Ash Wednesday 2018

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 14, 2018 (Ash Wednesday)

Well, this is romantic. Spending Valentine’s Day together; talking about death. The last time Ash Wednesday fell on February 14 was 1945. A year when the destruction of World War II was still fresh even as the euphoria of victory celebrations would soon spill into the streets. And here we are 73 years later again gathered on a day stereotypically set aside to both receive chocolate and to give up chocolate.

But, regardless of the date upon which it falls, Ash Wednesday has always been a day of IMG_5694-768x512paradox. We hear Jesus warn us about practicing our piety before others, and then we put ashes on our foreheads and practice our piety before others. We proclaim our own mortality by being reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return, and then we proclaim our share in Christ’s immortality through the Resurrection. We confess our sinfulness and the utter depravity of the human condition, and then we are assured of divine forgiveness.

This is a day of paradox, a day that points to a paradoxical faith. A faith where out of despair there is hope, out of grief there is joy, out of death there is life. A faith where we can be, as Paul writes, sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything; as dying and yet alive.

And we desperately need this paradoxical message of hope as we hear news coming out of Florida about yet another school shooting this afternoon. 17 dead was the last I heard, with images of a mother with a cross of ashes on her forehead crying out in agony being beamed all over the world. On a day we repent of our propensity for violence, our indifference to suffering, our blindness to injustice and cruelty.

Today we begin our journey into the depths of this paradox as we enter the wilderness of Lent. A journey that will take us to the cross, and the depths of despair; a journey that will culminate in the empty tomb, and the heights of exultation.

And into this paradox we hear Jesus speak about the interplay between exterior actions and interior motivations. This is the passage we hear every year on Ash Wednesday and it helps frame our own entrance into the season of Lent, this time of introspection and repentance.

Jesus holds up three pillars of the spiritual life — alms giving, prayer, and fasting. In Jesus’ day, these were the primary external ways you could tell someone was religious. They gave money to the poor, they prayed regularly, and they fasted at the appointed times. These are all things you could do quietly and without notice, but they are also things that can be done with a bit of fanfare. You could prove your great religiosity and bring honor upon yourself if you approached the alms basin when you knew people were looking; you could pray in public places where people would see you and comment upon your great piety; you could try to look as miserable as possible when you fasted so everyone knew just how devoted you were to your spiritual disciplines. Public alms giving, praying, and fasting were the ancient version of keeping up with the Joneses.

Now I know this seems a little out-of-synch with our own context. Most of us aren’t going to stand up in the middle of Legal Seafood and make a great show of saying grace before dinner to impress family, friend, and stranger. But maybe we like having a fancy car and pulling up in front of the restaurant. Maybe we like whipping out our platinum card when the bill comes, making a great gesture of our generosity. We make shows of ourselves in different ways but the principle is the same.

And just as on Valentine’s Day, it all gets back to the heart. For Jesus, it’s not about the heart-shaped box of chocolates but the interior work of the heart. It’s about the motivations that drive us. Do our actions honor God or do they draw attention to ourselves? Are they humble manifestations of service or are they intended to puff us up?

When there is integration between our actions and our motivations, our faith is in harmony. When there is a disconnect between what we do and what we feel, well, Jesus has a word for that: hypocrisy.

Now, we’re all hypocrites to some degree. To be human is to have mixed motives. When you put money into the tip jar at Starbucks, do you wait until the barista is looking so you “get credit” for your generosity? It’s only human to seek affirmation for a kind gesture, even if you insist that you don’t want any. There’s a reason alumni magazines and symphony programs list all their donors and there’s a reason we search for our names.

Jesus is warning us against the temptation of seeking validation from others. Of measuring our self-worth by what others think. None of that matters when we are being true to God. And Lent is a time to examine our motivations and the motives of our hearts. It is an opportunity to recalibrate and rethink and retool our inner most heart’s desires. It is a chance to open our hearts and renew our faith. It is a season to bring our actions and motivations into greater harmony.

And this is where Lent’s invitation to self-examination and repentance can bring our lives into greater harmony and bring us even closer in our relationship with God. You don’t need to prove your self-worth to God. You already have God’s approval. You are already affirmed and validated and deemed worthy. God sees your hypocrisy and still loves you. God sees your strivings and still encourages you. Lent is a season to allow God into your heart and in turn, give your heart over to God.

The ashes you will soon receive are not outward marks of piety but inward signs of your own mortality. They are a reminder of what matters. That life is short and that our primary calling is to love God and love neighbor with all our heart and mind and soul. That God has marked you for both death and eternal life. That you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever and also that you are dust and to dust you shall return. This is a day of paradox; but ultimately, whether or not it falls on Valentine’s Day, this is a day of love.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

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Ash Wednesday 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 1, 2017 (Ash Wednesday)

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It’s not every day that ashwednesdaysomeone overtly reminds you of your own mortality. We generally avoid the topic of death in polite company. We’re all aware of this in a general sense — that, along with paying taxes, as the saying goes, death is the one thing we can’t avoid in life. We just don’t tend to name this inevitability in everyday conversation.

