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On Chocolate and Coffee: An Ash Wednesday Sermon

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An Ash Wednesday Sermon by Associate Pastor Krystal Leedy, University Presbyterian Church - Austin

A student asked me where in the Bible the people of God marked their foreheads with ashes to mark the start of Lent. I told her that this practice was not in the Bible, but that we would say from dust you were born and to dust you shall return, which is biblical. It is the words of a curse upon the head of Adam. So, welcome to worship this evening, enjoy your curse. Thanks be to God.

What these ashes represent is different for different people. Yes, it can be seen as the curse, the death that we must all endure as mortal beings. Yes, it can be seen as an act of mourning, as often many people have worn ashes and sackcloth as a sign of great mourning. Yes, it can be seen as a way of self-pitying behavior, locking us into our very sin that brought us the curse of death in the first place.

So here we sit on this Wednesday evening, beginning a journey, by sitting in our own filth, mourning our sin, praying to God for mercy. O woe is me.

However, in all honesty, I haven’t broken too many of the Ten Commandments lately. I haven’t killed anyone or committed adultery. I probably have born false witness or not honored my mom and dad in some way, but for the most part, I’m a good person. I don’t need to sit in my own ashes today. I’m feeling pretty good about my sin level and not too worried about every single move I make. I’m not worried about not getting the parking spot that God is calling me to or being tempted to steal a pack of gum from the grocery store. I don’t worry about these things because I am a good person, a righteous person. I’m living a good and moral life. I have a dear family, including a daughter and husband that I am crazy about. I have a great job that fulfills me. I enjoy my friends. I do wish I had more time during the day to do really good things, but who doesn’t?

And I recognize that none of this is of my own doing. It is from God, the Creator, the Creative, the one who artistically creates good. I live in gratitude for life, not in fear of death. So, I have to ask why?

Why would God call this church, this community to curse each person as they walked by to receive ashes tonight? Why would God not want us all to be gracious for the life we have been given and walk away living happy lives? Perhaps I could use the words from our Scripture this evening that we question God with: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

I watched a couple of documentaries about coffee and chocolate this week. These are common things for people to give up for Lent, and the reasons that people usually give for the release of these items are physical and spiritual. The physical reasons are the sugar content in chocolate tends to be high and the effect that it has on our waistbands. Coffee can cause problems like teeth staining and caffeine content can disturb sleep. This is not new information. Giving up these items for physical reasons can really be done anytime of the year, but it’s nice to know when others are giving them up as well like at the start of the New Year or in this Lenten season in order to have a support system. Spiritually, some give up these items in order to serve as a reminder for time they can spend with God. “I’m hungry for a piece of chocolate cake. I should pray!” So instead of eating the piece of cake, a prayer is prayed in order for strength to overcome the temptation. And let me be clear. Physical reasons and spiritual reasons for giving up something for Lent are beautiful reasons that are pleasing to God. Fasting and prayer are essential parts of the Lenten journey.

But there could be more reasons? As I said I watched some documentaries on coffee and chocolate. I watched as coffee growers in Columbia hand-picked coffee beans from their small farms in the lush green of the Columbian countryside. I watched graphs and charts explaining how when coffee was put into a free global market, that these growers were subject to the volatility of whether someone in New Zealand wanted a cup of Columbian coffee that day or not. Some farms have been entirely abandoned during the times when we don’t drink as much coffee. Some have been taken over by people who wanted to use the land for cocaine plants, leading to a civil war that has been in Columbia for longer than my lifetime. The US has gotten involved. We have sprayed herbicide over what we believe to be cocaine farms. And yes, sometimes we have missed. We have killed some of the coffee farms as well, leading to less crops for the families, leading to poverty for the Columbian people, which makes people need to earn money somehow, and since they only have this land, they grow cocaine. And the cycle begins again.

I also watched a documentary on chocolate, and many cocoa plantations are on the Ivory Coast in Africa. For instance, Nestle has suppliers that originate from these farms on the Ivory Coast, but the journey in this documentary began in Mali, which is north of the Ivory Coast and is one of the poorest nations in the world. It has zero exports and is land-locked. Many people are suffering and need money. They send their children to go get jobs. Their children may find themselves at the bus station and people come up to them and take them to the Ivory Coast with the promise of jobs. They are then trafficked and sold into slavery, working for nothing, and cutting cocoa plants instead of going to school and playing in the sunshine. They do not see their families again unless they can escape.

