I am posting the sermon I would have preached tonight at our Ash Wednesday service. We had to cancel due to weather. It is based on the Gospel reading Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21. I invite you to read the text prior to the sermon, and spend some time reflecting on its meaning. We will have elements from the Ash Wednesday public worship service this Sunday, including the imposition of ashes for any who choose to receive them. Blessings to you all as we observe a holy Lent.
It has always seemed a bit strange to me that the Gospel text for Ash Wednesday every year is this passage from Matthew where Jesus warns his followers to “beware practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…”
On the day when Christians around the world will do the very thing Jesus says not to do – walk around in public practicing our piety with ashes smeared on our foreheads – we hear this cautionary note.
At the beginning of a season when followers of Jesus will take on various fasts – from chocolate to Facebook to alcohol to various and sundry bad foods, bad habits, or bad language, and everyone will want to know “What did you give up for Lent?” – Jesus himself warns about the dangers of calling attention to our fasts.
At the outset of a forty day season that sees a steady increase in worship attendance, with a popular spirituality center that invites all ages to pray with water and stones and art work and a labyrinth, a sanctuary kept open for people to come and pray, and lots of folks taking on spiritual disciplines, we hear Jesus say to pray in your room with the door shut in secret.
We could be excused for being a bit confused by these mixed messages. Lent seems at one and the same time a very public display of spirituality with a label plastered across it like those black box warnings on some prescriptions – Beware, Lent could cause unexpected side effects.
Perhaps it is a good thing that Ash Wednesday arrives on an icy Middle Tennessee this year, forcing the cancellation of the evening service. The weather has forced most of us into the very position Jesus commends – to practice our spirituality out of sight of others, locked in our ice-covered prayer closets, the only ashes available the homemade variety, and no one to see except perhaps our closest family. It has forced us to begin our fasts – whatever they are – in secret.
Note that Jesus doesn’t issue a blanket condemnation of public prayer and fasting, but instead addresses motives. Do not practice your piety in order to be seen. Do not give alms that you may be praised by others. Do not pray that you may be seen by others. Do not fast in such a way as to show others you are fasting. In doing these things, Jesus says, the ones doing them are seeking a reward – the reward of being seen as righteous, pious, and generous by other people. Jesus condemns faith practiced as self-promotion, as performance for other eyes. If that is the reward they seek, says Jesus, it is the reward – the only reward – they will have. It is as if they are storing up treasures on earth, instead of in heaven, and everyone knows the earthly treasures are temporary and vulnerable, and, like us, destined for the ash heap.
It seems to me the key verse in this text, and for all of Lent, is the last one – “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
If our faith, our spirituality, is all about being seen and heard by others; if our ego becomes more important than our service; if our life of faith is motivated by the equivalent of Facebook “likes,” then our heart is precisely there in those “treasures,” rather than in God. It is not really about whether we pray in a locked room or in the sanctuary or the spirituality center; nor is it about whether we receive ashes or fast or take on spiritual disciplines; it is not even about whether other people see us – no, the fundamental question of Lent and of Jesus’ teaching here is why do we do these things, the question is the location of our hearts.
Today many of our brothers and sisters are walking around wearing ashes. Far from a public display of piety for the purpose of being seen by others, it is actually the very opposite. The ashes are a reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return. On the very first day of Lent we are reminded that our faith is a gift, not an accomplishment; that our lives, including the next breath we take, are gifts; that we are sustained not by our religious practices, but by the grace of God to which these practices point.
And we dare to say that this is good news. It is good news to know that we are dust sustained by God. It means we can finally put away the pretense of perfection, we can be done with the need to impress, we can banish from our consciousness the soul-killing, heart-displacing idea that we are the sum total of our success. I am dust. You are dust. The Pope is dust. The wealthy are dust. The poor are dust. No matter your race, your nationality, your gender, your sexuality, your politics, your righteousness or lack thereof, your success or failure, you and I are dust.
Ash Wednesday is the great leveling day when we are invited to look deeply into our hearts and see beating in that center of our being not our ego, not our carefully constructed selves, but simply God’s grace – which holds all things together.
From this posture we are prepared to walk into Lent meaningfully, to take on disciplines, to lay down distractions, to pay attention to the placement of our hearts, knowing that we are sustained in this practice not by the praise and attention of others, not by our ability to do it right, but only by the God who breathes into our dusty selves the breath of life which is true life.
I have been troubled all week by the heart-breaking news of a family who in the process of stopping to help a motorist on the icy interstate were killed. Much was revealed in that event. The clearest revelation is the fragility and vulnerability of life and how easily and unexpectedly it can be snatched away – we are dust.
But something else was also revealed on that highway. Beating beneath the dust were hearts focused not on themselves, but on the stranger, on the other whom they did not know. There is no doubt where their hearts were located. We are more than the flesh and blood bodies we possess – so much more. And when we awaken to this reality, we can be agents of God’s transformation of the world.
Yes we are dust. And we belong to God, who made us and in whom we live and move and have our being.
So this year, in the cold and quiet landscape of this rare Tennessee ice and snow, let us take Jesus up on his challenge and receive the gift of this most unusual Ash Wednesday to go into our prayer closets, take up our fasts, and take on our disciplines… with very few witnesses. Let us remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, and quietly align our hearts with the only treasure worth pursuing.
Let us observe a holy Lent. Amen.