A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 5, 2014 (Ash Wednesday)
In a world that loves to affirm and build up, Ash Wednesday puts us in our place. It reminds us that we are not the center of the universe. That there is something beyond what we can see on the surface of life. That we are not the permanent element on this earth. That our lives are fleeting. That we are flawed and broken members of the human race. And that we will die.
Ash Wednesday tears down the elaborate platforms we erect that give us a sense of control over our lives and the world around us. It is a day of leveling, reminding us that whoever we are, whatever we have done or failed to do, we are linked by our humanity; a humanity that is neither immortal nor indelible.
In the gospel passage from Matthew appointed for this day Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust consume…but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” What are these treasures Jesus is referring to? It could be money, sure. Many of us have an unhealthy, often miserly relationship with money and we all know, at least intellectually, that we can’t take it with us when we die. But our treasures are also the things around which we build our identities — the things we’re convinced define us. Academic degrees, awards, jobs, clothes, families, cars, houses, hobbies. Much of this is good stuff but it’s not who we really are.
Because when you strip everything else away, our sole identity in this life is as a child of God. That’s the essence of who we are and why we’re here. We add so many layers over the course of our lifetimes this is easy to forget. Lent allows us to strip away the layers and return to the natural beauty of our humanity. But just as, if you’ve ever tried stripping the paint off an old piece of furniture, it’s hard work. Many of the layers seem permanent and it takes much effort to get down to the wood. People often give up and move on to the next, easier project. But if you stick with it, if you endure the frustration and the hard work, the original beauty begins to shine forth and you’re both reminded of why you started the project in the first place and rewarded for your effort.
So how do you begin stripping away the layers? How do you return to your true identity as God’s beloved. The season of Lent offers us a unique opportunity for self-examination and repentance. A time to take stock of the layers we’ve built up that distance us from God and to return to the essence of what defines us, which is relationship with God in Christ.
When you engage in a Lenten discipline — not giving up chocolate or Fritos but something like setting aside time for daily prayer or spending 10 minutes a day reading Scripture or learning about and being inspired by saints — you begin to get back to your true identity. You start chipping away at the false assumption that we can do everything ourselves, that we don’t need any help, that we are fully in charge of our lives.
Ash Wednesday puts us in our place. It reminds us that this false sense of security only goes so far. In stark language it reminds us of our humanity — our sinfulness and wretchedness in the face of the divine. And nothing quite forces introspection like being reminded of our own mortality — something many of us spend a lifetime denying.
In a few moments, we will impose ashes with the words “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” That’s a sobering 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 all 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.
And so Ash Wednesday also sounds a note of hope. For in the midst of our sinfulness, God’s forgiveness is absolute. In the midst of our brokenness, God’s abounding mercy is steadfast. In the midst of our turning away, God welcomes us back again and again and again.
As you receive ashes on your forehead in the sign of the cross remember also that the sign of the cross was made on your forehead when you were baptized with the words, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” In other words, you have already been indelibly marked, not with the dust of ashes but with the glory of everlasting life in God’s eternal care.
Ash Wednesday does indeed put us in our place. But it’s a good place to be. A holy place to be. A hopeful place to be. And for that we can rejoice.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck