* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017 *
Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.
Texts for Ash Wednesday:
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 + Psalm 51:1-17 + 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 + Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Please pray with me this evening:
Holy and Almighty God,
Return us to you tonight.
Remind us that you are God,
And that we are not.
And give us hearts that ache with the same love
And life that you first breathed into the dust.
I have a curious relationship with Ash Wednesday. For a couple of reasons, I think.
The first is that I’m a pretty high empath. That is, I feel things quite deeply. And so I enter and walk through Lent not only with a heightened sense of my own failings as it relates to living close to the heart of God, but I’m also more aware of how, on a larger societal level, our shortcomings feel greater and more vast. I tend to get quite introspective during Lent, and usually what I uncover doesn’t bring me much joy.
Secondly, is that it’s curious to me that every year we hear these same cautionary words from Jesus about practicing our piety before others, and yet, here we are, gathered together among friends and family, to be smudged with dirt, to then file out through those doors very publicly displaying these badges of mortality.
As you walked around today, did you notice the dusty crosses on the heads of some of your co-workers or neighbors or strangers? Did you give each other a knowing look or wink or nod? There’s a collective relationship with Ash Wednesday that doesn’t feel present with almost any other liturgical day.
And it makes me wonder why.
Part of me thinks that there’s a sense of cultural expectation with Ash Wednesday. Most of us grew up going to Ash Wednesday services, but even if we didn’t, seeing all these people walk around with smudges on their forehead…well, it kind of feels like the thing to do, doesn’t it?
But there’s another part of me—the more hopeful part, I suppose—that thinks that maybe…just maybe…there’s something so undeniably compelling about being told the truth about ourselves.
That for all our complexity and brilliance, we’re nothing more than the dust of the earth traced on our brows.
That’s a hard truth to hear, I think. Because so much of our lives these days are focused on what anthropologist Ernest Becker calls “immortality projects.” We avoid death at all costs. On average, we’re living longer than ever before, but we consume ourselves with running away from death.
But what if we reframe what it means to be dust?
What if instead of running away from death, we imagined ourselves as running toward life?
Dust and dirt are precious, church. It’s out of the dust that life was brought forth. It’s out of the dirt that life springs up from the ground.
You’ve heard that the dust in your homes is made up mostly of skin cells, right? Not that I’m saying that we shouldn’t clean our houses, but think about that…dust contains DNA…the very foundations of life are contained within those balls of dirt.
Dust is holy. Dust is precious. Dust is life.
And you know, when we’re baptized, the pastor marks this very same cross on our very same foreheads, and declares to us, “Beloved, child of God, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
Baptism—this act of joining our very selves to Christ, so that, even in death, we are united, through Christ’s resurrection, to Christ’s life.
These crosses, that are so familiar to our foreheads, are identity markers for us.
They’re touchstones for us when we feel distant from the One who crafted us from the dust.
They’re guideposts helping us find our way back to the Source of our life.
They’re hallmarks reminding us who we are and whose we are. That God is God, and we are not.
And that’s Gospel, church. That’s Good News for us who are consumed with our immortality projects.
Because it means that we don’t have to have it all together, and still God redeems us.
This cross of ash on our heads does serve as a reminder to us of how far away from the heart of God we’ve drifted.
But it also shows us the extraordinary lengths that God goes to bring us back.
And if you’re wondering, it’s about the distance from one outstretched hand to the other.
I don’t think Jesus in our Gospel for tonight is admonishing against religiosity, so much as he is explaining what a life steeped in spiritual practices looks like.
The three traditional Lenten spiritual disciplines are prayer, fasting, and acts of mercy. And I don’t think Jesus is reprimanding these practices, I think he’s resetting their direction.
See, piety had become a display. In ancient Jerusalem, the religious people were making a show of their prayer and fasting so as to be seen and noticed by others.
But Jesus says, these practices aren’t about you. The spiritual disciplines we undertake during Lent aren’t about making ourselves feel better or more holy. Their function is to make us more aware of God’s presence in our lives and to turn our focus outward, away from ourselves, and to give of ourselves, for the sake of others.
Rather than avoiding death, embrace life, church.
Plant, and grow, and give, and cultivate life where life is needed.
That’s what this mark on your forehead is.
Not a sign of death, but a reminder of the life to which you are called.