Yet the words spoken by a priest when imposing ashes may as well be, “Remember that you are going to die.” It’s a stark reality that most people spend an entire lifetime trying to avoid. Which is why we live in such a death-denying culture. One full of euphemisms for death, like he “passed away” or “bought the farm” or “gave up the ghost.” It’s why we call them funeral “homes” — even though nobody actually lives there.

But the liturgy of Ash Wednesday cuts out the flowery prose and bids us to face the reality of the human condition. That we will return to dust; that we will die. We don’t know the day or the hour but we are reminded of the inevitability. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

The purpose of this day on which we are invited into the observance of a holy Lent is not, however, a gathering simply meant to state the obvious. It’s not a wakeup call of fear and trembling but a wakeup call of love and compassion. Because you cannot fully live until you recognize and accept your own mortality. Easier said than done, of course, but critical to living a life of peace and joy.

So what does it mean to fully live? How do we do this? Well, our faith has some suggestions, and not surprisingly they are rather counter-cultural. None of them revolve around bungee jumping or roller coasters or thrill rides that make us want to scream, “I’ve never felt so alive!” The adrenaline rush is temporary; fun, perhaps, but unsustainable.

No, the recipe to fully live can be found in the ancient words of the prophet Isaiah. To fully live is “to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.” It is “to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; and to cover those who are naked.”

To fully live is to embrace justice and work to lift up the downtrodden in our midst. It is to live inter-connectedly with those who differ from us; it is to open our hearts and minds and souls to new possibilities; it is to live a life of compassion; it is to be generous; it is to forgive.

And so when we talk about dying, we are really talking about living. That’s the essence of the Christian faith. That’s the message of Jesus whose very life reminds us that we cannot encounter death without recognizing resurrection. That when we talk about death, we can’t help but talk about life. That when we talk about grief, we can’t help but talk about joy. Death and resurrection are inseparable; even on Ash Wednesday as we reflect upon our own mortality.

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” You know just a few days ago, 27 pilgrims from St. John’s were out in the African bush on safari. The last two days of our trip was spent at South Africa’s largest game preserve. And when you’re out among the wildest of beasts in God’s kingdom, the concept of mortality is a constant companion. There’s no euphemism involved when a hyena attacks and proceeds to eat a gazelle.

And yet there, too, is the fullness of life. And a reminder that you cannot live your life paralyzed by the inevitable end. The African bush reminds us that we are not called to live a life of cowardice and fear but of empowerment and joy. To revel in the gift of each day.

So as we enter into this season of introspection and penitence, do not be afraid. Do not allow the reality of the human condition to leave you paralyzed. Rise up; live your life in the warm glow of the resurrection; do a deep dive into Lent here at St. John’s. And most importantly, remember that you are dust; for in so doing, you will fully live as a beloved child of God.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on September 20, 2015 (Proper 20, Year B)

images-5Who among us is the greatest Christian? Now this is really important so we’re going to spend a bit of time getting to the bottom of this. And just to be fair, I’ll disqualify myself. Not because I actually believe that I am holier than thou — it’s one of those employees-and-immediate-family- members-are-not-eligible-to-win things. I mean, I’m paid to be here. I’m also going to go on record as disqualifying any nuns. We have several Sisters of St. Margaret among us as we do most every Sunday and, sorry, but that’s just not fair. So they’re out.

But what should the criteria be? If we based it purely on church attendance, that might lead to some uncomfortable squirming in the pews. And, anyway, we don’t keep a giant ledger with attendance charts in the church office (as far as you know). What about average hours of prayer logged in a given month? Not bad, but we’d have to go on the honor system and I don’t want to invite prayer fraud into the equation. “Lead us not into temptation” and all that.

We need something more quantifiable. How about money? Maybe the greatest Christian here is the one who has given the most money to St. John’s over the past year. Sure, there’s the little problem of Jesus’ story about the widow’s mite; the passage where he praises the poor woman who gives only two coins but gives from her heart. But we do keep meticulous giving records.

I think you see where I’m going with this. The whole notion of competitive Christianity is absurd. You can’t win the life of faith as if it’s some sort of competition. There are no trophies or certificates of achievement handed out at the Annual Meeting. There’s no parish ranking system.

And yet this is precisely what the disciples were trying to do as they walked along that road to Capernaum with Jesus. Jesus doesn’t call them out on it during the journey, even though he’s absolutely aware of what’s going on. He bides his time and waits until they’re all gathered later that evening and asks them, “So, what were you arguing about on the way?” And…awkward silence. Until they sheepishly admit that they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest.

