Sermon for Ash Wednesday; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

In the fall of 2008, my beloved seminary entered into a time of financial retrenchment. It was hard. It meant the cut of programs, staff, faculty, and hours to certain services. But, it also was in the best interest of theological education. I remembered gathering in the chapel on campus to hear the news and you could have heard a pin drop as our seminary president laid out the plans step by painful step. We looked around at the faces of the professors that no longer were just positions to be cut on paper, but real flesh and blood. So, on Ash Wednesday, my church history professor, Beth Leeper, made the ascent into the high pulpit and wondered aloud how we live into Lent when we had already been living in a proverbial Lent for the last few months. She voiced what many of us already felt: we weren’t ready to let go of the alleluias. We weren’t ready for sackcloth and ashes. We weren’t ready for the reminder of death because it had surrounded us already for months. 

Professor Leeper’s words came to me again as I was preparing for this day because I, once again, am not ready to bury the alleluia. I am not ready to talk about our mortality. I don’t want to mark the cross on your foreheads knowing there is a real possibility that this time next year I won’t be able to do it again either because I won’t be here or you won’t. I have lived in a perpetual Good Friday for approximately 55 days. Trust me, I did the math. So forgive me if I am ready for a resurrection story already. I’ve done the 40 days and then some already, Jesus. But time is fickle. And so here we are again. And Jesus keeps calling to me. Jesus keeps calling for me to follow him, keeps calling me to serve him and his people. Jesus keeps showing up. There are days when that is really annoying, honestly. I know this valley narrative I keep sharing with you may be getting old. (It’s getting old to me.) But I keep sharing it because you need to know that even those that God has called into a life of service have doubts. So it’s okay for you to have doubts too. 

I wondered then, what is our response to Lent this year, church? You may have friends that practice giving something up or even making more time for something during Lent. I choose not to, but that’s just me. Scripture tells us we should show up. Lent isn’t a time for us to make us better, it’s a time for God and the Holy Spirit to move in us and move us just that much closer to God because it’s not about us. So, we should show up. What if our response to all of the noise, chaos, and fear in the world was that we showed up? For the next 6 weeks we made a promise to ourselves, one another, and to God that we would show up. We can’t control anything, at all. But we can show up here and let the Holy Spirit stir. What’s the worst that can happen? 

When we show up, we give alms, we pray, and we fast. Now, all of that may look different depending on who you are. Maybe you increase your giving. Maybe you pray more often. Maybe you fast from gossip. I don’t know. But we just keep showing up. We keep showing up because at the end of the day, we are alleluia people, we are resurrection people, and we don’t let death have the final word. And we do this all together because God created us to be in community. Do you want to know how I have survived the last 55 days? Because I know and have felt your prayers. When I wasn’t strong enough to pray for myself, I knew you were praying for me. And I pray for you too. Daily. I keep showing up because I know that God will keep surprising me. 

These actions we take tonight: confessing our sins, the imposition of ashes, communion, they’re not about proving how holy we are. It’s not even about feeling holy (I don’t even know what that feeling is). But it’s about the lifelong commitment that God has made with us and that we make to one another in baptismal promises that help us to cling to the “things that will sustain us” (Feasting on the Word, Anschutz 22). It might also be easy for the outside world, those who aren’t religious, to see the crosses on our foreheads and call us hypocrites. After all, aren’t we supposed to be doing all of this in private? Well, we’re all hypocrites sooner or later. And the cross on our foreheads doesn’t show or prove we’re better than anyone. It’s not an international bat signal for virtuosity. 

The ashen cross on our foreheads is a reminder of our mortality, of our sins, of our own shortcomings. It’s an outward sign that we are aware that death is very real. We don’t need that reminder around here. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I don’t. “Ashes on our forehead are not displaying our piety before others; it is telling the truth to all that we are dying” (twitter “@jeffwfisher”). It is something we all have in common. And our response to this is Jesus. The one who names us, claims us, and saves us from ourselves, is Jesus. We are God’s and to God we shall return. We are made of God “stuff” and we will return to God. 

