A Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2020

It’s not often that a preacher has four hours between the first and second delivery of a sermon, but a 7 am and a 12 noon celebration of the Proper Liturgy for Ash Wednesday afforded me that opportunity today.  The sermon was delivered without notes from the center aisle at the seven o’clock, and after four hours of work, delivered from the pulpit, with a text at noon.  I offer that second version of the sermon, and my apologies to those who helped me work through the draft I preached at 7:00.

This sermon is based on the texts assigned for Ash Wednesday, and uses the option from Isaiah as the first reading.

You can find those readings here.

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be always acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Amen.

Please be seated.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

We’ve gathered here this day to hear those words and, kneeling at this rail, to enter the season of Lent; a season of self-examination and repentance, of fasting and self-denial, of reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

In this season of Lent, we do something that we are usually loathe to do.  We work to identify those places in our hearts and in our lives that we long to place in quarantine; that we long to hide from the people around us.  The places that we somehow believe that through denial and self-deception, we can hide from ourselves.  That we hope to hide, even from God.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

It is a remarkable thing that we come here, in the middle of a work week, to hear those words, an acknowledgement of our own mortality, of the reality that are dust, and to dust we shall return.

It is perhaps, even more remarkable that we come here today to enter into this space, this season, of our own free will.

Why would we do that?  When all of the world around us is seeking to deny its faults, to mask its blemishes, to claim innocence even in the face of undeniable evidence…  Why would we risk coming here today, and daring to reveal ourselves to the light of God’s truth and the judgement of God’s gaze?

We are here today because we know that in this season, through these disciplines, through this honest appraisal of ourselves and of our lives, we have an opportunity to let God into the places in our lives and in our hearts which we dare not show to anyone else; and with all of our scars and warts on display, to discover that we are loved, that we have always been loved, and to realize once again the promise that nothing, nothing we have done or left undone; nothing we have thought, or said;       nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Because of that promise, we enter this season willingly, with hope and even with some sense of joy, because we know that God promises us absolution and forgiveness; and because we know that, if we are faithful to this work, at the end of this season, we will be nearer to the one who loves us beyond measure; who loves us in ways that are beyond our ability to imagine or understand; who loves us in ways that can set us free to be the people God created us to be, the people we long to be, the people the world needs us to be.

There is great promise in this season, in these practices; in self-examination and repentance, in fasting and self-denial, in reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.  God’s love and forgiveness can set us free to the people God created us to be, the people we long to be, the people the world needs us to be… but the path is not without some danger.  Even the greatest gifts can be distorted, can be used in ways that pervert and twist them in ways that God never intended.

Listen again to the passage from Isaiah assigned for Ash Wednesday.  God says to the people of Israel:

“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist…”  (Isaiah 58:3b-4)

“Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”  (Isaiah 58:5c)

In the reading from Matthew assigned for Ash Wednesday Jesus recognizes the danger to which Isaiah points and warns his followers,

“whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others… 

 And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others… 

 And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.”

While they have the power to set us free to be the people we long to be, the people God created us to be, we don’t, we can’t engage in self-examination and repentance, fasting and self-denial, reading and meditating on God’s holy Word, with an eye to accruing some benefit, some advantage to ourselves.  We don’t engage in these practices, these disciplines, for ourselves alone.

Let’s return to Isaiah for a minute.  God says to us:

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”   (Isaiah 58:6-7)

Jesus urges us to fast in secret and to greet our community with oil in our hair and our faces washed, because the point and purpose, the end and goal of our fast, of our Lenten practices and disciplines is to set us free to love the community around us; to draw us into God’s path and God’s ways so that we might serve others, and love others as God has loved us.

In The Invitation to the Observance of a Holy Lent, which Mother Melesa will read to us in as few minutes, we will hear the history of this liturgical season.  We will hear that for the early church:

“This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church.”  (BCP p. 265)

A season of preparation for entrance into the community through the rite of baptism; a season of restoration and return to community; a season of fellowship.

These are the true meaning, end, and purpose of this season and of the practices and disciplines in which we engage during Lent.

Yes, this season is an opportunity for us to identify and tear down the walls we build to hide the parts of ourselves that we are afraid to reveal to the people around us, to God, and even to ourselves.  It is an opportunity for us put aside the things that hold us back, that pull us away from God, and distract our attention from the one who loves us beyond all measure.

It is an opportunity for us, through God’s grace and forgiveness, to be set free to be the people we long to be.  But the meaning, end and purpose of Lent doesn’t end there with our own absolution and forgiveness.

The point of God’s absolution and forgiveness is to set us free to love one another as God has loved us.  The point of God’s absolution and forgiveness is to restore us to community, so that we, as the beloved community, as the Body of Christ, can open our arms and welcome others to a life set free from fear, shame and bondage.  The reason that God restores us, reconciles us, and sets us free, is so that we might do the same for others and build a world that brings God’s dream for all of creation to fulfillment here and now.

In a few minutes we will come forward to this rail and receive the mark of our mortal nature, ashes on our foreheads, so that we might enter this season well aware of who we are and whose we are, and there’s always some question as to whether or not we should wear the ashes on our forehead as we leave this place.

I can’t answer that question for you.  That is a decision you will need to make for yourself.

But given what we have heard today, if we do wear those ashes into the world, we need to bear them, not as an emblem of our own piety, not to show others that we have participated in this fast day, not in an attempt to accrue some benefit to ourselves; but as a mark of our commitment to draw closer to God and in that process to draw closer to those around us. As a mark of our commitment:

to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke.

… to share our bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into our houses;

to cover the naked when we see them,
and not to hide ourselves from our own kin…

our own kin… our brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus… all of God’s beloved children.

 

 

 

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