A Sermon from All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor, NY
March 5, 2003
Ten blocks from the parish I served in Baltimore was another Episcopal Church. I used to drive past it every day on my way in to the office but I never really thought much about it. It was an old, historic church with an impressive stone façade but, like most places or things we see every day, it just sort of faded into the background. The church, striking as it was, never really grabbed my attention. Except on Ash Wednesday. Because on Ash Wednesday they would always put out a large sign advertising their service times. This is a fairly standard practice for churches. We even had one made for us this year, which you may have noticed on your way into the parking lot. And at first glance their sign was pretty ordinary. At the top, in big letters, it read “Ash Wednesday Services.” Then it listed the service times. But what always made me take notice of the sign were the two words at the bottom: “No imposition.” They were, of course, referring to the imposition of ashes. This was a congregation that took great pride in the simplicity and non-ceremonial nature of their worship. And they always held their Ash Wednesday services without ashes.
But as much as I couldn’t imagine Ash Wednesday without ashes, that’s not what struck me about the sign. What caused me to take notice was the whole idea of the beginning of Lent with “no imposition.” Because for me, that’s what Lent and the entire Christian faith is all about. It is an imposition. Christ demands certain things of us, like time and devotion and prayer and love. He imposes his will upon us, whether we like it or not and whether we recognize it or not. And so “imposition” is the whole point. The season of Lent gives us the perfect opportunity to reflect upon this greater imposition and reminds us of the responsibility we have to examine ourselves in the context of our faith.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus warns against practicing our piety before others. He warns about hypocrisy in the faith. If we look into a mirror after Ash Wednesday services the outward symbol of the faith on our forehead is never a clearer. Our faith, in the form of a cross, is literally written on our foreheads. But at the same time, today’s liturgy reminds us that the inner sinfulness of our hearts has never been more evident. And the only way we can reconcile the outer symbol of faith with our inner sinfulness is to throw ourselves upon the mercy of God and take comfort in the incomprehensible power of God’s grace.
Let this season of Lent be a time to think actively about how you live out your faith in the world. It may be in the way you treat people at work or in the community. It may be in sharing something of your faith with a friend. But however it plays out, I bid you to be aware of the intersection of your faith with your daily life. When you leave this place you will literally be marked as Christ’s own. Let this be a symbol of the faith that you live out in your daily lives. And on this most holy day, let the ashes you are about to receive be a sign to you of Christ’s imposition upon your life. May God bless us as we prepare for the coming resurrection of Christ and may we accept the imposition of the Christian faith with joyful and expectant hearts.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2003