February 17, 2021
A couple of nights ago I did something strange. I’m not even sure why I did it, but I had grown fascinated by the icicles hanging from the edges of my roof. I stepped on to my small front porch, broke off one of the largest icicles, held it for a moment, and then hurled it like a spear into the snowdrifts. Turns out it didn’t go that far. (I might need to brush up on my ice spear skills.) But it disappeared into a hole in the snow.
By early afternoon yesterday, there was nothing left there except an almost empty hole with a small ice cube in it. That was all that remained of an imposing ice weapon. Meanwhile, last week the boys next door had built an impressive snow fort from which they had waged some epic snowball fights. But part of their fort collapsed in yesterday’s balmy 47 degrees.
Snow teaches us about what is temporary, doesn’t it? Even with piles and piles of it all around, we trust it won’t be here in July. At least we hope not.
Ash Wednesday is one of those days in the church year when we remember that we, too, are temporary. This life does not last forever, and from the moment we are born we are in the process of dying. That’s probably not a reminder we really need this year. We have spent the past eleven months trying to avoid catching or spreading an invisible, deadly virus. We are heavy with the accumulated grief and worry of a year in which it felt like the threat of death was all around us all the time.
If you are feeling the weight of this last year in an especially acute way tonight, know that you are not alone. You are part of a Christian community connected through time and space that acknowledges our shared frailty. A community that understands – though we sometimes forget – that it is God who sustains us. Not our gumption or grit or our own manufactured fortitude and brave face for the world. God formed us out of the dust, God shapes that dust each day that we walk through the world, and when these mortal bodies return to the dust, God is there to receive us into eternal life. In the meantime we do not have to be superhuman. We are allowed to be fully human.
Each year Ash Wednesday calls us to confront both our mortality and our sinfulness. Most of us don’t relish a thorough self-inventory of our sin. I’ve noticed over the past year that it has grown increasingly easy for me to point out other people’s sins than to reckon with my own. In our horribly fractured political and social climate, it’s far easier to say “Look at the awful things that person has done!” or “That group of people is terrible!” or “Can you believe what he said this time???”
To be clear, God does call us to work for justice, which inevitably requires the naming of injustices. But naming injustices is different than demonizing other people in a general and pervasive way.
In reading the scripture passages for Ash Wednesday this year, I was struck by how they summon us to an individual accounting of our sin and a communal thanksgiving for God’s mercy. Emphasizing that individual call to confession does not negate our need to confess the systems and structures of sin that keep so many of our neighbors held captive by oppression. But an individual call to confession does mean that looking into our own soul is more vital to our faith than speculating about someone else’s.
We remember tonight that each of us has sinned and falls short of how God wants us to live. We cry out, in the words of Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.”
We remember that God is always ready to hear us when we pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”
We remember that God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, relents from punishing. God hears our cries, and God forgives.
We remember that God calls us together as a community. Call a solemn assembly, God says through Joel the prophet. Gather the people. Assemble the aged. Gather the children, even babies. We’ve had to do that gathering in all kinds of new ways this year, but God reminds us that traveling these difficult roads is best done in community. To reckon with our own sinfulness, to face up to our own mortality – that is difficult work. It’s work that demands the company of others. The prayers, the support, the empathy, the encouragement of others who are on the same journey from dust to dust.
We remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. And we gather with others who will remember us after we’re gone. We trust in a God who forgets nothing and forgives everything.
It’s time for a particular confession of my own. This is as far as I made it in tonight’s sermon without any idea about how to conclude it. I sometimes struggle with endings. I suspect most preachers do. I like for an ending to make sense, to feel like a helpful place to pause so that you can keep reflecting on your own.
But for this one I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t come up with a neat and tidy ending. I thought at first it was because I’m tired and haven’t slept well recently. And I’m sure that’s part of it, though I’ve written plenty of things in my life while tired. But I also realized that Ash Wednesday marks the final significant day of the church year that we’ve had to adapt because of the pandemic. We’ve come full circle, and something about that breaks my heart.
I decided not to force it. I decided it was OK for this sermon, like our entire lives, to be open-ended. We don’t know how or when our own endings will come – simply that they will come. And the end is not always neat and tidy. That’s part of what being dust means too – that we don’t know when it will all be blown away.
What we do know is that God is here. God loves us. And that is more than enough.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…” Matthew 6:1
W.H. Auden is one of my favorite poets. I learned recently that he had a secret life.[i] Since his death in 1973, stories have emerged of his private generosity, generosity that was unknown even to those who knew him best.
