This sermon was preached at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church on Feb. 26, 2020 in Holladay, UT. The texts were
Isaiah 58: 1-12
Psalm 51: 1-17
2 Corinthians 5: 20b-6:10
Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21
What good is Ash Wednesday? I find myself pondering that this year. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I DON’T think Ash Wednesday is important, I do, it’s more that I’ve noticed fewer and fewer people in our culture, even those who might even profess to belong to a Christian denomination, attend Ash Wednesday services. In some ways, I can’t blame them. Ash Wednesday most definitely isn’t fun, it’s not Christmas, or Easter or even Pentecost. It’s a day where we come face to face with a reality that most decidedly isn’t fun. The reality that we are mortal, we are not perfect, we aren’t in control, we aren’t who we say we are. This is not a day that we look forward to and a day we spend the other 364, well with Leap Year we get and extra day, trying to deny. Trying to deny that we will die, trying to deny that we mess up, trying to deny that we are anything but dust.
And if we ask “what good is Ash Wednesday” we also must ask what good are ashes? What good is it to put ashes in the shape of a cross, a symbol of suffering and torture, on our foreheads? After all, ashes are only the remnants of something that has died, been destroyed, or used up. Ashes leave a messy, dirty smudge where life once was. Ashes of a tree, a home, a life, all look the same, at the end, for ashes are ashes are ashes. The details of what that life had once consisted of are reduced to sameness. It doesn’t matter how good or bad, how pious or irreverent, how helpful or unhelpful, how educated or uneducated, how beautiful or ugly, how able or unable, how kind or unkind any of those previous lives might have been, as now they are all burned down to the basics, to the core of what anything or any of us really is: dust. Dust that blows away with the slightest breeze and is seen no more.
What good are ashes? Ashes also can be used to fertilize new life, and ashes can be used to create soap that cleanses. Ashes themselves are neither good nor bad, they simply are. Encountering ashes, encountering Ash Wednesday calls us to examine both death and life through this lens. Ashes on our foreheads reveal the reality that we can be dead before our bodies actually die: we can be dead to our need to confront our own sin, the ways that we separate ourselves from God, we can be dead to our own emotions, we can be dead to our neighbor by competing with them for resources, for health, for status, for power, and yes, as Jesus says, even God’s love. We can be dead to the truth of God’s grace, love and mercy for all people when we attempt to fit into the what the world tells us is reality and important. Death comes when we are anyone other than who God created us to be.
Ashes on our forehead also mark another truth: that out of the ashes of our lives, God will cultivate and bring forth new life. Ashes tell us that we are marked with God’s love, forgiveness and grace even when it seems that death is all around. The cross of ashes upon our heads pull us through the reality of death and opens to us life that defies death. God isn’t afraid of death, God isn’t afraid of our piles of ashes and sees our possibilities, God sees what we can be, how we can grow, what can live in us and who we truly are as the beloved. God collects our messy, dead lives into God’s hands, breathes life into us and shapes us in love, and marks us with mercy and heals us with grace.
What good is Ash Wednesday? Ash Wednesday is good for pulling us into God’s unending story of good, not only for us as individuals for all people and creation. Ash Wednesday is good for burning away that which keeps us from an honest and intimate relationship with our God who’s love for us knows no bounds, and will not be swayed by anything we do or say. Ash Wednesday is good to remind us that God is good now and forever. Amen.