“Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:20-21).
Let us pray. Dear God in Heaven, we ask you to join us here, and we trust that you are here with us. May my words be your words, and all of our thoughts, your thoughts. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Today, we gather together for a unique purpose. Unlike any other service in the course of the year, unlike any Bible study, any prayer group, any fellowship dinner…today we come together to intentionally disobey the Bible. Worse, we’re going to intentionally disobey Jesus Christ’s specific instructions! Toward the end of this service, I’ll invite you to come forward to receive the imposition of ashes. I’ll make a mark on your forehead, and then you’ll go to work. Everyone will know where you’ve been. They might not know what particular kind of church you’ve been to, but they will definitely know something about your spiritual life…your life of faith. So listen again to Jesus’ words: “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven… But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:1-4). So exactly what are we doing here?
This service, this tradition, is one of the most misunderstood things we do. The real imagery, the real significance (which, by the way, is profound) has been lost in the unthinking tradition of coming to church and getting the ashes. It’s so easy to think of the ashes as a sign of faith. It’s like wearing a cross necklace or a “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelet: a way to let people know you’re a Christian without having to get into an uncomfortably personal conversation. But Jesus seems to be adamantly opposed to this sort of thing! He says that we shouldn’t even let other people see us when we pray (Matthew 6:5-6)! In his most stirring image, Jesus says that when we’re feeding the poor, we should do it in such a way that our left hand doesn’t know what our right hand is doing (Matthew 6:3). What he’s getting at is that our good deeds should be done so unconsciously, with so little concern about being seen by others, that it’s as though our other hand doesn’t know what’s going on! Do any of you have a friend (I know that you yourselves aren’t like this…) who can’t resist bringing up some certain thing about themselves? Like their SAT scores, or the time they hiked Kilamanjaro, or the fact that Billy Joel stole the melody for “Piano Man” from them? I’m one of those people…remind me to tell you about my SAT scores sometime. It’s very difficult for us to disconnect from the desire to have our good deeds appreciated. And ultimately, that’s what Ash Wednesday is really all about.
Far from being an opportunity for us to show everyone at the office that we’ve been to church today, the symbolism of the ashes…you know, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return?”…is to remind us, all day today and throughout Lent, that we are human. Human League sings a wonderful song, called “Human,” which includes the lines, “I’m only human/Of flesh and blood I’m made/Human/Born to make mistakes.” It’s strange to have such profound words coming from a British synth-pop group from 1986, but they’ve really put their finger on it. To be human is to be in need. To be less than you feel you could be. When was the last time you did something wonderful and said, “Well, I am human.” Never! Not once! We say, “I’m only human” to apologize for our shortcomings. So, on Ash Wednesday, we place a mark on our heads, not to call attention to how great we are, but as an admission of weakness…of shortcoming…of humanity. It’s less a diamond ring and more a scarlet letter. But Ash Wednesday and Lent don’t need to be depressing times! It’s not a 40-day grind until we can eat chocolate and watch Desperate Housewives again. Remember something else Jesus said: When the Pharisees were bothered that he was eating with the tax collectors and the sinners (the humans!), Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Wow! And that’s really it. Here, on Ash Wednesday, we get the whole story in a little package. First, the bad news: We’re human. We’re not all we could be. Our left hand always knows what our right hand is doing. We hold ourselves prisoner to what other people think of us. But then the Good News. And that’s with a capital “g” and “n.” The Good News, the Gospel itself: Jesus came for sinners! He came for humans! He came…for us.
So today, as we take the ashes onto our foreheads, let us enter Lent with these two truths at the front of our minds: We are human. We are in need. But Jesus is the Christ. He comes to meet needs. The Good News overpowers the bad news and humans, you and me, are saved. Amen.