A friend of Auden’s once needed a medical operation he could not afford. Auden invited this friend to dinner but never mentioned the operation. As his friend was leaving, Auden gave him a notebook containing the manuscript of one of Auden’s books. The friend was able to sell the manuscript to the University of Texas and pay for the operation.
After World War II Auden arranged to pay for the school and college expenses of two war orphans. He continued that practice year after year, until his death at age 66.
My favorite story might be the one about an older woman who was a member of the church to which Auden belonged. He learned that she was having night terrors, and so he took a blanket and slept in the hallway outside her apartment until she felt safe again.
Auden did not want these stories to be known. For whatever reason, he went out of his way to keep them hidden.
I have no idea what Auden would say about today’s gospel, but I suspect he would like it. The gospel cautions us against a purely performative expression of our faith: One translation says: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” Or – as another translation puts it: “When you do good deeds, don’t try to show off.” (CEV)
Don’t give generously to earn praise from others. Don’t pray on the street corners to draw a crowd or fast with melodramatic sighing about how hungry you are. In other words, don’t make it about you.
I’ve long thought this was a strange gospel to hear on a day when we smudge a big ashen cross on our foreheads and go back out into the world. That cross is hard to miss. It invites some attention – and some questions. At the very least it makes people wonder if we’re terrible at face-washing.
But this gospel is not just about today, Ash Wednesday. It’s about how we approach daily life as a follower of Jesus, how we balance the call to share our faith with the challenge to be humble in how we do it.
Jesus isn’t saying don’t share your faith. Quite the opposite. He names three specific ways that we canshare our faith. He simply encourages us to be clear about why and how we do these things.
Sometimes it’s hard to trust our own motives, but don’t let that keep you from trying or renewing a spiritual practice during the Lenten season that we enter tonight. Whatever you decide to try, perhaps the best way to reflect on that practice is to ask: “Is this practice pointing toward me, or is it pointing toward God?”
Let’s consider the three categories that Jesus mentions – almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.
Almsgiving. You might choose to put a little bit of money in an envelope each day during Lent and then after Easter contribute it to a cause that does what God calls us to do – care for those who are suffering in some way (people who are hungry, prisoners, folks struggling with addiction, refugees, victims of sexual violence, hospice patients). The possibilities are many, but we all have some need that is close to our hearts. Telling other people about that donation to make yourself look good obviously isn’t the point. But telling other people that your donation comes from your understanding of faith is a way to bear witness to God’s generosity – and to invite others to share in that generosity too.
God has given us life – both life now and life eternal. And, as we remember tonight, this present life has an expiration date. So why wouldn’t we share what we have? There’s no point in clinging to our possessions while the moths and the thieves circle around us.
Prayer. We probably have less trouble with Jesus’ caution regarding prayer. Most of us aren’t rushing to the street corner to wave our arms and shout prayers at the people passing by. But when a friend or family member or co-worker shares something that has them worried, what if we said, “In my faith tradition we often pray for each other and the heavy loads that we’re carrying. If it would be OK with you, I’d be glad to pray about what you’re going through.” Now that might actually seem scarier than praying on the street corner, but I bet we’d be surprised at the ways it would deepen our relationships – with God and with each other.
Fasting. This one doesn’t have to be about food, although it can be. It can also be about anything that distracts us from following Jesus. Video games. Social media. Netflix. Our fantasy football team. How might we fast from some of those distractions? It doesn’t have to mean giving it up entirely and forever. We could during the forty days of Lent choose to step away one day a week or for a designated window of time each day. And then what would we do with the time that opens up when we fast from these activities?
Once again, Jesus warns us about creating a public spectacle. The goal is not to make everyone within a ten-mile radius aware of our sacrifice. The idea is to open up some new space to reconnect with ourselves, with the people in our lives, and with God.
All of the cautions Jesus offers are about humility – not false humility, not holding back the gifts and abilities God has given us – but the humility of knowing we cannot save ourselves. Only God can do that. And has already done that.
On Ash Wednesday we receive the sign of the cross to remind us of our need for God. It reminds us of the sin for which we need forgiveness. It reminds us of our mortality, echoed in the words that are both true and jarring: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is also a reminder of our hope. The cross is the place of our salvation. Whatever we do, in public or in secret, we do because our God has faced down death for us. Faced down death and won.
The cross of ashes will eventually wash away. But the love of God never washes away. God’s mercy is eternal. God’s love is everlasting. It follows us as closely as our next breath – from our first breath to our last. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]Edward Mendelson, “The Secret Auden,” The New York Review of Books, March 20, 2014 issue. Electronic version: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2014/03/20/secret-auden/