Just last week we heard Jesus rebuke Peter for setting his mind on human things rather than divine things. And here’s yet another clear example of the disciples just not getting it. They’re so focused on how their relationship with Jesus will benefit themselves that they fail to grasp the heart of his message, which is to look beyond themselves. They’re more concerned with how they’ll be perceived by others than actually serving others.

And you can’t really blame them. Well, you can, but think about the ways in which we judge our own self worth. We’re culturally rewarded for focusing on being the greatest, on winning, on being successful. Think about the ways we measure ourselves against one another. What’s your GPA? What’s your salary? How many bedrooms are in your house? What kind of car do you drive? How much do you give to your alma mater? What tax bracket are you in?

And lest you think clergy are above all this, you’ve never been to a clergy conference. ‘What’s your Average Sunday Attendance? How big is your operating budget? How many programs do you have? What’s the size of your endowment?’ It can quickly devolve into a not-so-glorified pissing contest. And you realize you’ve been feeding right into the mentality against which Jesus has warned us.

number-one_foam-finger21It’s also an oppressive way to live, all this competition; over time it beats you down because you can’t win everything, you can’t be the greatest at everything. I mean go to a football game and you’ll see fans of both teams holding up those “We’re Number 1” foam fingers. Yet both teams can’t, in fact, be number one. There will always be a number two. But they don’t sell foam fingers that proclaim “We’re Number 2!” at the concession stand.

The larger point here is that in Jesus’ realm it’s not about being successful but being faithful. So much of our energy and time and effort goes into pursuing perfection and self-promotion when we should really be pursuing peace and promoting harmony. Human wisdom, human ambition only gets you so far. The portion of James’ letter we heard this morning continues the theme. “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Again, it’s about seeing things from the divine perspective, not the human one. “For what will it profit them,” Jesus says, “if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life.”

So here goes Jesus shaking up the entire order of things — something he does all the time. I mean, is there anything more counter-cultural than telling people that the “first shall be last and the last shall be first?” This isn’t just to make people who come in dead last in a road race feel better. Or to buck up those at end of the buffet line. Jesus is placing all of our notions of societal order and place and status and tossing them into one of those lottery machines that mixes up all the numbered balls.

Or maybe that’s a lousy analogy, because it’s too random; but time and again those who are most honored in God’s kingdom are the servants and those who are the least. We see this all the time in the gospels. Those who are the most blessed, those who get most of Jesus’ attention are not the ones with the fattest bank accounts or the biggest houses or the most followers on Twitter. The ones Jesus blesses and commends are the sick, the blind, the lame, children, outcasts, sinners, tax collectors, women, the elderly — in other words, those on the very margins of society.

If we’re able to see the world through Jesus’ eyes, from that divine perspective, it changes our entire outlook on what really matters. It puts into perspective our silly and ultimately hopeless strivings to be on top, to keep up with the Joneses, to be “successful” as it is defined by others. You’re already successful in God’s eyes. Being made in the image of God takes care of that. Which gives you the freedom to pursue faithfulness with reckless abandon. To spend time growing your relationship with Jesus and reaching out to those in any kind of need or trouble and being present for those who need your love. That’s what it means to focus on divine things. And in so doing, the urgent need for worldly success fades to black.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015

Ash Wednesday 2015

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 18, 2015 (Ash Wednesday)

The evening of my very first Ash Wednesday as a priest, as I was driving back from Old St. Paul’s in downtown Baltimore to our little red brick rowhouse on Keswick Road, I remember having one predominant thought. It had been a long day with four very well attended services including a huge one at St. Paul’s School for Girls, a private school the parish had founded a few generations ago. Ash Wednesday is always a full day at major downtown churches as office workers come streaming in for services throughout the day.

baltimore-0643At first my one thought didn’t seem particularly profound or theological in nature. It wasn’t a reflection on repentance or the sinful nature of humanity. My thought was this: “I have never in my life physically touched so many people in a single day.” And I probably still haven’t.

I think Ash Wednesday, even with lots of snow on the ground and in the middle of school vacation week, is still the one day in the year that I touch the most number of people. I’m not generally such a touchy feely kind of guy.

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” the priest says as the sign of the cross is traced with a thumb dipped in ashes. At some level it’s odd that the one day in the year that clergy physically touch the most people, the message to them is that they will one day die. That was also part of my thought process after that first Ash Wednesday. That I had just told a whole bunch of people, including hundreds of young students, that they would die and that their bodies would return to the dust from whence it came.

But the thing about the Christian faith is that you can’t talk about death without also, literally in the same breath, talking about Resurrection. Ashes aren’t just flung at you. They are very intentionally made into the sign of the cross. The cross, that implement of torture and death that has been transformed by Jesus into an instrument of Resurrection and life.

