Ash Wednesday – March 6, 2019
Sermon preached by Seminarian Greg Baker
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
My mom always took me to church on Ash Wednesday when I was a kid. I always participated in the whole thing, but I don’t remember much the services, except the part when we’d go up and get our ashes. I remember standing in line, inching closer to the priest, and then feeling his thumb mark my forehead with the grainy feeling sign of the cross before hurriedly returning to my pew.
I liked going to church as a kid. But Ash Wednesday was different. We usually went in the morning or at lunch, and I didn’t like to walk around with some dirt on my forehead the rest of the day. I was worried that it looked weird. That people would look at me funny, or think I was different. So much of our society, even when we’re kids, is predicated on fitting in. And walking around having consciously chosen to let someone smear ashes on my forehead. Ash Wednesday made me uncomfortable. Ash Wednesday makes me uncomfortable. With that dust on my forehead, I become self-conscious. And that, perhaps, is the point.
Ashes are signs of two things, I think. First, they are a reminder of our mortality. A reminder that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, someday. Second, by their sheer presence on our foreheads – the most obvious place on our bodies for any type of marking – I wonder if they’re an invitation to live our lives with a healthy dose of self-awareness and self-reflection.
I wonder, how do you do this work? How do you reflect in your life? Maybe mediation? Journaling? Walks in nature? Conversations with a mentor, or maybe a friend? I like to journal. And when I say I like to journal, what I really mean is that I know that journaling is the best way that I do self-reflection, and that because I know this I actually avoid doing it because self-reflection can be hard, scary work. I don’t always like what I find out when I sit down and spend time with myself. I don’t like thinking about the ways that I need to grow, or the ways that I fall short as a friend, a son, a big brother, or a Christian.
In the gospel for today, Jesus really wants us to think about is why and how we do things in our lives. How we carry ourselves as Christians, how we practice our faith and worship of God. How we give to others. How we pray. How we fast. Where we accumulate worldly possessions. These are concrete places where we can begin to be self-reflective about the ends to our actions. When we make a gift to a charity, or donate food to a food pantry, is it so we feel the gratification of praise, or because we are fulfilling the great commandment to love God and neighbor? Are we turning towards God, or towards the lures of the world we live in?
Jesus says, give alms in secret. Pray in secret. Fast in secret. And your Father who is in secret will see. This is countercultural, clashing with the competitive nature of our society. Inevitably we will feel we have nothing, and yet Paul affirms that we will possess everything.
There is something interesting about the Greek word that is used for “secret.” One of the ways it can be translated is “inward.” Or, “hidden.” Our father in secret is really the God that resides within us, the God who imprinted God’s image on our soul in creation. We give, we pray, we fast, we live self-reflectively, while directed towards God within, and not the idolatry of the world, the perceptions and ideals of the gods of consumerism, vainglory, service for our own gratification and not the sake of others.
This is our Lenten fast – the one we find in Isaiah – to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to share bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into our house, and to not hide from kin in need. In reflecting on the ways which we can turn towards God, we are reflecting on something much bigger than that – we are working towards the building up of the kingdom of God. Inwardly reflecting so that we can reflect God’s kingdom outwardly in the lives we live.
This is the work that Jesus is calling us to do in the Gospel – to cultivate in our practices of faith lives that are intentionally directed towards God and God’s mission, not the temptations of power and status that run rampant in our broken world.
This is, of course, really hard to do. We will fail. We will fall victim to the temptations of the broken world. Ash Wednesday affirms this as reality of life. I have to remind myself of this all the time – that I will sin, and fall short. It happens, and it’s ok. Jesus knew this – I don’t think he wouldn’t have addressed the things he did in our Gospel otherwise. He knows we wander, and he calls us back to our God who is in secret – who is within and is walking with us on our journey.
Delving within ourselves, plumbing the depths of our souls. This can be scary, intimidating stuff. There are parts of ourselves that we might not like. To be aware of ourselves, fully, to reflect on our whole selves – the parts we like and the parts we don’t – can be uncomfortable.
And, spending time with God – well, that can be risky business too. Sometimes I don’t like the answers I get when I reflect inwardly with myself and God. But, I’ve found that in my life, the times I’ve grown the most have also been the times I’ve been the most uncomfortable. The ashes we receive today remind us of the necessity our own self-awareness, and the potential for the growth that comes out of our facing this reality. When we get to know ourselves more, we can more fully live out our lives to the purpose of God’s dream for the world. So let the ashes, and this season Lent, be an invitation to turn within, to reflect on ourselves – our shortcomings, and our gifts. On how we live and move through the world as Christians, and how we can work line up our way of life with the way Jesus asks us to live it today. On where we can turn towards him with our actions and in our lives, so that we can reflect the love of Jesus out into the world.