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Ash Wednesday Sermon
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
26, 2020


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Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

‘Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
‘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. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Amen.

Welcome, my Christian family, to the season of Lent. Every year we begin Lent on Ash Wednesday with the words of David in Psalm 51 – guilty and contrite after his sins have been laid bare before God, pleading that God will not only have mercy on him and wash him, but will create in him a clean heart. Our voices join his as ones who fully deserve God’s condemnation, and yet we live in the fullness of God’s grace, trusting that we will be made worthy by the one who made us and loved us from the very beginning of time.

We hear the prophet Joel’s words to the people of his day to sound a trumpet and call for a fast, returning to the Lord with true repentance, rending our hearts and not our garments. And we hear Paul’s tell the Corinthians that now is the acceptable time for the day of salvation. Knowing that, we are to clear out all obstacles to God’s presence in our lives and the lives of those around us.
These are familiar texts to folks who have began their yearly Lents in worship at most Christian churches. And our Gospel reading is also very familiar to all of us as well, I would venture to say. The context in which we hear Jesus’ words today is Ash Wednesday. Soon we will have an opportunity to ask for Gods mercy for us together because of the many ways that each of us has lived sinful lives – because we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves, because we have shut our ears to God’s call to serve, because of self-indulgence, negligence in worship, neglecting human need, false judgements, waste and lack of concern for God’s creation – the list is sometimes overwhelming of the ways that our lives curve in on ourselves, as Martin Luther once defined sin.

After that, you will be invited to come forward if you wish and receive a cross on your forehead as I share those frighteningly true words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Soon after you will receive the real presence of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, in the bread and wine of Holy Communion – spiritual food for our seven-week journey. It is a ritual that is effective in driving us to the cross of Jesus Christ, which is the power of God’s love and mercy in the world.
The original context of Jesus’ words of warning regarding practicing our piety in public in order to be seen by others, was the Sermon on the Mount. We heard some of this sermon earlier this month as Jesus called the crowds the light of the world and salt of the earth before challenging them on issues like being angry with your neighbor, lust, adultery, divorce and retaliation, to name a few. He now wants to help us to understand that practicing our piety – or better, doing our part in our righteousness and justice – demands that we buy into God’s justice in Jesus Christ just as much as Jesus himself did. This is something that is required of us every day, but during Lent, we set aside time to really focus our energies on it.

In preparing for this message I learned a term that is new to me … and relatively new in general. This term is, “virtue signaling,” and it refers to our human need to send out conspicuous signals of our moral values to others, primarily so that a person can find others of similar values. More than just wearing a particular hat, shirt or bumper sticker, virtue signaling can include empty acts of public commitment to exceptionally good causes in order to either lift ourselves up in the sight of others, or to send out signals to “our people.” For instance, a person is more likely to buy a hybrid or electric car if there is some sort of indication of what it is on the outside so others can see it. The problem comes when others see these signals, but then witness that a person has no sacrifice or has not totally bought-in to the cause itself – a climate change activist who flies in airplanes many times a week, or a MAGA supporter who gladly accepts government assistance are a couple of examples. When others witness these things, they are quick to point out the hypocrisy in their actions. I remember once hearing a preacher go on about how the driver of a car with a Christian fish symbol refused to let him turn into a lane that was backed up with traffic. Even the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, very popular a few years ago, has come under scrutiny as something that people would do to claim to support without really donating to the cause. And the growing use of social media spreads both the activity of virtue signaling and the scrutiny that it can bring with it.
I suppose when we walk out of here with black crosses on our heads we open ourselves up to the chance that others see us as signaling our virtue, and will judge us to a harsher standard. In addition, when other Christians see it they may say something or quietly feel a kinship with us. But more than being a signal of some special virtue, the crosses which we receive today are symbols of Jesus’ own buy-in of our stained, guilty lives. These are signs that we are committing ourselves to partner with God in our righteousness by self-examination, confession and maybe even participating in some of those other practices of Lent – almsgiving, prayer, fasting.

Jesus warns us not to be like the hypocrites – actors, who wear a mask to portray a role. The black ashes are not meant as masks to signal our virtue, but reminders to us and our community of our sinfulness and our mortality – that all of us will return to this state one day, just as we were created by God from this state. And the shape of these ashes proclaims where our treasure is – the cross of Christ, the beginning and source of the righteousness in which we are called to participate this Lent. Jesus says that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. Buying into Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, we are doing far more than signaling a false sense of virtue to a skeptical world; we are bearing the same cross that Jesus willingly went to, being nailed on it as the supreme example of sacrificial love for all of God’s creation. The ashes of Ash Wednesday are reminders to us and everyone that when our lives curve more and more inward, the stark, sturdy wood of the cross brings us back to the one who’s body was nailed there by the sinfulness of the very same world that he came to redeem.
Friends, as you go from here with proverbial dust on your foreheads, remember that even though you came from dust and will one day return to dust, today you are still a living, breathing child of God. As long as we have the breath of the Holy Spirit, we are called to live out our righteousness among the very same people who will one day mourn our passing as we will theirs. Welcome to Lent – a time for corporate participation in God’s justice. May we experience this time in love and support of each other, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Amen.