February 29, 2107 / Ash Wednesday / Sara Wolbrecht / Matthew 6; Psalm 51
Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite days of the church year and Lent is my favorite season. It has been noted how our culture dominates Christmas and Easter with Santa and the Easter bunny and all the consumerism and made-for-TV specials behind all of it. But oddly nobody waits every year to watch the Ash Wednesday Peanuts Special. There are no Doorbuster sales at 4am on the first day of Lent. Nope. We get this one all to ourselves. Our culture has no idea what to do with a day that celebrates the fact that we all sin and are going to die.
And that is what Ash Wednesday is about. Ash Wednesday brings us face to face with our own mortality, we smudge ashes on our foreheads and say the words: remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. We stand firmly in the reality that we are going to die. That life is precious, finite. I invited one of our young adults to worship tonight over lunch recently and they said – Oh, I hate Ash Wednesday – it’s all about death. Right? Who wants to choose to sit in the reality of death?
Ash Wednesday is also a day where we name our sinfulness. Sin. When is the last time you used the word sin in a sentence in everyday conversation? Yeah. You haven’t, right? Sin is a word that most of us bristle at, and many of us don’t really understand.
And yet. We know sin in our lived experience in the world. We know it as the very real brokenness that exists in so many ways – in our own brokenness in our hearts and bodies and actions and thoughts and anxieties, we have known sin, in the brokenness in our relationships and families, we know sin in the brokenness of oppressive systems and cycles of hate and violence and poverty in our world. We know sin.
One way to then help us understand sin is – Martin Luther’s definition. Marty said sin is being turned-in on ourselves, Incurvatus in se, curved in on self. And that just captures it – he is saying that sin is perpetual navel gazing! Focused on ourselves. Self-obsessed, in our own self-centeredness, pride, image, self-loathing, self-protection. Stuck in ourselves. All the ways in which all we can see is ourselves without letting our gaze be drawn out to see the infinite God of the universe among us, drawn out to see the beauty of God and the beautiful complexity of others, drawn out of our brokenness.
Ash Wednesday, then, is also our chance to freely name that we are sinful, broken people, curved in on ourselves people, who hurt others, who hurt ourselves, who have fallen and failed, who feel broken, and who often feel overwhelmed by the brokenness in our world.
And throughout scripture there are words that capture this – people felt this then, too! Particularly the Psalms, where people cry out to God from that place of honesty and longing and angst and confession in the midst of their turned-in-on-selfness, recognizing their need for God when we feel stuck. Psalm 51 is one of those places, and is the Psalm we read on Ash Wednesday. And we’re going to read it together, outloud, now. To let these words of honesty and confession become ours, yes, as we sit in death and sin, together. (Notice, the character of God in this…)
Psalm 51:1-4; 10-12; 16-17
Have mercy on me, O God,
because of your unfailing love.
Because of your great compassion,
blot out the stain of my sins.
Wash me clean from my guilt.
Purify me from my sin.
For I recognize my rebellion;
it haunts me day and night.
Against you, and you alone, have I sinned;
I have done what is evil in your sight.
You will be proved right in what you say,
and your judgment against me is just.
Create in me a clean heart, O God.
Renew a loyal spirit within me.
Do not banish me from your presence,
and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and make me willing to obey you.
You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
You do not want a burnt offering.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.
How do those words feel as they become our own? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Who wants to choose to sit in the reality of death and sin and brokenness? And yet. What is a spiritual life, a spiritual path that avoids, that won’t go deeply into pain, failure, insecurity, death, sin, doubts, fear, anxiety? A spiritual life is one that not only doesn’t avoid those things, but actually goes into them all the way to the center. And the way of Jesus is absolutely a life of going all the way in – ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Part of that going into the center of who we are is captured in another reading that is traditionally read on Ash Wednesday – from Matthew 6, the middle of Jesus’ greatest sermon, the sermon on the mount. Notice what Jesus says here:
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 (NIV) Jesus continued: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
In this, his greatest sermon, the Sermon on the Mount – as Jesus talks of generosity and prayer and fasting and doing super-cool spiritual things, what does he say about all of them? He says: don’t do it for show! No audience. He’s saying: pay attention to our intentions – the WHY we do what we do. That the things we do are not to be done for the sake of looking good. But what we do is done for God. Alone. What matters most to God is the state of our hearts – our intention, the WHY, our core, who we are when no one is watching, who we really are.
Who are you when no one is watching? Ash Wednesday and Lent beg this question of us. Who are you when no one is watching? Ash Wednesday opens us up to pay attention to who we are. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. For Ash Wednesday begins our 40-day journey to the cross, to death and resurrection. Lent is about interrogative love, love that gets all up in our business. It's about asking how beauty might occur in the midst of our fragile, decaying lives. It's about creating new stories for our lives scribbled in dust and ash that reexamine what human beings can be for the life of each other and our world. It’s messy business when we’re dealing with ash. It’s messy to let interrogative love in, for the shadows and cobwebs and the deep, sealed-off places within us be touched by the light of Christ, and grace. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
And to open us up for that kind of a journey, here at Salt House, our particular path we will walk, together, for these six weeks of Lent, is one of prayer – of stepping into that vulnerable place of conversation and relationship with God. Of letting that interrogative love into all the moments of our day – and to let God, through various practices of prayer, help us to see who we are when no one is watching. A journey we’ll walk, to the cross, together.
And so our journey begins now. In a moment, we will come forward to receive the imposition of ashes. And to prepare us for this holy time, we have a song and video, called “Perfectly Fitted.” It uses Jesus’ word of invitation from Matthew 10: “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” And we hear Jesus’ invitation now – into the frailty and beauty of our lives, into the vulnerability of Lent. Into 40 days of prayer, together.