The Rev. Jennifer Adams Sermon preached on February 26, 2020 Ash Wednesday
Isaiah 58:1-12 Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” 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. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 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? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So 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. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left
hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “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. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “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. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But 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. “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.”
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We’ll hear that Ash Wednesday phrase over and over again starting in just a few minutes. I’ll say a prayer over the ashes and then everyone will be invited forward to the altar to receive them. These ashes are to be “a sign of our mortality and penitence” we’ll say. “So that we may remember that it is by God’s gracious gift that we are given eternal life.”
So this is not your normal, “Hey, let’s hang out on a Wednesday night,” sort of activity. It’s not even like the beginning of other liturgical seasons. Advent begins so nicely with the lighting of a candle. Christmas starts with an angel and a message of “great joy!” Epiphany opens with the shining of a star that reaches to the ends of the earth. But tonight we get ashes. And our own mortality. Which perhaps explains the difference in attendance between Christmas Eve and Ash Wednesday.
Really, this is a courageous thing for us to do tonight. It’s a countercultural thing for us to do tonight. We are gathered around the language of sin and brokenness, wretchedness, and failure. Remembering that we’re dust take guts!
But none of this is meant to make us afraid or even anxious. The season isn’t meant as a threat. Just the opposite actually. Lent invites us into places we don’t normally go and into time that we don’t normally make for ourselves. And we’re invited for the sake of very simply, gaining perspective.
Lent is an opportunity to re-prioritize things of life and faith, relationships, and meaning. That’s what happens when you acknowledge your own dustiness, really acknowledge it. You right-size yourself, one might say. And you can re-order the contents of the life you’ve been given, the faith too. Acknowledging right up front that none of us has it right. Nor will we obtain perfection. That’s not even the goal.
What we can do this season is begin again. That’s what Lent invites us to do.
Remember that God chose to take dust and make something of it. Us! This whole night is as much about our beginning as it is about our end (which is also its own beginning.) Remember that God took dust, breathed life into it and created us in his image. In her image. So we have the capacity to sin, to break, to be wretched, and to fail. And naming that helps. We can also love. And forgive. And show mercy. And share hope. We can even rise. An naming that helps too.
Lent reminds us that we’ve got options when it comes to this life of ours. This faith of ours too. And we’ve just been offered 40 days and 40 nights to see those options more clearly than we normally do. It might take guts to look right at all of this, but one could also say that tucked inside of this challenging Ash-filled evening, there is an incredibly grace-filled question to be embraced by. It’s the question that poet Mary Oliver put into the words of poem, “Tell me, what is it that you plan to do with this one wild and precious life.” Precious because it’s a gift. We’d go so far as to say it’s a holy gift. Breath has been given us. Forgiveness has been given us. A new beginning has been given us! What will you do with that?
Now according to Isaiah, one highly recommended option is for us to become what he called “repairers of the breach” and “restorers of streets to live on.” Given the quantity of breaches in the world today we won’t get bored or run out of things to do if we choose that path. In fact if the world needs anything prioritized right now, repairing breaches is a good one to put at the top. And there are so many ways to give your life to that work. Isaiah lists some: loosing bonds of injustice, letting the oppressed go free, sharing bread, inviting the homeless poor and the refugee inside, for food, for shelter, for home, for friends. You can come up with more, on large and small scales, there is so much to offer in directions that heal.
In Matthew, Jesus encouraged his disciples to use prayer and giving as a means by which they would come to treasure that which God does. That encouragement is related to the prophets’ words and our work this season. Jesus encouraged prayer and giving not for the sake of gaining attention. He spoke strongly against “being seen on street corners” simply for the sake of being seen on street corners shouting our prayers. (Not that Episcopalians generally error on that side of thing.) Jesus spoke about prayer and fasting and giving as means by which new perspective would come and a faithful re-prioritizing could take place. He spoke of prayer and fasting as giving as means by which one could come to treasure that which God treasurers. It’s a beautiful way to approach all of that – our Lenten practices as means by which we come to treasure that which God does. Which according to Christ, is us. All of us. And all of them too.
This season tells us that we are dust. And that we are treasure too. It’s the miracle of the season – with more to come. We’re dust into which God breathes life and will breathe it again. We are treasure which is held in the heart and life of God’s Son. May we allow space and time in our own hearts and lives this season to give and receive such grace.