February 26, 2020 / Ash Wednesday / Richard E. Holmer
First Reading: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Gospel: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Thomas Wolfe wrote the novel, You Can’t Go Home Again. That phrase has become a well-known expression, stating the common sense wisdom that a person cannot return to a place from their past, like where they grew up. The reason for this is that the place one remembers will have changed since you left. Long before Thomas Wolfe, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus made a similar observation. “You cannot step in the same river twice – for the river has changed and you have changed.” The relentless nature of change prevents us from revisiting places in our past and experiencing them as we once did.
Like most of you, I have found this to be true. Back in the 50’s I attended Lindenwood School in St. Louis. I can still picture my teachers: Miss Brandel, Miss Drewitt, Miss Vevier, Miss Cuniff, Miss Backoff, Miss Pickle. In my mind I can retrace the route I walked from our house at 6644 Winnebago, along the street that passed by Jameson Park, across the busy street, to the school and its large, asphalt playground. I have vivid memories of the classrooms, classmates and events at school, like the annual fish fry and carnival and the year end parade and school picnic. However, a few years back my brother and I stopped by St. Louis on our way to a canoe trip in the Ozarks. When we visited our old school, we came upon a major construction project. Lindenwood was no longer a school – it was being converted to condominiums!
When we moved to St. Charles, IL, in 1962 it was a pretty quiet river town with a population of about 10,000. Today the population is more than three times that. The town has two large high schools, and the high school from which I graduated is now a middle school. All the neighbors who lived around us have either moved or died.
At the first church I served in Geneseo, IL, I lived in a small, white, two bedroom frame house next door to the church. It had a cozy screen porch that was a very pleasant place to sit on a summer evening. Where that little house stood is now a parking lot. Sometimes you can’t go home again because your old home isn’t there.
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The Lord made it very clear to Adam and Eve that they could not go back to their home in Eden. They were banished. There would be no returning to paradise. The thing is, sin has consequences. Sin changes us. Sin changes the world around us. Because of sin, it’s not possible to go back to the way things used to be. It’s not possible to undo the reality of the broken-ness caused by our sin. There’s no way to put the toothpaste back in the tube.
Ash Wednesday places the reality of human sinfulness front and center. There’s no denying the many and various ways you and I fall short of being the persons God created us to be. We are well aware that, like Adam and Eve, our sinful, selfish nature precludes any possibility of returning to how things used to be. There’s no going back.
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Nevertheless, the message in Lent, the message we have heard tonight, is that we can go home again. We can’t go back, but we can go home. We can go home: not to our past, not to our more innocent selves, not to some good old days. We can go home to God. This is God’s call, God’s command, God’s invitation in Lent:
“Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart.”
“Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful.”
We can’t go back – but we can go home, because our home with God isn’t somewhere in the past. Our home with God is here and now – as St. Paul reminds us: “now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation.” Whenever we turn our hearts to God, whenever we are reconciled to God, we find that we have arrived where we truly belong – we have come home.
Home is not some place in our memory. Home is not a place we have made for ourselves. Our true home is with the God who made us and saved us and loves us. Coming home is a matter of coming to our senses, turning away from all that distracts us and leads us away from God – and turning toward God, turning our lives in God’s direction.
We call this turning repentance.
When he hit rock bottom, when he was as far down as he could be, it occurred to the Prodigal Son that he could go home. You and I have an advantage over the Prodigal Son. His hope, at best, was to get a job as one of his father’s hired hands on the farm. We know that our Father will welcome us with open arms as beloved daughters and sons. We have a place of honor at our Lord’s table.
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We can go home because Christ is our home – and Christ isn’t somewhere behind us in the distant past. Christ is ahead of us, leading us, showing us the way, the truth and the life. Jesus urges us to recognize that our true and lasting treasure is not in any thing or any place on earth. Our enduring treasure, our eternal home is with him in the Kingdom of God. Seek first this Kingdom, Jesus assures us, and everything we need will be provided.
This is where you and I need to focus our energy and our attention: Not dwelling on the guilt of our sin or our inevitable mortality – but on God’s gracious invitation:
Come away from all the worldly things that finally fail to satisfy – come home to the life that really is life.
Return to the Lord with all your heart! Not half-hearted. Not faint-hearted. Not lukewarm. It’s time to be all in – fully on board: embracing Christ as our true and lasting treasure – our eternal home; seeking his Kingdom above all else.
We have this promise from God:
“When you search for me, you will find me, if you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13)
We can go home again!
Now is a good time to turn toward home.