Ash Wednesday 2009

A Sermon from All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor, New York
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector on February 25, 2009 (Ash Wednesday)

For generations the Episcopal Church was known in some circles as a “society church.” Anybody who was anybody or anybody who aspired to be anybody was an Episcopalian. Senators, titans of industry, you name it – they were all Episcopalians. More than 25% of all US presidents have been Episcopalians; not bad for a denomination that makes up such a small percentage of the overall population. There’s a reason our churches are filled with Tiffany windows and beautiful antique silver communion sets – we had all the money and the influence and the prestige. A doxology at least as important as “the kingdom, and the power, and the glory.” And these must have been heady times – we built not just the Episcopal Cathedral in Washington, DC but the National Cathedral. There was a certain hubris that came with being an Episcopalian and part of me thinks that grieving the loss of our past standing contributes to much of the current divisiveness in the church. 

But there was a shadow side to all of this power. It was a lily-white church; attendance was higher but in many cases spiritual depth was lower; and the temptation was great to do precisely what Jesus warns against in today’s gospel: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” That’s not to say the church wasn’t a place of deep spirituality. But some Episcopalians undoubtedly did show up merely to be seen. 

So in some ways perhaps the era had more in common with Jesus’ time than today. Being religious was seen as something honorable back then; less so in our day. Jesus is always talking about members of the religious establishment who said long prayers in order to be heard and seen by others. Just as some of those Pharisees practiced their piety before others in order to be seen by them, some Episcopalians felt that attending the right church was all part of keeping up appearances and if it helped make a few business connections along the way, all the better. 

While people nowadays may feel less inclined to show off their piety by crossing themselves in a fancy way or saying a long grace at the Pleasantville Diner, the human motivations to be seen and noticed and admired haven’t changed a whole lot. Outward religious piety was a status symbol back then in the same way that driving a Mercedes or a Lexus today is a status symbol around here. 

But let’s be honest, most of us don’t come to church just to be seen. The whole notion of dressing up in your Sunday best has become an anachronism in most places. Easter Sunday may be the only day of the year that people put any real thought into their church outfits. 

But that’s also the beauty of Ash Wednesday. No one shows up simply to be seen. There’s a starkness about the liturgy; there’s no coffee hour following the service; no one wears fancy hats; there’s nothing showy about ashes; they don’t make much of a fashion statement. But they do make a statement about your faith. Because on Ash Wednesday we take the time to reflect upon our own mortality and sinfulness. We remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We will all die. Some sooner, some later but in the grand scheme of things we’ll all die at about the same time. And the fact that we will return to dust is a painful reality to encounter. 

This is never so evident as when we do an interment in our Memorial Garden. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” we say as the ashes of one of our brothers or sisters are poured deep into the earth. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We recognize and mark the finality of this mortal life in a tangible way. And every time we do so, we can’t help but focus on the fleeting nature of our own lives. Just as we do each year on Ash Wednesday. As the prophet Isaiah says, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass.”

And if that were the end of the story this would be an exceedingly depressing day. Funerals would be unendurable. But the dust doesn’t have the final say. Jesus does. He transforms what might be ordinary human dust into something glorious. When we die we are not left alone; we are not forsaken; we are not abandoned to the grave. We are raised to new life through the power of Christ’s resurrection. The dust and ashes – your dust and ashes – are infused with life and energy to dance and sing and praise God in the highest heaven. That’s the divine promise offered unto us by Jesus Christ. And it’s why Isaiah doesn’t stop with the metaphor of the withering grass and fading flowers. He continues, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever.” 

Thankfully, the Episcopal Church has undergone some changes. It is more racially and ethnically diverse than ever before. On any given Sunday in the Diocese of New York the liturgy is celebrated in 14 different languages. It has become a church known for its radical inclusion rather than its soaring elitism. And while we may not have another Episcopalian in the White House for awhile, that’s okay. Because today we’re all about dust and mortality and awareness of sin. But only in the context of grace and forgiveness and resurrection.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2009

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