the shape of a cross, because the Cross points us to the only answer for our human predicament. It is only the Spirit of Jesus Christ, who took on himself this thing we call mortality and put it to death on Calvary. It is he and only he who is able to find us in our lostness, no matter how far or how hopelessly or how willfully we have strayed, and to lead us gently and surely back on the way of life. And most joyfully and truly, it is at the Cross of Jesus Christ that we find that death no longer has the last word. We who are marked with the sign of death and mortality will get lost many times over, and finally we will die. But just as death lost its power to keep Jesus in the tomb, it has lost its power forever to keep his people in the tomb. The Cross is our sign and pledge that all death will be swallowed up in life, and everyone who is lost will be found.
We know that Lent is a time for repentance, but I think we don’t always know what we mean by repentance. A lot of people seem to think that true repentance means seeing how far we have strayed and making ourselves feel terrible about it – like conjuring up that sense of helpless panic my friend and I felt when we realized we were lost and alone in the woods – and really wallowing in it good. But real repentance is a much more sensible thing than that. First of all, have you ever noticed that whenever we are called to act, it is because God acted first? When we find ourselves lost in the woods of our sin – for the first or the twentieth or the thousandth time – and God shows up (which he always does) – true repentance is what we do – not what we feel, but what we do – in response.
Repentance is turning to the one who always comes to our rescue when we are lost. Repentance, specifically, is changing our direction, and following him back to the right path. Repentance isn’t some kind of guilty feeling we work ourselves up to; it is our happy response to the one who finds us in our desperate need. In our repentance we cry out in joy, “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see!” Today, we don’t enter the wilderness of Lent to lose ourselves in self-loathing and shame – we enter the wilderness of Lent because our Lord, the one who loves us, is there to guide us on our way. I pray that we might all find him, and be found by him, this Lenten season.