a sermon for Ash Wednesday
The ashes we wear today are not intended to remind us of how small we are. Instead, they are a reminder that we have been formed in the image of God from the clay of the earth, and as such, we have much more significance than all the acceptance, approval, affirmation of our society can possibly give us.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent. By its very nature, Lent is the most counter-cultural season of the church year. We live in a culture that teaches us that we can do anything, be anything, have anything. But Lent a season that teaches us that we are mortal, made of dust, who are called by our creator to a life of self-sacrifice and self-denial. Sometimes, these two opposite points of view creates a little “cognitive dissonance” inside us. Who are we? And what are we saying by our observance of such a strange custom as wearing ashes on our foreheads?
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus cautions us against making big displays of our piety. We should give alms in secret, he says, and not look for praise from others. We should pray in private, so that we aren’t making a demonstration to other people. We should fast cheerfully, so that others are unaware of our fasting.
Of course, Jesus wants us to do all these things. Certainly, we should give alms to the poor. Certainly we should pray. Certainly, we should fast from time to time. It’s not that these actions cause us problems. But when we do these actions with an eye toward what other people think, we’re only fooling ourselves, not them; and certainly not God. God is interested in the state of our hearts. “Rend your hearts and not your clothing,” says the prophet in the Old Testament lesson. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” says Jesus.
One of the things I struggle with is always wondering what other people think of me. This is an occupational hazard for clergy, I think. We are always looking for “the 3 A’s” – acceptance, approval and affirmation. “What did Mrs. So-in-so think about my sermon? Did I offend that nice young couple who came to visit? I wonder what the Sr. Warden thinks about me? Was the bishop impressed when he came to visit?” The 3 A’s are a pretty common problem for all of us. All of us worry about what the other guy thinks about us, at least from time to time. We want to be seen by others as being calm, cool, and collected – as if we have everything in control.
A friend of mine once described Lent as a time for us to “be who you is, cause if you ain’t who you is, you is who you ain’t.” In other words, it’s a time when God calls us to authenticity, when God scrapes away all of the falseness of our lives and reminds us that we are mortal creatures. Lent is a time for us to consider “who we is,” in relation to ourselves, in relation to our neighbors, and most importantly in relation to God.
The irony of our “you can have it all” culture is that when we finally realize that we can’t, in fact, have it all, we begin to feel like we have failed our friends, our families, ourselves. But when we remember that we are but dust of our lives, it’s as if a huge stone has been lifted from our shoulders. We come to realize that we were created for so much more than merely putting on a show for the people in the next office or in the house down the street.
The ashes we are about to receive are not intended to remind us of how small we are. Instead, they are a reminder that we have been formed in the image of God from the clay of the earth. As such, we have much more significance than all the acceptance, approval, affirmation of our society can possibly give us. The dustiness of “who we is,” as creatures created by a loving God, makes us much more significant than we can possibly imagine.
Some of you will choose to wear your ashes for the rest of the afternoon. Some may decide to wash your faces as soon as you get home or work. Either way is fine because all God cares about is the state of your heart. But before you wash your face, take a really good look at yourself in the mirror and think about who you really are. Look at the ones you love the most and see who they are. Remember that you are human; you were created by God in God’s own image; and from time to time, you have sinned – as we all have – and fallen short of who God intended us to be.
Then wash your face, with clear fresh water. Wash it and remember also that you are a child of God, whose sins have been washed away for one and for all by the waters of baptism. Remember that in Jesus Christ, God came down into the world to be just as human as we all are, so that we might someday become just as divine as God is.
Remember that you are nothing more dust, and nothing less than a child of God.
Thanks be to God.