February 17, 2010
Matthew 6:1 “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. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so 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. 6 But 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. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so 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.
Ash Wednesday, today, marks the beginning of a forty day pilgrimage towards Easter. Easter we know about: crowded worship services with vibrant singing; brand-new clothes and spring hats. Easter we know about: breaking dawn; an empty tomb with cast aside grave clothes – glorious resurrection. Yet we tend to forget, or politely ignore, the journey it took to get to Easter. Did not Jesus say: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) I like Easter; it is the getting to part that I find difficult.
So today we begin the journey of forty days with Jesus, mindful of his own forty days in the wilderness as well as our own call to follow Jesus all the way. We begin this time curiously enough – with ashes.
Ashes are mentioned throughout the Bible, both Old Testament and New. The ash heap was more or less a garbage dump where refuse was burned. Abraham described his own mortality with the words, “I who am but dust and ashes.” (Genesis 18:27). Job said much the same as he contemplated his suffering. Ashes were a sign in Biblical times of humility before God and a symbol of mourning and sorrow for one’s sin. The Ninevites, the Israelites, Tamar, Mordecai all showed their lamentation with ashes. Thus the name Ash Wednesday comes from the ancient practice of placing ashes on worshippers’ heads or foreheads, which goes back to at least the ninth century.
Tonight we carry on this ancient observance by marking ourselves for God. We do so for at least two reasons.
We mark ourselves out of penitence:
It is such a public thing, to be marked by ashes. I feel like such a spectacle. Did we not just hear from the gospel of Matthew a warning against not making a public spectacle of your piety? Sharing, praying and fasting are not acts of public devotion for public admiration.
We are not, however, out in front of everybody. We are here together, tonight as a family. This whole business of being marked by ashes got started centuries ago when sinners were singled out for the public in order for them to be brought back into the church. As time went on others came forward acknowledging that they too have sin.
“If you only knew…,” we think to ourselves, “the sin that soaks my heart.” Sin is not merely about doing bad things or thinking bad thoughts. It is a failure to live up to God’s own Image. We are created, all of us, in the image of God. Jesus spoke of loving our neighbors and loving our enemies. Jesus spoke of forgiving, without limits. Jesus spoke of denying the self and thinking of others.
“If you only knew how I far I have failed in living up to the Image of God, but the sin is mine, right? My sin is my business, right?” This public worship which includes the marking of ashes is an acknowledgment that we are in this sin business together. Not one of us gets by in our life, let alone this day, without having fallen short of God’s glorious hope for us. Just as the scriptures take sin seriously not merely for the individual but for the entire community, so we too are making a covenant to move forward, together, as God’s fellowship, God’s community, God’s family of faith.
Ashes remind us that sin is deadly and left on our own we are hopeless. They are a sign that we are in this together.
We enter this season reflecting on what it is we need to “die” to, repent from, and live towards. It is a time to walk towards the restoration and redemption that comes by way of cross and tomb.
And like the cross and tomb, we do not have to stay there. Just as we will soon wash the ashes away from our hands or foreheads, we are reminded that we are marked to walk in a new life. We mark ourselves out of penitence. We have sinned.
We mark ourselves as mortal:
Perhaps this is the most sobering of all. Last year I shared with the church that the ashes we use are compliments of our sister congregation, The Church of the Good Shepherd. I decided I had too much on my mind than to try to figure out how to burn, sift, and mix ashes for the service. The dear chair of the altar guild offered to give me a can of ashes, which she would have waiting for me at their church.
Last year when I arrived to pick up the can (formally cashews, which was a surprise for those that reached in for a few nuts), there on the lid of the can was written: Ashes – Greg DeLoach (he is not in here). This is an important disclaimer of which I am happy to confirm.
Yet is this not what Ash Wednesday is about? There will come a day that our earthly remains will be nothing more than a can of dust. All we have to do is walk outside to our Memorial Gardens and consider those who have gone before us whose remains are nothing more than ash scattered beneath grass. Margaret Daniel, Jack Patrick, Tommy Blanchard, Amy Varnell, Harold Malone, Clayton Menefee, Jaque Kearns, George and Sue Balentine, Hilton Garrett and many, many others are co-mingled in the earth in the shadow of the resurrection window. They at one time lived and walked this earth. They raised children, cooked suppers, laughed, lived, loved and worshipped alongside us. Now just dust.
Philosophers have long exclaimed that the way to prepare for life is to contemplate death. Morbid? I don’t think so. Often Jesus spoke of the need to release one’s life (which is in itself an enormous act of faith) in order to gain it (Matthew 10:7; 16:25). We know that Jesus’ journey takes him to the deadly timbers of the cross.
We are surrounded by silly symbols of our anxieties that are little more than death denying. We see it manifested in our frantic over-consumption, with our lust for violence in speech and action and then there the attitudes of individualism and selfishness. Yet we are all, in the end, destined to be no more than a can of ashes on this earth.
Ash Wednesday and Lent call on us to ignore the anxious voices that cannot believe in anything but the self, and listen to the voice of the One, who out of dust, breathed in each the breath of life. There will come a day when our breath returns to the Creator.
Finally the ashes that mark us on Ash Wednesday are an invitation to follow. For me this season is an important reminder that whatever it is I face or will face in my life – and one can scarcely imagine what awaits us in our lifetime – its scope does not exceed the reach of God. I do not know how I will face all that confronts me, but then again that is not my primary concern. I am called to follow on this journey.
To acknowledge that we are but dust is itself a great act of faith. For then we can more fully enter into the largeness of God.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Through dust and breath, we have been marked by God and for God.
Through ashes and water, we have been marked by God and for God.
And through the cross and hope of Easter we have been marked by God and for God; today and all our days. Amen.