Lent is often a personal choice, an individual decision, but we are gathered this evening as a community. We gather each Sunday in Lent as a community. We are not only individuals on this journey, and each of you do not exist only for my benefit. We are a community that works together and we are a subsect of the global community. Each thing we buy, each choice we make, may and probably does affect someone on the other side of the world. We are divorced from the products that we purchase. We do not know where they come from, and it’s not easy to figure out. We also rarely see what happens to our products when we discard them. So we are divorced from that process as well.

So, I watched another documentary that began with plastic bags and how they are the number one cause of plastic liter in America. Thank you, Citizens of Austin who banned plastic bags, but nonetheless, there are other products marketed as disposable like single-use plastic bags that are not disposable. Bottles, cups, forks, knives, spoons, and Styrofoam-anything ends up in the trash, and while we cannot see it any more, trash does not go away. Plastic does not biodegrade and ends up in our rivers and in our oceans. Our oceans contain the most life on the planet and help control our weather patterns, and the oceans are churning plastic into little pieces which are being eaten by fish which are being eaten by bigger fish, which are dying and causing the plastic to go back into the ocean. In order to reduce our waste, we recycle, which is an excellent choice. But, some of the plastic that we cannot recycle goes in big shipping containers to the coasts of Asia where people are literally picking through our garbage and trying to figure out what can be melted down. These people work for little money and children are exposed to the toxicity of plastic inhalation.

So, when we ask the question of God: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” God responds: “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.”

Oh. I see.

Through my job as American consumer, I have workers. The Columbian farmer, the Malian child, the Asian coastal worker; they all work for me. And I have oppressed them, without even realizing it. Sometimes the ash that we wear, the confession we say, the song of penitence that we sing is not for the things that we are aware of, it’s for those things that we are blind to. And we ask for God to show us those things, not because we want to be cursed, but because we need to be aware. We need to be honest.

Because maybe I’m not as good as I thought. I truly don’t feel the temptation to steal a pack of gum from the grocery store or to murder anyone, but I have stolen life from the people who work for me. The Malian girl, the woman on the Asian coast, the farmer in Columbia—I have taken their lives from them. I bear the mark of ashes because I am caught in a system like a plastic bag, just getting churned in the ocean, over and over, caught in the system that is too big, too vast for me to break alone.

And I spin and spin to the point of desperation, saying, “I can’t do this!” And Isaiah reminds, “You shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, ‘here I am.’” (make the sign of the cross) Here I am in your ashes. Here I am in your trash-filled ocean. Here I am as you mourn your sin. Here I am even when you don’t recognize me. Here I am and there you are.

And God does not just reveal Godself but his vindication goes before us and the glory of the Lord comes behind us. He will guide us continually and satisfy our needs in parched places and make our bones strong.

God will not leave us drifting in the ocean. God will not leave the Columbian farmers with parched land. God will not leave the Malian girl in slavery. And God will not allow for the Asian mother on the coast of Asia to live in toxicity anymore.

The season of Lent is about chocolate and coffee. It’s about personal piety. It’s about being disciplined into this new way of life, but it is also about justice. And the living Word from Isaiah calls to us into a fast that looks like more than giving up a piece of chocolate cake for the cake’s sake. For we will fast this day and bow our heads like a bulrush and pray that we will be healthy and happy individuals. We will lie in sackcloth and ashes recognizing that we are not there yet. And we will dust ourselves off, and we will choose the fast of these forty days, “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.” We have quite a journey to walk, and it may feel as though we are wandering in a desert or floating in an ocean. But God will not leave us there. God will guide us continually, and satisfy our needs in parched places.

The act of ashes is not a curse; it is an act of honesty. Here I am; there you are. Today we are honest with ourselves about where we are. Tomorrow, we dust ourselves off and get to living.

And may the God of mercy sustain us throughout these forty days. Amen.

"Shout out, do not hold back!
   Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
   to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet day after day they seek me
   and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
   and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
   they delight to draw near to God.
3 “Why do we fast, but you do not see?
   Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
   and oppress all your workers.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
   and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
   will not make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
   a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
   and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
   a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
   and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
   the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
   you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
   the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
   and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
   and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
   and satisfy your needs in parched places,
   and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
   like a spring of water,
   whose waters never fail.
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
   you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
   the restorer of streets to live in."