So maybe this Lent we just show up; we deny Satan the pleasure of tempting us into the valley and into the desert. We continue to carry the alleluia, even if it is just in our hearts. We show up because the world needs good news and maybe we are the ones to bring it. And maybe death doesn’t sound like good news, but our story never ends at death. We keep showing up because we know God is already here, doing amazing things and we’d hate to miss out on that. We keep showing up because the women at the empty tomb were right. We keep showing up because we need one another. This Lent I’m not giving up anything (which is usual) but I’m just going to keep showing up. It’s an act of resistance. I wondered what would really make Satan mad, and I think that’s it. I’m going to keep showing up. Maybe you’ll join me. 

Ash Wednesday 2018; Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21

We come fully prepared, or so we think

Privately prepared for this public outing

Fasting on our mind, alms prepared, personal piety on lockdown

Oil is on our heads, our faces are washed. We are ready.

And then you meet us here, Lord

All of the preparations in the world can’t

Measure up to that face to face moment.

You see us. You see the real us, the real me.

The me you’ve loved from first splash to now.

You see what we’re trying to hide with all of these

Preparations

You see our secrets

You see our shame

We knew we couldn’t hide. But we tried.

You find us. You seek us out

Have mercy on us

We tremble in fear and are knocked to our knees

Humbled, but not humiliated

Thankful. Prayerful. Remorseful.

We thought we were prepared.

But in prayer, you find us.

In the meal, you find us.

In the darkness, you find us.

You always find us, Lord.

Sin is a disruption to our daily lives.

We can’t escape it by ourselves.

You are the only thing to set us free with your cross shaped key

We have failed in the ways you have called us.

We were silent in the face of injustice.

We were complacent in times of persecution

We were frozen when the moment needed movement.

We weren’t who you created us to be.

We desire to do good and fail.

We desire to love and instead judge.

We desire to serve and instead become self serving.

Forgive us. We beg of you, forgive us Lord.

We follow you from death to life

And our life now has meaning.

The only bags we need are the ones you fill with mercy

Grace

And love

The next 40 days we will hear of your travels,

Of your healing

Of your teaching, preaching, and learning.

And we will hear of your entry into Jerusalem

Shouts of “Hosanna in the highest!”

Will quickly escalate into

“Crucify him”

Our voices carry, but we’ll deny like Peter

We’ll say it wasn’t us but then the cock will crow

And yet

Yet

You meet us here.

In all of our brokenness

In all of our lost promises

In all of our failed attempts at love.

You meet us here.

And somehow. Some way

We are reminded

That we are yours.

That we’ve always been yours

That we will always be yours

You rescue us from ourselves

You save us from our sin

You remind us that we belong to you

You have marked us with the cross

And sealed us with the Holy Spirit

We are dust

And to dust we shall return

 

Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2017; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Today starts our journey to the cross. Today we start the life-giving, slow and methodical, scripture-filled centering traverse towards what ultimately saves us. But, as I’ve thought about it, I wondered why we think about Lenten practices only during the time of Lent. If we take scripture seriously, which we should, then perhaps it might be good to ponder what it would look like to give alms, pray, and fast all year around. I love that this scripture comes today because this actually is the end of the sermon on the mount. This is the same scripture we’ve heard over the last few weeks. Jesus is educating the disciples before they go out into the world serving in his name. Clearly, Jesus didn’t tell the disciples that they only need to engage in alms giving, praying, and fasting for 40 days or so. Jesus never mentioned “do this only until I am raised.” But, that is often what we chose to do.

And why? Why focus on these practices for only 40 days? It’s not like they aren’t life giving. Jesus wants to provide us with life. He provides us with the tools to do that. Give alms, engage in prayer, and fast. However, most of us do this for only the season of Lent, if we do it at all. Once Easter rolls around, we congratulate ourselves on keeping the discipline, engage and overindulge in the things from which we fasted, and go back to our “regular” lives. Instead of these becoming sacred practices, they become something to cross off our to-do list. Even more interesting, Jesus suggests, maybe even commands us, to do all of these things in private.

