A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 13, 2013 (Ash Wednesday)
Being grim is not a spiritual virtue. That’s one of the take-aways from the gospel passage we hear each year on Ash Wednesday. Lent is not a competition to see who can look the most miserable or angst-ridden or pious.
“Beware of practicing your piety before others,” Jesus warns us in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus was railing against spiritual hypocrisy and one-up-man-ship; of spending more time on the exterior trappings of faith while ignoring the interior relationship with God.
Now, to be honest, this was more of a spiritual problem in the culture of ancient Palestine than it is for us. Most of us won’t be accused of being too religious in public. We’re perfectly willing to say grace within the friendly and non-threatening confines of our own homes but we’d cringe at the thought of asking a group of friends to hold hands and say grace before dinner at a fancy restaurant.
So if it isn’t an issue of “practicing your piety” before others that tends to put us on a pedestal, how does this translate for modern-day Christians? The concept of “putting on airs” is a nice parallel. Things we do that elevate ourselves at the expense of others — we all do it. It might be a critical word for someone who does things differently or thinks differently than we do. It could be the way we speak to someone we’ve pegged as being of a lower social or economic class.
Jesus cuts through the hypocrisy and the airs; he strips away the protective layers; he removes the defensive outer coating with which we arm ourselves; he exposes us for who we really are in all our fear and insecurity and imperfections and misguided passions and sinfulness. And then Jesus proclaims that God still loves us; that God still claims us; that God has marked us as his own from before time to end of time. The relationship is indelible; the love is unconditional.
The spiritual life is about the inner attitude of the heart, not exterior appearances. Which is what the prophet Joel is getting at when he bids us to rend our hearts and not our garments. And thus, Lent is a season that demands introspection. Not in a self-centered, navel-gazing way but in a way that invites God deeper into our hearts. And in order to do this authentically we can’t keep looking up to see how many people are watching. It’s not about the clothes we wear or how many times we cross ourselves; it’s about our inner posture toward God and the outward actions toward others that come bubbling up from within.
Nothing so forces introspection than to be reminded of our own mortality. Today we impose ashes with the words “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” That’s a sobering thought; a depressing thought; a painful reminder that all of our strivings in this mortal life are ultimately for naught. Despite our worldly successes and triumphs, despite the deep emotions and connections we experience, we are mere dust — meaningless, ephemeral dust.
But only outside the concept of the Resurrection. Because of Christ’s resurrection — toward which this entire Lenten season points — when we die we don’t just return to dust, we return to God.
Because when a Christian dies and is buried from the church, he or she is committed to the ground at the burial site but, more importantly, the person is committed to God. And while earth is cast upon the coffin or the ashes are placed into the ground, the priest says: “we commend our brother to Almighty God and we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” There is a finality in these words. Our friend or loved one has taken leave of this earthly existence.
But again, dust is not the end of the story. Because the priest precedes this statement of committal by saying, “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And so we are committed to the earth within the framework of Easter joy. Yes, we are dust. But our going down to the grave, our returning to dust, is not the final word. Because Jesus Christ, through the power of the resurrection, has destroyed death. Death no longer has dominion over him and through faith in Jesus, neither does death have dominion over us. That’s the good news of the Christian gospel. That’s why we can reflect upon our own mortality on this day and yet not despair. Dust is not the end of the story. For Jesus Christ transforms the dust into glory.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck