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Fiddling While Rome Learns

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Ash Wednesday 2020 Sermon

March 11, 2020
By Memorial Lutheran School
Rev. Dr. Christopher S. Ahlman
Memorial Lutheran Church & School, Houston, Texas
Ash Wednesday
26 February 2020 

Life with God, the Lord’s Way 

Life with God is a life of promise and not of guarantee. It is a life of fulfillment by way of grace and not of obligation, of gift and not of transaction. Thus, for us, it is a life of fulfillment by way of certainty shorn of any security, by way of confidence with no contract in hand or in view, by way of faith not concerned in the least for fiduciary responsibility.  
That is life with God done the Lord’s way, and it is into that life and into that way of doing such life that you and I are baptized—poured/immersed/submerged/scrubbed/sprinkled—which is a massive problem, given that, you and I are part of a world enslaved to the sinful condition, we’re bound to not do life that way, bound to not want to do life that way, bound not to expect life to be done that way. For us, fulfillment is achieved by way of mitigating against failure in advance, and by way of leveraging all parties involved all the way toward attainment of satisfaction. For us, when fulfillment takes on another form, or is realized by another way, it shakes us up, it makes us insecure, it scandalizes us, it offends us. We only know “our way” and how “our way” works (or at least is supposed to work) in “our life.” When we’re baptized into “life with God” where “God’s way” is the way and our way doesn’t work with God, we’re bound to be out of our element, bound to not handle it well, bound to do our finest to see our way through. 
And, yet, into life with God done the Lord’s way we go. Into death and new life we go. Into the grace of God by way of faith in God’s promises on account of the person and work of Jesus we go. Into hearing the Lord’s words spoken and heard the Lord’s way we go. 
Practices of righteousness: almsgiving, prayer, fasting done in secret with reward forthcoming. Fulfillment by way of grace or by way of obligation? Gift or transaction? Certainty or security? Confidence or contract in hand? Faith or fiduciary responsibility? “Father in heaven” or “Guarantor in heaven?” (the obviousness of that last one should seal the deal on that front, at least I hope). 
Let’s deepen the approach: 
[W]hen you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,  so that your giving may be in secret. 
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. 
And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,  that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. (Matthew 6:2-6, 16-18)
What say you? Fulfillment by way of mandate or by way of commandment? That is, are we pursuing fulfillment via an authorization to act in particular ways, or by way of an obligation to fulfill?
Try another: 
And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Promise or guarantee? Think carefully before proceeding, and remember: this is part and parcel of the life of God done the Lord’s way, into which you have been baptized. 
The easy, quick reflex, reasonably well-catechized-sounding response-in-a-pinch would be: “Well, as Jesus makes very clear, these are “practices of righteousness.” These are free acts of piety. Of course, these are matters of grace, of gift, of certainty, of confidence, of faith. That settles it. No one is under any obligation to think otherwise.” And, with that, shibboleth and all, the fraternal exchange is made, the security is provided, the terms and conditions are referenced and reinforced, fiduciary responsibility is slickly exhibited and exercised, and personal enjoyment ensues. Fulfillment through guarantee in the flesh. Prayer and meditation and trial ushered out of the building, box of belongings in hand. Gospel done in the way of the Law, on the terms and conditions of the Law, seen all the way through unto satisfaction that only the Law can provide. That’s our way, at its absolute finest. And, sighing with the Spirit in a manner too deep at least for standardized words, all God’s people said, “Ick.” 
That way is not the way, for that life is not the life into which you and I are baptized, and thus, that truth is not the truth by which you come to the Father to indeed know him as Father and to indeed name him exclusively as such. The way of the Lord is not by way of satisfaction by way of fulfillment of obligation, for such a way is one of failure that cannot be mitigated in advance, cannot satisfy enough, cannot make anything right in any way—as any honest and candid doctor of the Law worth his salt can tell you, as borne witness by the Gospels themselves; rather, the way of the Lord is to act in ways which he has authorized and prepared in advance for you to act, in faith and confidence and certainty, to partake of and benefit from a fulfillment that the Lord alone can bring about—a fulfillment that is gift and grace by way of promise. This the Lord has done to you, has done for you, and has done it his way, the way. 
Into such a life we are baptized. Into such a life we go. Such a life filled with practices of righteousness, filled with service in vocational spheres, filled with evangelization to the peoples, filled with every manifestation of salt for the earth and light for the world—such a life filled with Gospel things that are known and handled and confessed in Gospel ways—this life we cherish and relish and make use of gladly and freely, as the Lord would have us do. 
Bear in mind, however, that all of this is a massive problem for a world that only knows its way, a world that is bound to not do life the Lord’s way, bound to not want to do life the Lord’s way, bound not to expect life to be done the Lord’s way, and bound to take care of the Lord’s way their way. Bear in mind more so, however, that even this their way is ultimately life with God done the Lord’s way, a gracious gift holding promise for you.  
Therefore, confident and certain, into that life we go. 

Ash Wednesday at MLS

February 26, 2020
By Memorial Lutheran School

Ash Wednesday at Memorial Lutheran School

Ash Wednesday is the first day of the Christian season of Lent. Lent is the season of repentance, prayer, fasting and almsgiving that brings Christians to the foundational feast of the faith: the feast of the Resurrection of our Lord, Easter. Ash Wednesday brings with it the unique ceremony of the pastor placing ashen crosses on the foreheads of parishioners while saying, “Remember, O man that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Ash Wednesday brings the sinful mortality of mankind to the front and center. It also brings the preaching of Christ concerning “treasure in heaven” to the front and center.

“Do not lay up for yourself treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourself treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)

The Church is where the “treasures of heaven” are distributed. Life, forgiveness of sins and salvation are given freely to those who are dead in sin and damned apart from mercy of Christ. Ash Wednesday is somber but joyful because pondering one’s sins is sobering. Yet Christ has come to conquer sin and does conquer it and this brings great joy.

Every year our school gathers as a community with Memorial Lutheran Church for the observance of Ash Wednesday. These observances take place throughout the day.

Pastor Bart Day, former pastor and headmaster here at MLC&S, instituted the “Burning of the Palms” that begins every Ash Wednesday here at Memorial. The school gathers in the parking lot to burn last year’s palms from Palm Sunday and to hear God’s Word concerning repentance, baptism and faith. Readings are read from John 12 (Palm Sunday), Romans 6 (baptism into Christ) and Matthew 25 (the wise and foolish virgins). The palms are burned and then water and oil are mixed into the ashes as the readings mentioned above are read.

Following the Burning of the Palms, our early childhood and lower elementary classes gather in the sanctuary for the praying of the Litany, the Imposition of Ashes and Confession and Absolution. Pastor Paul and Vicar then visit the Infant Care rooms for the distribution of ashes there as well as confession and absolution. At noon the upper elementary and middle school classes join the congregation for Ash Wednesday Divine Service, where again there is the imposition of ashes, confession and absolution, preaching and the Lord’s Supper.

It may seem strange to see babies, toddlers, children and adults walk around with ashen crosses on their foreheads. This visible reminder that the wages of sin is death is significant. All too often we are blissfully ignorant of the fact that mankind deserves to die. Ash Wednesday reminds us. It does so too with the reminder that Christ has already died for the sins of the world and that forgiveness is freely given that by faith we might receive it and live.

Please join us on Ash Wednesday here at Memorial and hear the preaching of Christ crucified for those who are dust and ash but look forward to the resurrection from dust and ash to eternal life.

-Pastor Paul