Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
March 1, 2017 

            The first church I served as a solo pastor was in Albany, New York. There were three Presbyterian churches in close proximity, so we had a ministerial relationship with one another. That meant we combined our resources for events and activities such as Vacation Bible School, Bible studies and special worship services like Ash Wednesday. The first year I served there, it was our church’s turn to host the Ash Wednesday service. Elaine, the pastor at one of the other churches and my good friend, was in charge of actually bringing the ashes for the service.
            As I was getting ready, putting on my robe, making sure I had all my ducks in a row, I saw Elaine pull up outside the church. But she didn’t get out of her car right away. When she did climb out of it, I saw her stoop down and realized she was looking for something. Whatever it was, she couldn’t seem to find it. I went outside to see if I could help her. When she saw me walk up, she cried out,
            “I can’t find the ashes! I had them when I got in the car. I know I did! But now I can’t find them.”
            She was close to tears, so I helped her look. We looked on the floorboard, under the seats, and on the pavement around the outside of the car. No ashes. This was long before the days of cell phones with flashlights built into them. It was dark, and the package of ashes was dark. They were nowhere to be found. I don’t know if this falls under Murphy’s Law or not, but I’ve learned that whenever you are trying to find some lost item, the more panicked you are, the less likely you are to find what you are looking for. We went inside and tried to figure out what to do. It was almost time for the service to begin, and we had no ashes. We couldn’t just draw invisible crosses on people’s foreheads. We had to have something.
I had an idea, and I checked it out with Elaine. Neither one of us were thrilled about doing what we were about to do, but we agreed we had no other choices. While Elaine robed and tried to compose herself, I ran upstairs to the church office. No one else was up there, and as quickly as I could, I pulled out the toner cartridge from the copy machine and shook out as much toner as I could into the dish that I used for ashes. That’s right, that Ash Wednesday we marked the foreheads of our parishioners, not with the ashes from the palms used on Palm Sunday, but with toner from the church copier.
I don’t remember anymore if we actually confessed what we had done to the folks who attended the service. It seemed awkward to tell them afterward, “Oh by the way, you’re wearing toner on your forehead.”
I can’t say that I’m proud that we did that, but one thing you learn in ministry – and in life – is that sometimes you just have to do what you have to do. The post script to this story is that as soon as the service was over, Elaine went back out to her car and found the packet of ashes almost immediately. They had dropped down between her seat and the console where neither one of us could see them.
I guess you could say that although the ashes were not actually ashes, they got the job done. They were a necessary substitution in a rather desperate moment. We were still able to engage in the ritual that was expected in that service, in spite of the ashes not be ashes. But it seems to me that this service, this day, is about more than just the ritual of having a cross outlined on our foreheads. It is about more than mere ritual of any kind – wearing ashes, fasting, giving up something or any of the other rituals or practices that go along with Ash Wednesday.
The ashes that will be imposed on our foreheads in a few minutes – and yes, these are ashes, not toner – are symbolic of our mortality. We come from dust. We will return to dust. As the saying goes, “no one gets out of life alive.” So as we move into this season of Lent, we are called to remember our mortality. We are called to remember that death is the great equalizer, and that our one sure hope is in Christ our Lord. If this is what we are called to remember, does it really matter what is actually traced onto our foreheads?
Maybe not, but how often do we substitute something artificial for something real? It seems to me that the overarching theme of Ash Wednesday is not only repentance, but authenticity. The prophet Isaiah tells the people that they do what they are required to do: they fast, they pour ashes on their heads, they wear sackcloth, they humble themselves but God does not seem to notice their right actions.
Isaiah denounces their piety as self-righteousness. They may perform right actions, but they are not living rightly. They fast, but they exploit the workers. They fast, but they ignore others who are in bondage. They fast, but they close their eyes to the hungry, the poor and the homeless. They do not seek justice. They do not live righteously. Their religious rituals are a poor substitute for the true worship God demands from them.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus warned the disciples about trumpeting their piety for others to hear and see. Their acts of righteousness should be done secretly. When they give to the needy, they were not to let their left hand know what their right hand was doing. They were not to be like the hypocrites who stand in front of the synagogue praying loudly for everyone to hear. When they fasted there were not to look miserable and pathetic so that everyone would know that they were going without. It was not that they should not pray or fast, it was that they were to remember why they were doing it in the first place. And they were doing these things, these rituals and practices, so as to draw nearer to God, and nearer to others.
Like toner instead of palm ash, their rituals were not a substitute for the real thing. They were to worship with their whole selves, with their whole hearts. Isn’t that the message God gave them again and again – through prophets and priests? God wanted their hearts. God wanted them. God wanted the people to truly be the people God created them to be. Their fasting and rituals were fine, but they were not substitutes for giving God what God truly wanted – their hearts, their authentic, true selves.
Why do we impose ashes? Why do we fast? Why do we give something up? Is it because we are expected to do it; because we think we should, or is it because we want to strip away the pretenses we wrap ourselves in and draw nearer to God? Lent is not just a time for somber reflection on our sins and on the ways we have fallen short of God’s glory. Lent is also a season to draw nearer to God by being more truly the people God created us to be. There are no substitutes for us. There are no substitutes for our hearts. There are no substitutes for the relationship God wants to have with us, and wants us to have with others. There are no substitutes for justice, for righteousness, for loving God and loving God’s children with our whole hearts and with our whole selves. There are no substitutes. God, who loves us completely, calls us to love the same. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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