And Ash Wednesday is not the only time in your life when you have a cross traced upon your forehead. At your baptism the sign of the cross was also made as you were “sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Indelibly marked as Christ’s own. Not temporarily or for a limited time only but irrevocably and forever.

But this day reminds us of the stark reality of our lives — that we will die. A time will come in the not too distant future when we will no longer be living, breathing partakers of this mortal life. We are all marked for death. And as much as we seek to deny it the rest of the year, on Ash Wednesday we cannot deny death — that message is literally in and on our faces as we come face-to-face with the fleeting nature of humanity. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

The good news is that even on Ash Wednesday there is hope. The ashes are the start of our Lenten journey, but not its end. Because even as we begin this Lenten season there is hope. Through the promise of Christ’s resurrection, we will indeed rise out of the ashes. We will rise out of the ashes of Ash Wednesday and be drawn into the glorious light of Easter.

But not yet. Because in order to rise, we must first die. Just as at baptism we die to the old life of sin and death, before we experience the joy of Resurrection, we walk this Lenten path. We strip away all the clutter of our lives and return to the basics of our relationship with Jesus. It’s not easy, of course. It takes the hard work of self-examination leading to true repentance and amendment of life. But Ash Wednesday is the window into the season of Lent; a season that is not all doom and gloom but rather a wilderness experience of relationship with the living God who invites us into an ever-deepening encounter.

And so the ashes, this very tangible and visceral evidence of our own mortality, draw us into the impending death of Jesus Christ. But through these ashes we are also drawn into the impending resurrection of Jesus Christ. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, new life to new life. It’s all part of our inheritance as people of faith. These ashes mark us for death but they also mark us for resurrection. We are marked for death, yes, but also for new life in the risen Christ.

And it all begins with a physical touch. An incarnational moment that stands as an outward and visible sign of Jesus’ love for you. A love that transcends everything even, and most especially, death.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Ash Wednesday 2014

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

Ash Wednesday 2013

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

Ash Wednesday 2004

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on February 25, 2004. 
Based on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 (Ash Wednesday, Year C).

You will soon become a marked man. Or a marked woman. The ashes imposed this day mark us. They set us apart. They give us identity. They make clear to whom we belong. For the ashes we are about to receive are the mark of God. We belong to God. And today we are marked. 

To be marked by God with the cross of Christ means different things at different times. Today, we are marked for death. The stark reality of our lives as God’s creatures is that we will die. A time will come in the not too distant future when we will no longer be living, breathing members of this mortal life. We are marked for death. And as much as we seek to deny it the rest of the year, on Ash Wednesday we cannot deny death. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Ashes are a symbol of our own mortality and on this day we come face-to-face with the fleeting nature of humanity.

But the good news is that even on Ash Wednesday there is hope. Ash Wednesday is not the end of the story. The ashes are the start of this Lenten journey, but not its end. Because even as we begin this Lenten season of preparation and self-denial, there is hope. Through the promise of Christ’s resurrection, we will indeed rise out of the ashes. We will rise out of the ashes of Ash Wednesday. But in order to rise, we must first die. And so the ashes, this very tangible evidence of our own mortality, draw us into the impending death of Jesus Christ. But through these ashes we are also drawn into the impending resurrection of Jesus Christ. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, new life to new life. It’s all part of our inheritance as people of faith. These ashes mark us for death but they also mark us for resurrection. We are marked for death but also for new life. We are marked for death but also for glory.

In time, the cross of ashes you receive upon your forehead will disappear. It will be removed intentionally or inadvertently. In time it will fade and be forgotten. But Jesus reminds us that to walk with Christ is to remember that the mark upon our forehead is indelible. We are marked for life. At baptism the sign of the cross is placed upon our foreheads, as a symbol that we are marked as Christ’s own forever. These ashes too are a symbol that we are marked as Christ’s own forever. Marked to die, marked to take leave of this mortal life, but also marked to dwell with Christ forever in his eternal kingdom. Which is why, as Paul says in his second letter to the Corinthians, we are dying, yet alive. We are sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.

In our gospel passage from Matthew, Jesus warns us against practicing our piety before others. This is difficult to do when you’re walking around with ashes on your forehead. But this charge is really about examining the intentions of our hearts. Why are we here? Why do we consider ourselves Christians? What can we do to better serve God and one another? These are the questions of self-examination that mark this season of preparation. 

On this first day of Lent we are made vulnerable, we are reminded that a clandestine faith is not a faith fully lived. We are marked outwardly and inwardly. On Ash Wednesday, our faith literally cannot be hidden. May we this Lent strive to live up to the mark that begins the season. May we be marked not only upon our foreheads but also upon our hearts.

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2004