He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted." Luke 18:9-14
Ash Wednesday is one of the most moving worship experiences of the year. This morning, throughout the day, and tonight, Christians around the world will gather for worship. They'll come in all shapes and sizes, all ages, at all different levels of spiritual maturity. Some will be on fire with faith. Some will be nurturing a little spark. And some will feel dead even as they come forward to receive the mark of death on their foreheads.
The truth is, there is a little bit of the Pharisee in all of us. Try as we might, we can't help but be judgmental toward some people in some situations. Pushed to the wall, we do justify ourselves and try to hang our hat on our goodness and piety. Vain attempt though it be.
And there is a little tax collector in us as well. Fully aware of the brokenness of our lives. Fully aware of the sin that clouds us, hangs on us, drips from us, sneaks up on us.
But then there are those times and places when none of that matters. There are those times when we just are. When we are baptized, heaven shows up. Angels rejoice. God smiles. We enter that water just like everybody else. We get wet just like everybody else. And we are assured and later reassured that God has prepared a place for us in his kingdom.
Every time we come to worship, we see that cross that hangs over creation. That cross with room for all under it. That cross that is both a sign of our sin and our salvation. A sign of the One who gave himself for us and a sign directing us out into the world to give ourselves away for others.
Every time a pastor preaches a sermon, he/she knows that his/her Pharisee/tax collector heart is being exposed. He/she knows, looking out at the faces of those listening, that these ARE the words of eternal life.
Then Ash Wednesday comes along and it isn't water that is being sprinkled but ashes. Ashes of death, finality, finitude. Ashes of endings when new beginnings are the last thing on our minds. Ashes which link us, bind us, tie us, embrace us. Every forehead is touched. As a pastor, I will touch the foreheads of those I love and those who love me. The foreheads of infants with life stretching before them. The foreheads of those who might not be here next year.
In that moment, our petty concerns fade away. Our problems and struggles take their rightful place. We are marked - all of us - by the promises of the God who gives life, now and forever. Who could not be humbled by this?
Let us pray: God of life, you stretch yourself toward us in love. You embrace us even in our brokenness. You mark us for death and for life. You hear us and accept our praises, pitiful though they be. Bless us on this holy day. In Jesus' name. Amen.
Used with Permission.
Pastor Kerry Nelson