Ash Wednesday Sermon 2016
A few weeks ago, I was talking with my mom, who, as many of you know, is also a pastor. I asked her how her day had gone, and she said, “Well, it was one of those days when the calling was indeed odd and wondrous.” And she went on to tell me how she’d spent the afternoon visiting at the hospital. First she went and sat at the side of a man who was actively dying, and commended him to God.
And then she went down, just one floor, and visited the mother of a newborn baby. She got to hold this new life in her arms and pronounce a blessing just moments after she’d left a deathbed. Odd and wondrous indeed.
Ash Wednesday is for us like that afternoon my mom experienced. Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber describes it like this:
“If our lives were a long piece of fabric with our baptism on one end and our funeral on another, and we don’t know the distance between the two, then Ash Wednesday is a time when that fabric is pinched in the middle and the ends are held up so that our baptism in the past and our funeral in the future meet. The water and words from our baptism plus the earth and words from our funerals have come from the past and future to meet us in the present.”
Why do we do it? On one side of us is a rite that most of us can’t remember, and on the other side is a passage that none of us has yet experienced, and yet today they meet and smoosh us in the middle. What is it all for?
The answer, in part, lies within the next forty days. This meeting of life and death, and the mark that it will leave on our foreheads, is a sign of the perspective that we seek to regain during the season of Lent. Today, we remember that we have made promises in baptism. And today, we remember that we will die. Ash Wednesday begs the question: if I died in this moment, would I consider those promises fulfilled? Would God?
Lent is traditionally a season of repentance. When I was growing up, I always thought that this meant being really sincerely sorry for what you’d done. But when I got to seminary, my New Testament professor made us sit down with the Greek version of this word—metanoia—and really spend some time with it. “This doesn’t mean simply being sorry!” he proclaimed. “This word is about transformation! This word is about what comes after you’re sorry! This is a word that means radical reorientation, and—listen up, because this is important—it’s not about you doing the reorienting. It’s about God reorienting you.”
Repenting, in that rich, metanoia sense of it, is about letting God reach into you and turn you right around to face the way that God would have you go.
This is what Jesus is urging in our gospel lesson today, when he calls out how piety has been exploited as a mark of social status, and calls people to return to almsgiving, fasting, prayer, and charity as things that they do because God is calling and the world is needful, and not just because it looks good.
And Jesus ends with an instruction that I think might be the hardest one for many of us: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
Jesus talks about money…a lot. A lot a lot. More than he talks about almost anything else—except the kingdom of God. And he talks about it even more in the Gospel of Luke, which is the gospel where we’ll be spending our time during Lent. Actually, given how much Jesus talks about money, it’s surprising that we as a church don’t talk about it more.
Except…it’s not really that surprising, is it? Because money is something we earn. We worked for it. God has our hearts and our souls—does God really need our wallets, too? It’s not God that needs that. It’s the church, for yet another pledge drive or fundraiser or capital campaign.
Valid observations, all. Except…except Jesus has that one thing to say:
“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Now, treasure doesn’t just mean money. It means your time, and your energy, and your relationships. Our treasure is comprised of all we have to offer. But despite the varieties of treasure, Jesus’ words still ring true. The place where we invest all those different kinds of treasure—that’s the place where our heart really is.
Anglican priest Margaret Guenther writes about it like this:
“…[E]veryone of us has a spirituality, what [St.] Augustine called an ordo amoris, an ordering of our loves. What do we most cherish? What do we most desire? What is the treasure hidden in the core of our being?
“Our spirituality is not what we profess to believe, but how we order or loves. That ordering may be unarticulated, sometimes even unconscious, but the resulting spirituality pervades our whole life and involves our whole person. Our stewardship of time, energy, material things, and relationships to our fellow creatures reflects the way we express that ordering of our loves.
“One way of identifying the ordering of our loves, of uncovering our spirituality, is to reverse the question and ask, ‘What would rip the fabric of my life?’ This is a disquieting question, one most of us would prefer to avoid. But history–world history and our individual histories–reminds us again and again that the fabric is fragile, and that the seemingly immutable can vanish in a minute.”
This is why we bring our baptisms and our funerals together on Ash Wednesday, on the first day of this season of repentance. In this place, with an ashy mark of our own mortality on our forehead, we remember that life is fragile and precious, and we recommit to a determination to be wise with our treasure.
But lest this sermon, and this day, should become a little too maudlin, let me also share this with you: it is right and proper to reflect on our own mortality at times, and, on Ash Wednesday, to feel the fire lit under us to get on with repentance. But it is also my firm belief that attending to the ways that God is at work in us, is not only for our own good, but it is good. I believe that when God radically reorients us, we become more joyful, more generous, more awake to the world and all the oddness and wondrousness therein.
And we see a sign of that today, because in the place where baptism and our funerals meet, we find ourselves sandwiched in God’s promises: “that we belong to God, and that there is no sin, no darkness, and yes, no grave that God will not come to find us in and love us back to life.” And it is that love, and that incredible grace that is ours every moment in between baptism and funeral, that gives us the strength to lift our eyes to where God is pointing, and let God turn us, turn us ‘til we come round right.
 Margaret Guenther, The Practice of Prayer, Cowley Publications, 1998, pg 6.
 Nadia Bolz-Weber again!