February 18, 2015 Sermon (Ash Wednesday): “All Is Lost”

February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday

“All Is Lost”

The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray

Ephesians 2:4-10

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.  10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

The text for this evening is not one of the lectionary readings assigned for Ash Wednesday, but it is one of my favorites.  This is passage I come back to when I need to remember what the good news is all about.  This is the passage I come back to when I need reminding of what I have been given, salvation by grace, and what I give in response, my thoughts, my work, my actions, my heart – in short, my life.

Lent is a season of reflection, and prayer, and fasting of one kind or another.  Some of you may live out this season by adding a spiritual practice, rather than fasting, as a means of drawing back to God.

It is a season of repentance as we walk with Jesus these forty days towards the cross and Easter.  We have talked about this before, but when the biblical writers wrote repentance, and when Jesus spoke about repentance, they were talking about a physical reaction, a turning around in the road, and a return to home.

Repentance involves facing two directions – away from God and towards God, away from home and towards home.

The season of Lent is a good time to take stock of how we are walking in the wrong direction.

How do we know what it feels like to be found, if we don’t recognize that we were lost in the first place?

How do we know what life is, if we have never known death?

How do we know what hope feels like, if we have never walked in despair?

After this long cold winter, we will rejoice to feel warmth and light again – The seasons of Lent and Easter work like that.

This passage from Ephesians describes for us our peril – we were dead – and dead people have no power to make themselves alive again.

“All is Lost” is the title of a movie, a survival drama, that came out a few years ago, staring Robert Redford.  If you haven’t seen it, I’m very sorry because I am going to spoil the whole thing for you.

The movie begins somewhere in the Indian Ocean and we see only a capsized boat in the dim light and hear these words which are essentially the only words spoken for the 106 minutes of the film (and they are perfect words for Lent):

“I’m sorry. I know that means little at this point, but I am.

I tried. I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right, but I wasn’t. All is lost.”

And the film takes us back eight days earlier where we see Robert Redford’s sailboat get punctured by an abandoned shipping container.  The boat is damaged, all the communication equipment is waterlogged and unusable.

We watch him repair the boat, only to see it damaged further in a storm.  We see him try to repair his radio, only to barely get a signal and not be able to communicate his distress.

We read defeat and exhaustion on the sailor’s face, and then resolve as he tries again to save himself.

After being battered by storms the boat is lost, slowing sinking into the ocean, and he is floating in a small life raft.

The sailor is able to use the stars to figure out where he is.  He floats into a shipping channel and a huge freighter passes by, he shoots up one of his two flares left – no response.  The ship passes by in the night.

Another huge ship passes by, he uses his last flare – no response and he floats out of the channel and back to the open ocean.

He has no food, no water, no protection from the sun or the rain, the life raft is badly damaged in another storm, he has no way to signal for help, he has done everything he can to save himself.  All is lost.

I told my parents they should see this movie, because my father loves sailing and sailboats and it is beautifully acted.  A little while later I asked them how they had liked it, and they asked me why I would tell them to watch this terrible movie where the only character dies at the end after this long, heartbreaking struggle.

And it turns out that my parents turned off the movie thinking it was over, before they reached the end.

Robert Redford floats in the darkness with no hope left, and he sees dimly in the distance the lights of a small boat.  He has no way to signal this boat, other than to light his life raft on fire, and leap into the water and wait . . .

But no one comes and in the last scene of the movie we see him surrender, and sink into the dark water, and then in the last second of the movie, a hand reaches into the water and grabs hold of him.  And the movie ends.

I think pastors must watch movies differently, because I watched this movie and thought, this is how baptism works, this is how salvation by grace works.  After we have exhausted every effort at self-salvation, and we are sunk in the depths of death and sin, we are rescued by Jesus Christ.

Jesus as the rescuer – perhaps that portrayal of Jesus makes us uncomfortable.

Thomas Long, a preaching professor, and a Presbyterian, named one of the most effective preachers in the English language, tells the story of watching a well-known Christian musician on Larry King Live tell his life story, and Long writes that it was exactly the kind of story he prefers not to hear from the pulpit.  The musician took his faith and music skills to Nashville, where he found some success but also found drugs: “One desperate night, he came completely apart emotionally and found himself lying face down on the linoleum floor of his kitchen, sobbing uncontrollably, crying out to God for salvation. ‘I woke up the next day,’ he said, and I haven’t been the same since. That was 28 years ago. I just give credit to the Lord,’ he said, reflecting on three decades of sobriety and productivity. ‘I think God just rescued me.’”

And Thomas Long writes how he doesn’t like these overly simplistic salvation stories, because they remind him of the revival testimonies he grew up around.

But he writes, “Frankly, though, the real reason why such stories of sin and salvation cause us discomfort may well be that they bring us too close to the molten core of the Christian faith . . . the fact of the matter is that the gospel is at root a rescue story. Even Jesus’ name . . . means ‘the Lord saves.’”

The passage from Ephesians begins, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.”

And Long writes, “To see this statement as applicable to us, to swallow even one ounce of this claim, we must admit a cluster of truths about ourselves we would rather not face—

that we are captive to cultural and spiritual forces over which we have no control, that they have drained the life out of us, that we are unable to think or feel or crawl our way free, and that we are in urgent need of a God who comes to rescue.

In short, we need saving . . . Recently a popular theologian declared, ‘The Jesus who ‘died for our sins’ has simply got to go. .. . Christianity must move beyond a rescuing Jesus.’ Long says that there is part of him that says amen to this. Then he writes, “But then I realize that I am face down on a linoleum floor somewhere in my life, powerless, praying like mad . . . And when I find myself lifted up into new life and hope, I am more grateful than I can say that by grace I have been saved through faith, and this is not my own doing.”

Lent is the perfect time to remember that we need saving.  All is lost, we are dead, we are dust and to dust we will return.

During this Lent, let us examine ourselves.  Where are the dark corners of our lives?  Where is our sin drowning us, sucking the life out of us?  Where is the anger we can’t let go of?  Where is the wound that won’t heal?  In what ways are we trying so hard to save ourselves?

This is the good work of Lent.  And then finally we will arrive at Easter, we will journey from darkness into light.

Another famous preacher Fred Craddock writes, “what does it mean . . . to become a Christian?  . . . You were dead.

That is to say, you were caught in a futile way of life, obedient to the desires of the flesh, seeking the approval of your culture, heeding every inclination that led away from God, aimless and helpless to extricate yourself.

But God, rich in love and mercy, by free unmerited favor quickened your life and set you in a safe place in the constant presence of Christ.”  Amen.

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