Ash Wednesday 2023
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
[Jesus said:] 1 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your God in heaven.
2 “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. Very truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and God who sees in secret will reward you.
5 “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. Very truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to God who is in secret; and God who sees in secret will reward you.
16 “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. Very truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by God who is in secret; and God who sees in secret will reward you.
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Please pray with me this evening, church.
As we embark on our Lenten pilgrimage,
our hearts hunger to hear something true.
Something true about us.
Something true about who we are to you.
Remind us that we are dust, God.
Remind us that we are loved.
Remind us that we are yours.
What a way to step back into the pulpit, huh…?
Ash Wednesday seems like an odd way to start back from my time of parental leave (Thank you, church, by the way…I’ve indeed missed you and it’s good to be back…so let’s talk about death, huh!?) An odd way to start back…and yet…I suppose Ash Wednesday is a beginning of sorts… We mark the beginning of our entry into the season of Lent, our starting point as we embark upon this 40 day journey.
Welcome to the beginning.
A beginning when we talk about the ending.
“Remember that you are only dust…and to dust you will return…”
Having recently borne witness to new life being brought into the world…perhaps due to my pastoral sensibilities or something, I’m not sure, but I couldn’t help but be reminded that in just the next building over, there was someone or several someones fighting for their life. And that at the very moment, our brand new son cried out for the first time, someone else took their last breath.
Death is just as much a part of our lives as birth, yet I think we tend to overemphasize one in our consciousness and downplay the other. Perhaps because from the moment we’re born, we begin the methodical and inevitable march toward our ending. Maybe it’s the billions spent on death avoidance and reversing this trek toward inevitability. Whatever the reason, it is true that death may be a more constant reminder for some than for others.
But today, everyone…from newborns to the eldest among us will hear the same words: “Remember, o mortal one, that you are dust…and to dust you will return.”
Something true about us. But also a promise.
This season of Lent, we’re going to be exploring the idea of hunger. Less of a physical or material hunger, and more of a spiritual hunger, although we will talk some about physical hunger. Fasting, of course, being one of the traditional Lenten practices. Throughout the next 40 days, we’ll talk about our hunger to be known, and our hunger to be loved, among others.
Tonight I thought we’d zero in on our hunger to be told something true about ourselves.
There’s a terrifying moment that happens in the hospital room about 24 hours or so after one has welcomed a new child into the world. All the while you’ve been collecting stacks and packets of papers and information, and all of a sudden a nurse comes in and hands you a new packet and tells you this is the information that will go in a database somewhere and is for the new baby’s birth certificate. And there’s a moment of terror when you—you, in your no-longer-a-young-person-but-not-quite-middle-aged self—are given the gargantuan burden of naming something. Like, permanently.
Maybe you and your partner talked it over months ago. Maybe you waited for inspiration to strike before making such a decision. But at any rate, now it’s time. You have to write something down and that is, at least for now, what this brand-new wonderful child will be called.
This is who you are.
It’s a profound responsibility.
I also want to note how much has changed in the three and a half years since we did this the first time. Three and a half years ago, these were paper forms and so my fear was magnified by worrying if some poor clerk behind a desk would be able to read my chicken scratches. Now it’s all online, so my fears were magnified by the worry that I’d fat-finger something on my phone and they wouldn’t release us with the kid because the last names don’t match.
But in the midst of all the worry and fear and anxiety, there’s something beautiful happening…speaking something into existence. This is who you are.
What is your name, child of God?
How do you call yourself?
What are the words that you say about yourself? Are they kind? Or are they more harsh?
What do you imagine God says about you?
We do have a hunger to be told something true about ourselves.
Remember, o mortal one, that you are dust…and to dust you will return.
In a moment, I’m going to invite you into our shared journey of Lent with Confession and a word of promise. I’m going to say the words, “I invite you, therefore, to the discipline of Lent.”
The discipline of Lent. The practice of Lent.
Church, I encourage you to practice Lent this year. Use this set-aside time as an opportunity to set aside time to practice something new or different for you. The traditional Lenten practices are prayer, and fasting, works of charity, and the giving of alms to the poor. How will you practice Lent this year?
Maybe you’ll set aside 10 minutes each morning to pray. Maybe you’ll try out a new devotional and read and reflect and pray over your lunch break. Maybe you’ll commit to 1 or 2 or 3 hours a week at a new volunteer opportunity for you. Maybe the East Fort Bend Human Needs Ministry Resale Shop or Food Pantry is looking just for you to help them out a time or two each week. Maybe you’d like to try packing fresh fruits and veggies for students and their families at Armstrong Elementary through their Brighter Bites program every Wednesday morning. Maybe you’ll fast from harsh rhetoric of yourself. Or harsh rhetoric of your neighbor who doesn’t think like you or believe all the same things as you…maybe you’ll fast from those disparaging comments, either online or face-to-face or behind their back, but instead interpret everything your neighbor does or says in the best possible light.
Lent is that opportunity, church.
To practice living into who you are. And who God says you are.
You are beloved. You are beautiful.
You are fearfully and wonderfully made.
You are redeemed. You are saved.
You are dust.
Dust that God scoops up from the ground, forms, molds, and creates, and breathes life into.
You are dust.