3/1/2017 Ash Wednesday The text is Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today is Ash Wednesday or “The Day of Ashes.” It is a day in which Christians throughout the world are visibly identified by the ashes on their foreheads. It isn’t that ashes are a sign of great wealth and beauty. They are not like diamond studded crosses worn around necks or as earrings. Ashes are basically worthless. In fact, they are often less than worthless as they can be a hindrance and a liability. In this day and age, you can’t even dispose of them with the trash. Ashes are just ashes. They may be able to help plants grow, but you can’t make ashes pretty by painting them. They are just ashes.
And so it is with people – people are just people. When all is said and done, no matter how much righteous paint we cover ourselves with, no matter how much virtuous perfume we spray on ourselves, we can’t cover over the fact that we all carry the color and stench of our true nature. We are dust and to dust we shall return. We are sinners who are left with thoughts and feelings and actions that are best buried and forgotten.
So we smear ashes on our foreheads. We wear ashes to remind us that we are not perfect. But, those ashes are made from the palms of Palm Sunday to remind us what God has done for us in and through Jesus Christ. We, who are as worthless as ashes, are so loved by God that Jesus took on our nature and died for us so that we could be reborn out of ashes to be children of God…beloved, redeemed, blessed and sent out into the world. Ash Wednesday and the entire Season of Lent is kept to remind us of this, as unpleasant and as uncomfortable as it may be for many people.
Years ago, when William Willimon served as a pastor in a coastal South Carolina town, he found out just how uncomfortable this season of Lent can be for people who don’t want to be reminded of their own imperfection, their need of God and the sacrifice of Christ. “About this time of the year,” he wrote, “we had quite a ruckus. The local Episcopal parish had placed three crosses on the lawn adjacent to their church. They draped them in purple for Lent. After a week or so, the church received a call from the local Chamber of Commerce. They complained about the three crosses.
‘This is a big season for tourists,’ they said. ‘We think those crosses could send the wrong signal to visitors at the beach. People don’t want to come down here for a vacation and be confronted with unpleasantness.’
The church stood its ground. The three crosses stayed. ‘It’s Lent,’ said the church. ‘People are supposed to be uncomfortable’.”
Lent is the season of unpleasantness and discomfort. The 40-day season from Ash Wednesday to Holy Week are among the most subversive in the church as we focus on confession of sin, death and honesty about temptation. There as disciplines to help us during this season which don’t come naturally to us as we are called to move in a different direction as we move with Christ to the cross.
Traditionally, as we practice the discipline of Lent, we give up something we like for a while, things like chocolate or ice cream. My friend Carol told me the other night that she was giving up liver for Lent (but, of course, she doesn’t like liver and never eats it anyway).
When we give up something for the season, it usually deals with food. But, there are many other things which it would be wise for us to give up – things that could help us on our Lenten journey and make every day of our life a little better. This list includes:
GIVING UP grumbling! Instead, “in everything give thanks.” Constructive criticism is OK, but “moaning, groaning and complaining” are not Christian disciplines.
GIVING UP 10 to 15 minutes in bed! Instead, use that time in prayer, Bible study and personal devotions.
GIVING UP looking at the worst in people! Instead, concentrate on other people’s best points. We all have faults and flaws. It’s a lot easier to have people overlook our shortcomings when we overlook theirs first.
GIVING UP unkind speech! Instead, let your speech be generous and understanding. Keep that sharp tongue in check. It costs so little to say something nice, something kind and uplifting.
GIVING UP your hatred of anyone or anything! Instead, learn the discipline of love. “Love covers a multitude of sins.”
GIVING UP your worries and anxieties! Instead, trust God with them. Anxiety is spending emotional energy on something we can do nothing about, like tomorrow. Live today and let God’s grace be sufficient.
GIVING UP TV one evening a week! Instead, visit some lonely or sick person. There are those who are isolated by illness or age. Why isolate yourself in front of the “tube?” Give someone a precious gift – your time.
GIVING UP buying anything but essentials! Instead, give the money to God. The money you would spend on the luxuries could help someone meet basic needs. We are called to be stewards of God’s riches, not consumers.
GIVING UP judging by appearance and by the standards of the world! Instead, learn to give up yourself to God. There is only one who has the right to judge, and that is Jesus Christ.
GIVING UP those things which get in the way of your relationship with God and others! Dust off the old Bible. Keep in touch with God through prayer and praise. Be kind to others and generous in your giving. And in this way you will practice the discipline of Lent.
Sure, this is a tall order (and I’m also sure that each of us could add one or more to the list). But what is even more difficult than giving up these things is to give them up cheerfully and with humility – so that you do not glorify yourself, but give glory to your Father in heaven.
So, on this day, wear your ashes humbly. Remember what you are. Remember your need of God. Remember who God is and what God has done for you in and through Jesus Christ. And, remember that this day is just the beginning of a season and the remainder of your life. Give up those things which keep you from enjoying the fullness of life in God’s grace and grab hold of the cross of salvation, the sign of which you wear this day on your forehead. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.