Sermon :: February 18, 2015 :: Ash Wednesday

Gospel: Matthew 6:1–6, 16–21

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

2“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,  4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

16“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face,  18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal;  20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.  21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.


Grace and peace to you, people of God, in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

I didn’t grow up with the imposition of ashes as I imagine some of you can relate. Maybe today is the first time you’ve ever experienced it. As a child, I remember Lenten services every Wednesday night, but I never remember the sign of the cross on my head or those words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.” It wasn’t until I was in college when I even really knew that anybody but the local Roman Catholic church took part in this tradition. But I remember, when I first experienced this ritual, feeling a flood of emotions. After such a powerful experience, how should I respond? Should I say “Thank you” or “Amen?” Should I wipe it off before I leave? Should I be having some kind of epiphany or revelation about how bad a person I am or the goodness of God?

I mean, our gospel reading for this week almost seems to fly in the face of this practice, doesn’t it? Here we read to practice our piety in secret, and yet we have just rubbed ashes into our faces and have made an outward sign of our inward process. We have made known that we are a penitent people. The secret is out. But the secret is that we aren’t “holier than thou” the secret is that we are broken, in need of rescue and meaning and forgiveness.

Like a person in mourning, wearing black to go to a funeral or dabbing tears and trying to hide red eyes, we have made ourselves identifiable. And part of this is certainly on purpose. I mean, we can’t always hide when we are struggling with something. When a person is processing the shock and grief of terror or loss, it’s extremely hard to hide. We can’t always hide when we are in pain and sometimes the best thing we can hear is, “It’s okay to cry. I understand you’re hurting. I’m here for you.” That is part of what seems to happen every Ash Wednesday. We are collectively coming together and saying, through this shared experience, we have begun a process, a season, of solemnness. We publicly recognize our sin which drove Jesus to the cross and we await the resurrection that brings us new hope.

So we also live in the light of a new creation. Easter is as present now as it was on December 25th and will still be in 46 days when Easter arrives. We live in the awareness that God loves us and Jesus died for us. We maybe recognize it less, but it is nonetheless a reality of our world and our lives. We are, at the same time, both sinners and saints. In our world, we are, at the same time, the abused and the abuser. We are, at the same time, lovely the in light of God and wretched in the darkness of our sin.

And today, we acknowledge that again. We acknowledge that, although we are forgiven, we are far from perfect. We feel the weight of our sin, but there is a reason we don’t just do this alone, in some isolated room, with no one to share our burden. We do this together, because, during this time of Lent, we all need to know that we are surrounded by loving brothers and sisters in Christ.

So, we mark ourselves today. We mark ourselves as people of the cross and this mark does not wipe away easily. We acknowledge our limitations, our sin, and our dependence on God. And why do we do it? We do it because we know that we have a God who listens and identifies with us. We have a Savior who took this burden that we feel today and died with it upon him. Jesus, a perfect, sinless man, died to forgive us of what we feel today. And in his resurrection, we are freed from the grip of sin. We are released from slavery to sin. And in that freedom, we are free to comfort those who mourn because we have been comforted. We are free to address the suffering of our neighbors, communities, and world because of Jesus’ suffering. We are free to know and experience the full weight of sin in ourselves and in the world, without hiding or denying it, because we are fully known and fully loved by God.

I recently read a few articles of pastors or religious organizations who are taking their ashes to the streets, going out of their buildings to take part in the imposition of ashes. These “ashes-to-go” rituals are done around the country. In one article, the reporter asked what people say after they are done with a brief prayer and imposition, and the pastor simply said, “They usually just say ‘Thank you.’” And isn’t that interesting. Isn’t it interesting that, when faced with someone who has just told you that you are nothing more than ashes and dust which are loved and created by God, the response is “thank you?”

I have wondered about that, and I guess in the midst of this tradition, I say the same thing. I thank God that I will return to dust. I thank God that all the suffering and hatred and pain that we see in the world is temporary. I say thank you that sin’s pull on me goes no further than my life and that, in a state of freedom, I am not held in chains any longer. As I think about it, maybe “Thank you” is the perfect response to this sense of solemnness. It acknowledges that suffering exists and allows us to experience all the emotions that come from it, but it reminds us that it is temporary, it is vapor, it is dust. It’s not easy, it’s not fun, but it’s not eternal, either.

We’ve made the sign of the cross, a sign of death and persecution, on our foreheads and we recognize our identity as Christians, as people of God. And, in that vein, I want to share a poem by Carol Wimmer:

When I say “I am a Christian”
I’m not shouting “I am saved”
I’m whispering “I get lost!”
“That is why I chose this way.”  

When I say “I am a Christian” 
I don’t speak of this with pride.
I’m confessing that I stumble
and need someone to be my guide.

When I say “I am a Christian”
I’m not trying to be strong.
I’m professing that I’m weak
and pray for strength to carry on.

When I say “I am a Christian”
I’m not bragging of success.
I’m admitting I have failed
and cannot ever pay the debt.

When I say “I am a Christian”
I’m not claiming to be perfect,
my flaws are too visible
but God believes I’m worth it.

When I say “I am a Christian”
I still feel the sting of pain
I have my share of heartaches
which is why I seek His name.

When I say “I am a Christian”
I do not wish to judge.
I have no authority.
I only know I’m loved.

So, people of God, we embark on a new journey as we go with Jesus to the cross. We go knowing very well what is in store, but we go because it is only through death that resurrection can begin. Amen.

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