Doing any of this in private doesn’t seem to be the American way. If we’re going to be honest, we like to be recognized. Any of you that receive any kind of mailings from organizations that thrive from donations know that at least one mailing is dedicated to givers. Sometimes the givers are even noted by really fancy names “gold level giving” or “president’s society” and the like. It is a nice way to say thank you and perhaps guilt/shame others into giving more in the following year. Many times, our giving is rewarded with actual gifts of thanks. “Thank you for your donation! Can we send you a coffee mug you don’t need and will never actually use?”

I’m just as guilty about praying in public as anyone else. If we’re friends on Facebook, you know that I make it a habit to publicly pray for anyone who requests it every single Thursday. Now, I don’t do this to earn praise or even to make myself appear holier than thou. I do it out of love for my neighbor. But, I can understand how from the outside, I could appear to be lifting myself up as better than someone else because I am praying for other people and you aren’t.

But, when we engage in any of these practices in private, something happens. According to scripture, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” When we give alms, pray, and fast without boasting, without a thought of self, and without the desire to earn anything God sees us and will reward us. I don’t know about you all, but a reward from God is better than any coffee mug. Do we have a relationship with God so we can brag to other people? Do we come to church so that others can see that we’re here? Do we pray in the hopes that others will see us doing it and desire to be us? Do we fast because we want others to be jealous of our discipline? I hope you answered “no” to all of these questions. Anything we do we do because we desire to have a private communion with God.

Please don’t misunderstand me, brothers and sisters. There is a time and place to be a disciple. But, being an evangelist is different than giving alms, praying, and fasting. Being an evangelist is a response to God’s love and grace showered upon us. God has been so good to us that we can’t not but tell other people. But we don’t tell other people about God’s love and grace as a way of bragging, right? We don’t do it so we can boast like “you won’t believe what I have and you don’t!” No. We share about how good God is to us because we so badly want everyone to experience this love and grace.

What might it look like, then, to engage in the practices of alms giving, praying, and fasting all year around? Theologian Douglas John Hall says “the very purpose of almsgiving, prayer, and religious observance is to deliver us from the debilitating and exorbitant self-consciousness that dogs our lives. ‘Salvation’ for self-absorbed creatures like us means finally–or at least intermittently!–to lose our precious selves in the other: the other who is the recipient of our alms, the Other who hears our prayers, the others who wonder what our religion really comes to if not just more public promotion and self-display! In most of the days and hours of our lives, we are burdened with the thought of how we are being perceived: What will they think? When faith is true, Jesus affirms, we find ourselves–at least here and there, now and then–graciously liberated from the burden of self, liberated for the other. That is faith’s essence!”

The truest definition of sin is whatever comes between you and God. For me, brothers and sisters, the thing that comes between me and God the most is myself. The idea of being liberated from that is intoxicating, enticing, and incredibly appealing. And God tells me this freedom comes from giving alms, praying, and fasting in private? I’m in. If you need a reminder of our mortality, brothers and sisters, it will soon be smudged on your forehead. We are dust, and to dust we shall return. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done or not done. It doesn’t matter if we leave millions to charity, pray in the public sphere, or fast from indulgences, we will return to dust. All of us.

In the cross, we are freed from our sin and freed for service to one another. We have been liberated for the other. So, my challenge to you, my dusty friends, is to see Lent as the start of something. Not the start and end 40 days later; but the actual start of something: a deepening of your own faith life. Our relationship with God is very private. The fruits of that relationship are very public. God knows you, sees you, and loves you. God loves “the you you hide.” God knows every single one of the hairs on your head and knows every single one of your flaws. And God loves you still the same. You don’t need to prove that to anyone. In the cross, Jesus died for your sins, yes, but also died so that you wouldn’t need to carry your burden of self anymore. The only person you ever have to worry about impressing already thought you were worth dying for.