these words to you in Scripture:
“Whenever you give,” Jesus says, “whenever you pray, or fast, don’t put on a show, don’t disfigure your face, don’t otherwise make a scene of yourself, but when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
We in the Church, we hear these words, promptly put dirt on our heads, big signs on our heads, and go back in the world. Truly, the Church is God’s sense of humor.
It’s awkward. Still not as awkward as the truth about ourselves that Jesus’s words today reveal: namely, that we sometimes do this God thing for reasons other than our God.
Why else the warning? Why else the instruction? Don’t do this for others; don’t breathe a word to the others; but be pointed to the Father who sees the secret intentions of your heart.
We thought he didn’t see it; but God does see, God knows, how we sometimes do this God thing for reasons other than our God.
Reasons like being seen by the others. What will she think of me? How do I look to them even now as I’m praying? What do I think of them? Why isn’t he here? God knows he needs it. Marital problems, most likely.
Reasons like guilt: what would Mom think if I didn’t? What would my kids think if I did? I need to be an example for them; for her. I want to be an example for them. A better example than I received, maybe. Or maybe my coming is an impossibly small step toward a standard I can never attain.
Reasons like a polished reputation. My loyalty is my credibility, every Sunday I’m there, my good standing, in this church. I won’t ask for much in return, but I would assume that certain innovations would be run by me beforehand. After all, this is my church.
Not just this day, but every time we enter this place, the unspoken, painful, and obvious awkwardness, of each and every last one of us: that we sometimes do this God thing for reasons other than our God.
And so Ash Wednesday comes as the beginning of a season to fast, to go without, to go hungry, to develop a hunger and thirst for the righteousness, the peace, the presence, of God. To name our need of God. To name God as Creator, ourselves as Creation, and to say “I’m sorry” for my sin; sin, which is another word for my pretending to be my own Creator; for my forgetting that I walk in the presence of God. Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of being truthful about ourselves and remembering that God sees that truth already.
And the truth about myself is that, despite the whispers of the Western world, even post-Enlightenment, I am not my own man; I am dust made alive by the generous breath of God’s Spirit. I am dependent. I am reliant. I am sustained at the hand of Another. I am not my own; I am God’s gift.
The truth about myself is that there is a world of thanksgiving that I neglect when I forget that I am not my own. The truth about myself is that the constellations of actions that make up my behavior, my personality, my being, these don’t always reflect the light and love that the Father has lavished on me. Because I am God’s child, when I forget who God is, I forget who I am.
The truth about myself is that, you couldn’t tell it sometimes, but I could stand to be brought closer to this God. And the truth that I could stand to be brought closer to God is never more true than when I think that it’s not.
We sometimes do this God thing for reasons other than our God, but there can be only one reason for our coming to the altar today, on Ash Wednesday: to be reordered, to be drawn nearer, to the Father who is the source of the life that we share through the mercies of Christ with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
A friend of mine put the invitation of Ash Wednesday this way:
"If I understood, deep within my bones, that God once had his hands in my dust, that God formed me from the dust of the earth and that the very breath which animates this body comes from the wind he first blew in my lungs...if I knew this like I think I know the exchange of light between the sun and the moon, if I knew this like I think I know the parity of gravity and tide, then surely, my life would look differently than it does right now. I would walk with greater humility. I would not neglect my Creator. I would not pursue immortality by way of might, wisdom, the accumulation of riches, or the sheer force of persuasion.
"Today a cross of dust and ash will be marked over the cross of oil made on your forehead at your baptism. Forever Christ’s, we said, his own forever. So it is and so it will be but not without dying, not without taking up the Cross of the Son, and placing your life without hesitation in the hands of the Creator."
That’s the Good News, by the way, of Ash Wednesday, despite all it’s awkwardness - that the dust, which is the reminder of my mortality and my sin, touches my skin as the cross of the crucified and Risen Jesus.
So if only for today, I come to this church, and I’m not paying attention this time to the sins of the others. The shortcomings of them. If only for today, it’s my own sin that I bring. If only for today, I come to this church, and I’m not thinking this time about what they might be thinking; I’m letting go of what they imagine of me, how I look, how I seem to be. If only for today, with dust on my forehead, and brokenness in my heart, I’m naming my sin, my need for my Father, and my desire for healing, for wholeness, the kindness of God. If only for today, I don’t bother with hiding, pretending, but I offer my dirt smudgy self to the hands of the one who first called me into being; who muddied His hands with the dust of me in the first place.
As he sculpts me, molds me, softens me, turns me, I long with my heart, mind, body, and soul to be closer to Him.
The truth of Ash Wednesday is that I can stand to get closer.
The Good News of Ash Wednesday is that He wants this, too.
[Sermon preached Ash Wednesday, 2011]