(Sermon for Ash Wednesday A, March 1, 2017, based Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21)
Some of you know I had a birthday last week, and I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the more I see birthdays as kind of a “mixed blessing.” On the one hand, it’s always nice to be the center of attention and get “spoiled” a bit. On the other hand, after the joyful distraction of celebrating is over, birthdays tend to make me kick myself. As I tack another year onto my age, I shake my head and wonder, “How can I be so old and still not have my…act together?!…” (Okay. Show of hands: Who else does this?…) But in recent years I haven’t kicked myself quite as hard, so maybe, in a paradoxical sense, I am getting my act together, as I realize that I’ll never completely have it all together! Slowly, but surely, I think I’m learning to practice what I preach by offering myself and others some of the grace and compassion that God so freely offers to all of us….
I bring up the “birthday effect,” because it seems to me that Ash Wednesday has a similar effect: The cross of cold ashes and the sobering words “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” call each of us to reflect on our lives, giving particular attention to our relationship with God…. Examining ourselves is probably the hardest and the most humbling work we’ll ever do, because it causes us to acknowledge we’ve all sinned and fallen short. Yet at the same time, self-examination is also the most necessary work we’ll ever do, because it’s only when our hearts are convicted and cracked open that we’re ready to receive the grace and new life God wants to pour out on us…. You know, we Lutherans like to say that Scripture consists of both law and gospel: It’s God’s law that convicts us and causes us to see how we’ve broken relationship with God and with our neighbor. At the same time, the law calls us to repent–that is, to turn our lives back toward God, who is always waiting to welcome us and give us a fresh start. I don’t know about you, sisters and brothers, but I’m grateful every day for the infinite grace that gives us as many chances as we need to turn back to the way of abundant life!
Our gospel lesson for this evening is set within the context of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The audience consists of Jesus’ disciples—not just the Twelve, but a much larger group of folks who’ve been following Jesus and are eager to hear his teaching. More than anything else, it seems that Jesus wants his listeners to understand that following him will require an unwavering focus on their relationship with God. In an effort to get his message across, Jesus points to the “hypocrites” who pretend to be righteous, but who care more about what other people think than they do about their relationship with God. According to Jesus, the hypocrites give to charity so that others will praise them for being “good, caring people.” They show up in worship and pray publicly primarily in order to show others how “holy” they are. And when they fast, they go out of their way to let everyone else know how miserable they are, so that others will say, “Wow! You’re fasting? That’s impressive!…” Just to be clear, Jesus isn’t bashing the spiritual practices themselves; instead, he’s warning his friends NOT to engage in these spiritual practices in the wrong way or for the wrong reason. At the same time, Jesus also emphasizes that when we keep our focus on our relationship with God, the ancient practices of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting will lead us to grow in faith and love…. When we’re centered in God’s love, we’ll give alms generously, without worrying whether we’ll have enough and without judging whether our neighbor is worthy. When we’re centered in God’s love, we’ll pray with listening hearts, NOT asking God to help us fulfill our agendas, but asking God to help and guide us in working for the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness. When we’re centered in God’s love, we’ll fast NOT from things that only matter to us—like chocolate or burgers or alcohol; instead, we’ll fast from greed and indifference–things that make a difference in the lives of our neighbors…. To recap Jesus’ teaching: Don’t let the devil within or without tempt you into thinking of the ancient disciplines of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting as a burden, as something extra you’re being tasked with. On the contrary, these things are a gift, just as the season of Lent itself is a wonderful gift to us…. Keep in mind, however, that a gift is only truly a gift when we accept it and use it for its intended purpose. When we reject God’s gift, because we think it’s a burden, it doesn’t do us any good. Or when we accept God’s gift, but later get tired of it and put it up on a shelf, it can’t fulfill its purpose. But when we accept the gift and bit by bit open up its hidden treasure, then it will open us up to receive our heart’s greatest treasure: the treasure of knowing and being known by the God who loves us and who wants nothing more than to be in relationship with you and with me and the whole human family….
Hmm…You know, speaking of gifts and treasure reminds me again of my “birthday”—but this time I’m not talking about the calendar date when I came into this world. This time I’m referring to the day I was baptized: the day I was reborn as a child of God in the waters of baptism– the day I received the gift of new life through Jesus Christ, along with the promise that God is with me. Always…. My friends, Holy Baptism is the gift that sets you and me free to live in a world that is often at cross purposes with the cross of Christ. Knowing that our lives are entrusted to God’s care and keeping gives us the courage and compassion we need to love the unlovely and unlovable, to break bread with starving strangers, and to share the Word of Life with those who are hungry to know God’s love in their lives….
That reminds me of a story. Four years ago on Ash Wednesday, about a dozen of us from Central Lutheran Church decided to take church out to the streets—out where the hungry people are. We went out to Holladay Park near the Lloyd Center to offer ashes to anyone who might want some. More than that, we offered the assurance of God’s love to people who were hungry for it, but maybe didn’t know it at first. As we stood on the street corner of NE 11th & Multnomah St., we called out to passersby, “It’s Ash Wednesday. Would you like some ashes and a blessing?” Some were plugged in and didn’t hear us. A few ignored us. Many answered politely, “No, thanks.” There were a few awkward and humorous moments, such as the big fellow who eyed my colleague, Pastor Patricia Kessel, and me suspiciously and asked what church we were from, then muttered something about our “unusual outfits,” before walking away. Also, there was the young woman rushing past who was curious, but declined to stop because she “had to pee so bad!” But there were quite a few—about three dozen!—who said “yes” to our offer. A couple of them had already walked past, but turned around and came back, saying, “Yeah, I could use a blessing.” One young woman, who was driving by, saw us, parked her car illegally, and ran over to get some ashes, saying, “I can’t make it to noon mass, and I saw you, so I had to come over….” Several people told us they were grateful we were there, because they wouldn’t be able to make it to worship today. For me, though, the most moving experience was the moment Patricia and made the ashen cross on the foreheads of two young African American men. Afterward, one of them said, “You know, I’m scared. It’s a scary world. There’s too many guns. I used to be in a gang and all, but it’s scary…. They say it’s Satan’s world.” I looked into his big beautiful eyes and said, “Yes, it’s scary, but the Spirit is working in the world, too. So, look for the good, because there’s a lot of good, and we have to hold onto that….” My friends, it was truly a God moment: one of those rare and incredible moments of seeing Christ in the face of my neighbor….
Sisters and brothers, in this world where there’s so much meanness, so much cutthroat competition, so much bullying, so much violence and, so much destruction and death, many people are hungry to know they are loved, yet they don’t know where to turn to find their heart’s treasure. For some of them, the God revealed in Jesus Christ may be the very treasure they seek. Yet how will they know, if you and I don’t tell them…or better, show them Christ by the way we live?… A while back, I came across a wonderful quote that sums this up quite well: “Be careful how you live your life. You may be the only gospel someone else ever encounters….” Wow. What an enormous responsibility…and what a great joy to share in Christ’s work of spreading the Good News of God’s love!
A few minutes ago, you and I received ashes as a reminder of who we are: mortal beings whose days on earth are numbered…. I want you to notice that the ashes are in a shell, which is the symbol of baptism. The shell and the ashen cross that is traced on our foreheads are a reminder of whose we are: beloved children held securely in the undying love of the One who has numbered every hair on our heads. Just as these ashes are held in this shell, so you are held safely in God’s love!… May you and I heed the call to re-center our lives in Jesus’ way of compassion and courage, and may this Lenten season of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting lead each of us ever closer to our heart’s true treasure: the loving God revealed in Jesus the Christ. Amen.