February 18, 2015
Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21
It has been said that Ash Wednesday is the day
when Christians attend their own funerals.[i]
“Remember you are dust
and to dust you shall return.”
We look at death on Ash Wednesday
not in a morbid way I think,
but in an honest way.
We have a limited time here on earth.
Mary Oliver writes in her poem, “The Summer Day,”:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
That’s what we think about on Ash Wednesday.
I’m very much alive.
You’re very much alive.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
A group of clergy on Facebook were sharing stories
this week of Ash Wednesday mishaps…
If you’ve never been the one leading worship,
perhaps it would be hard to imagine there could be Ash Wednesday mishaps…
One pastor said that when he practiced with his ashes
(Did you know that we practice with the ashes?),
Well when he practiced with his ashes,
he learned they weren’t sticking…so he added black tempera paint!
Another pastor said that he too had adhesion problems,
so he added oil – too much oil it seems,
so after the people returned to their seats,
he looked out and could see black soot,
running down their faces!
(Don’t worry – I haven’t added anything to the ashes today!)
We’re not used to ashes.
We’re not accustomed to having our foreheads marked with a reminder of death.
We’re not used to hearing these words addressed to ourselves:
“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
But that’s what the journey of Lent is all about.
It’s about following Jesus on the path that leads
through death to resurrection.
We can’t get to resurrection without passing through death.
And so today at this beginning of Lent we think about death and mortality.
And we think about what is it that we want to do with our one wild and precious life.
Maybe on Ash Wednesday as we ponder our deaths,
we come to the realization that our life could be a little more wild…
We decide that as one Lutheran bishop has wisely suggested,
we need to give up fear for Lent.
Give up the fear of what others think of us;
give up the fear of failure;
give up the fear that we haven’t cared enough, haven’t done enough, haven’t whatever enough.
We are enough.
Be more wild for Lent.
Give up fear.
On the other hand, maybe on Ash Wednesday as we ponder our deaths,
and what we will do with our one wild and precious life,
we come to the realization that we have been taking our one life for granted.
We could stand to make our life a little more precious…more meaningful.
We decide that we need to take something on for Lent.
Take on prayer.
Take on Bible reading.
Take on a special time of giving to others.
These ashes that we will have on our foreheads mean more than death, however.
They are also a sign of repentance – public repentance.
When someone in biblical days wanted to show their repentance,
they would often wear sackcloth (a coarse material usually made of black goat’s hair)
and then sit in ashes, putting ashes also on top of their heads.
Jesus was familiar with that practice.
In the gospel of Matthew he says,
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” (Matthew 11:21)
Doesn’t that seem a little ‘showy’?
Isn’t that exactly what Jesus was telling us NOT to do when he said,
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them?”
Well maybe .. if we anticipate that people will think more highly of us
if we have ashes on our foreheads.
But let’s face it, in today’s world,
they’re not going to think more highly of us…
When we stop the grocery store on the way home today,
and people see our foreheads,
by and large, they’re either going to think us weird…or deluded.
A young woman by the name of Lily Bourana will receive ashes for the first time today.
“I’ve never taken ashes before, because I didn’t want anyone to judge me for my beliefs.
I didn’t want anyone to see.
But this year will be different.
For the first time, I will show up at church for services,
step up to the pastor and present my forehead for the mark,
kicking off what I hope will be 40-something days of greater courage. ..
As much as they signify our mortal limitation, they’re also an invitation — to reveal your most deeply held beliefs, to have a conversation about faith, to signify change, and I want to be part of it.
So on Wednesday, after the ashes are daubed on my forehead, I will take a deep breath and step outside, showing to the world, for the first time, the face of the faithful.[ii]
Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
May these 40 days be 40 days of greater courage for us.
Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the World, Year B, Volume 2.