Feb. 26, 2020 – Ash Wednesday – sermon

Posted by on Wed, Feb 26, 2020 in Lent, Sermons

Ash Wednesday

February 26, 2020

God’s beloved dust,
ushered from pew to pastor,
they will pause.
Eyes averted
or closed
or resolute in meeting mine,
an awkward encounter
breaking the boundary of space—
to touch another’s face
and to mark it

God’s beloved dust,
thumb to forehead,
breaking with tradition,
I will say
to God’s beloved dust—
to the squirming infant
barely a month from the womb,
to the mother, headscarfed,
halfway through chemotherapy,
to the wrinkled widow
well acquainted with ashes:

Remember you are God’s beloved dust
and to God’s beloved dust you shall return.

And we will watch and wait
to witness
what God can do
with God’s beloved dust.

—From A Poem on the Eve of Lent, Austin Crenshaw Shelley

What can God do with God’s ‘beloved dust? This Ash Wednesday gospel never mentions it. No mention of Lent or our forty-day journey, no mention of taking up or giving up things, nor of repentance or forgiveness. Jesus is speaking of what a life in the presence of God is to be—now and always. Not a Lenten discipline for the coming six weeks, but what we do with God’s beloved dust.

Charitable giving, prayer, and fasting are for one’s whole life, not for a season. There is just as much need and cause to pray in Eastertide and ordinary time as there is in Lent and giving generously to those who have less is a constant year-round need, and always will be. Our Lenten midweek worship will see a few more people joining in, and yet we hold that service 9 months of the year, not six weeks – and those who attend love it and drink deeply of it  in January and April as much as during Lent. We delight to share a meal together before it and treasure mealtime together as a community and as families yet somehow nothing about it says ‘fasting’ to me! True, ‘soup supper’ sounds like simpler fare, trust me when I say no one leaves the table feeling they’ve fasted after hearty delicious soup, warm fresh bread, and almost always a dessert—or three—to choose from.

I’m not eschewing Lenten observances, but to see them as short term diminishes the point of what Jesus teaches here. Can we hear it with fresh minds today? Our whole lives are a journey in themselves, especially as Christians, and no one takes a journey agreeing to pay attention to the map for just one ninth of the time–which is what Lent is each year. We look to find the route and then stay with it, learning, course-correcting, and managing detours as we go. Jesus’ words are about the whole journey and he says not to undertake any of act of faith because of how good it makes us look. Pretty simple. He says we cannot separate our hearts from our treasure, so we’d better be sure what we treasure is where we want our hearts to be. Yep, my satisfaction in finding an Eileen Fisher sweater at the consignment store is not an act which moves me closer to God and I know from experience they will wear out – and do so long before my deep joy in sharing Christ’s body and blood with you for example.

While that last heart-attached-to-treasure lesson is one I (and many of us) need reminding of, some years I get to Lent and wonder if the other warnings of this reading are still relevant to us. What about practicing piety in public? That may fall under cultural relevancy, since in our context it is considered impolite (or even mentally unstable) to stand on the street corner and pray aloud. It’s just not a rampant problem here; praying in secret sounds pretty good to Northwest Episcopalians, and we’re happy to keep it quiet! Since he warns against acting like hypocrites—the word was used to denote an actor in a mask, literally a person with two faces—I wonder what he would call us to do today? Perhaps; “Beware of pretending you are not a Christian in order to seem less scary or like one of the in-crowd?” I know for some, Jesus’ words about God who ‘sees’ all we do, be it in private or in public, are sobering. With our many layers of security to hide our identities and passwords or our penchant for posting only the happy or glowing pictures, Lent can help us remember that God sees us wholly as we are, in all we do, secret or not. There’s no blocking God on caller ID; is that hard to fathom for our generation?

Alms-giving is similarly fraught with cultural impact. For one thing no one speaks of “alms” anymore, and non-profits all know that posting names of well-known givers and leaders encourages others to consider stepping up and giving themselves. Openly acknowledging volunteers for faithful service is not a bad thing, and raising visibility encourages others to jump in and help too. Even so Jesus’ teaching brings a durable relevancy that survives both these changes in our public/private world; is if we do these for the public accolade, then that’s our reward. It’s like paying people to think well of us. Doing these things because they are right and good is the key, whether they get made known or not. As for disfiguring ourselves to make our fasting more rewarding and noticeable sounds out of sync with our tendency to keep up our outward appearances and efforts to avoid looking ‘disfigured’ or even unkempt, so what’s the corollary today? Perhaps Jesus would simply tell us not to brag or complain about our fasting or any religious sacrifice that challenges us, especially not for self-promotion or sympathy. How hard is it to keep it between us and God?

On the whole, the message is to do these things utterly without outward or superficial motivation, without the second face or public mask, working instead on intending to serve God by serving others, to draw nearer to God as its own reward and as quite sufficient. Ash Wednesday doesn’t call us to anything we haven’t heard before or don’t already know we should do, it calls us to revisit how we’re doing with them and why we do them (or don’t). We can keep up appearances all we want and look great ‘on paper’ as they say, but God is right there with us, and God knows all about it; we say it every Sunday as we pray to God “from whom no secrets are hid.”

Why does this matter? Because this being fully seen by God, noticed by God, is to matter to God. The temptation Jesus warns about is allowing others to determine our worth or value based on what we show them. That becomes our reward he says. It also means exhaustion as we have to keep it up and eventually we doubt the same validating we sought from them to begin with. That’s not so with God. Yes, knowing God isn’t impressed by the outward show can make us feel exposed or vulnerable and yet God knowing who we really are and loving who we really are is comforting. It’s exactly the right place to put our trust. As God’s creation we are already worthy of God’s care and attention and we don’t need to do anything showy to earn it, we don’t need to put on a good face to get approval from God or anyone else. Needing to confess our sins doesn’t make God love us less, it makes us human.

Lent magnifies the journey we walk with Christ all year long and every day of our lives, and the ashy cross of our mortality brings us up short. Like any sign of our active faith, even these ashes we will wear can be distorted into a public display of piety. How strange it would be to use them to impress when they are signed upon our foreheads to acknowledge that “From dust you came; to dust you shall return.” They signify our human dependence on God who made us and loves us, God who knows us, sees us, and is merciful to us, from whose dust we came and to whom we will return again.

Remember you are God’s beloved dust
and to God’s beloved dust you shall return.

And we will watch and wait
to witness
what God can do
with God’s beloved dust.

© 2020 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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