Lent’s Invitation: Ash Wednesday

Lent’s Invitation: Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday: February 26, 2020

Year A: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

At the time of this posting, there was no audio recording of this sermon.

If you’re looking for a truly ironic twist for Ash Wednesday, you only need to think about our Gospel reading appointed for today.          

“Beware of practicing piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your father in heaven…when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 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.”[1]

It is a strange text, considering that this is the day we have put ashes on our foreheads and go out into the world — to work, to school, to our regular lives.

The imposition of ashes is in stark contrast to past tradition in Beckford Parish and many Protestant traditions. I’m told that at least some rectors of the past believed in a strict interpretation of the passage of Matthew and therefore did not impose ashes. Certainly, a blackened sign of the cross is a very public expression of piety. In our Prayer Book on page 265, it says with respect to the Ash Wednesday liturgy, “if ashes are to be imposed”.

Yet, some Christians have been ratcheting up the display even more in recent years. Increasingly, Episcopalians and people from other denominations have been participating in Ash Wednesday services on street corners and sidewalks and in other public spaces in what’s called “Ashes to Go.” Some have upped the ante even more by offering “drive-through ashes” I’m a supporter of what is called Ashes to Go; I still promise to one day participate in “Ashes to Go” out in front of the Shenandoah County courthouse. I will also say the jury is still out for me on the drive though ashes.

But the entire debate about ashes, ashes to go and drive through ashes usually misses the real point of what Jesus is warning against. He’s warning about hypocrisy and false piety – he’s criticizing those who religious piety is done mainly for show.

The reality is that Ash Wednesday, a day when many Christians bear the sign of the cross on their forehead, is an ancient ritual that dates back over a thousand years. It is a day when we consider our mortality: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we say as we impose ashes on people’s foreheads.

Offering ashes on Ash Wednesday makes our need for Jesus Christ crystal clear. So, I wear my own ashes and give ashes to others as a sign of all the ways we are called, at all times and in all places, to be in relationship with God. Our ashes tell the world that we profess our belief in Jesus Christ and that we give ourselves over to Christ’s will for us. By wearing ashes, we are saying that we will not hide; instead, we stand out in the open, we accept and embrace our love of Christ and our need for Christ in our lives.

Ash Wednesday, of course, is only the beginning. In these next forty days, we will find out what it feels like to put down all our pretenses: perhaps some will give up some things like chocolate, or sweets, or coffee; others may take on practices like setting aside time for prayer each day or doing an act of kindness. I just read this afternoon about a new challenge: 40 Days – 40 Items. This church was encouraging parishioners on each day of Lent to remove one item from their closets that they don’t use or wear anymore and place it in a bag. At the end of Lent, donate those items to a charity shop or homeless shelter. Some might put a dollar a day away to give to a worthwhile cause. Imagine the possibilities.

Whatever we choose to do in Lent, we should always be seeking to put ourselves in right relationship with God.

Some people seem to think that Lent is a time for beating themselves up – it’s a real “downer” and they don’t like Lent for that reason. That isn’t what Lent is about. It’s a time to renew our lives in the midst of the world. To look around the world and see all that needs changing and realizing that only God can be the source of that change.

Let’s take a second look at the scripture from Matthew, not just the part about not practicing piety, but the part where it talks about storing up treasure:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.[2]

This is the point of today’s Gospel — to know where our treasure is, to understand what is important. It is the awareness of the gift of life, the gift of time, the gift of love. Often when we read this Gospel, when we hear this verse about treasure, I suspect that we tend to think of it as money and possessions But treasure is also time and people and our lives and our relationship with God – and not only this precious life we have now, but also what we anticipate in the life to come. That treasure is the treasure of the love, mercy, and grace of God. The God of love, mercy, and grace calls us to a life of love, mercy, and grace. The season of Lent is a season of seeing possibilities to be merciful, to be loving and to be encouraging and accumulating a treasure consisting of kindnesses performed for the glory of God.

The way of this world is so often to be competitive and to find ways to be “one up” on others, to pretend to be perfect or better than others, and without need of God. But we belong to Jesus, we are not of that world, or at least, we are not owned by that world.

Our service today is an invitation, “I invite you…” to the change of heart Joel seeks.  It is an invitation to recognize the light of Christ as the new beginning.  “Bless the Lord, O my soul…who satisfies you with good as long as you live,” offers Psalm 103.

There is no time to waste in responding to this invitation, and Ash Wednesday reminds us of this. It reminds us of how important it is to know where our treasure is, where our hearts are. Leaving here with a smudge on our forehead reminds us that our treasure is Jesus Christ.  It is an outward sign of the loving, imperfect people we are.  With these ashes, we begin what is a season of penitence and transformation.  We leave here with ashes because the world needs to seem them and because we need to see them on ourselves and others.

[1] Matthew 6:1, 17-18 New Revised Standard Version (“NRSV)

[2] Matthew 16:19-21, NRSV

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