Ash Wednesday
Drew Stockstill
February 10, 2016 - Matthew 6: 1-6; 16-21




Ash Wednesday                                                              
Matthew 6: 1-6; 16-21        

Rev. Drew Stockstill
Morningside Presbyterian Church
February 10, 2016


It was big news at Thomasville High School when Ben and Brad announced they would be fasting for the full 40 days of Lent. I never was sure where they caught wind of the papist practice, as they were both members of First Baptist which decidedly did not recognize the fasting seasons. Such painfully public piety should have been of no surprise as in Thomasville, GA no opportunity for the outward display of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ was to be missed, at least during day light hours. It must have been none other than the Holy Spirit that struck Ben and Brad that year and inspired their holy ascetic endeavor. It took only one class period for the news of their brave devotion and commitment to our Lord to make its way around school. As we changed classes, we all wondered how they were going to do it, what had so inspired them and a few of us, being honest, even envied the pounds they would drop. Alas, their commitment to our Lord was short-lived as Brad was on the baseball team and Ben played football which had just started spring training. They both passed out at practice on Friday and their coaches insisted they climb off their Lenten wagons if they intended to play ball.

If only they had known of Jesus’ cautions against such grandstanding piety. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”  It’s a caution that some presidential hopefuls would do well to heed before they sound the trumpets for our Lord Jesus Christ after every primary win, or loss for that matter. I’m not sure God is particularly flattered by credit given for caucuses or Super Bowls. “Beware,” Jesus says, in no uncertain terms.

Our theological grandfather, John Calvin, was not a fan of the whole season of Lent. He called it a, “superstitious observance.” Calvin, also called humans a “factory of idols,” for he knew very well with what ease humans can take otherwise reasonable activities of personal devotion like fasting or giving money to those in need, or even prayer itself and turn them into idols. Idols are simply what we turn to instead of turning to God. They are the objects of our misplaced trust. When we are trapped in cycles of fear or anxiety, idols are what we think will make us feel better but actually only tell us lies and steal our lives.

Well meaning devotion can easily turn into self-serving and showy religious practices, idols. But notice Jesus does not say not to do these things; he says when you give alms, when you pray, when you fast do them in secret for God sees the secrets of our hearts and God sees what motivates our actions. How, then, shall we think of Lent, with it’s tradition of giving things up or taking on noble practices? Carefully, with self-examination, with humility and with honesty, honesty with ourselves and God. Lent is a time of reflection and repentance and truthfulness.

Starting this season of Lent with ashes can be helpful.  Beautiful, hopeful, palms waved by children in their spring finest on Palm Sunday are reduced to ashes today, smeared and smudged, bluntly reminding us of our mortality. We are but passing through this place and what becomes of all the trapping of this life? From dust we have come and to dust we will return. This truth can cause some anxiety with all its uncertainty. But what if we turn to God, instead? Prayer, alms giving, spiritual disciplines, they can be practices of repentance, the ways in which we give our worrying and stressing over to God and then take time to just be with God and God’s people. Repentance takes intention and discipline.

I’ve used that word a few times now: repentance. It has a lot of baggage for me. You may be accustomed to hearing that word with a large serving of guilt with a side of shame- Repent of your sins! In the Bible though, the word in Hebrew means, “to turn about,” or “to return.” Very rarely does the word repentance mean “to be sorry.” It’s never about shaming ourselves. Practices of repentance are simply things we do that help us return our hearts to God. Prayer and mediation can be practices that help us turn about; charity, when done for God and not out of guilt or obligation (which would make it self-serving and idolatry), can help us turn to God. Lent is an opportunity for repentance but isn’t about wallowing in the guilt of our sins and covering ourselves in ashes but simply the invitation to return to God, no judgement, just a turnabout. Ash Wednesday is the honest starting point, simply acknowledging we are vulnerable, we are tender and that’s OK. We are from the stuff of the earth and we will return to the dust and we need not let that truth send us into an anxious fit, running for our various forms of self-medication in seek of life support, but rather return in peace to the open arms of the Creator who gave us these beautiful and challenging lives. The Bible calls them treasures.

Jesus instructs his followers not to store up for themselves treasures on earth, where we know all turns to ash anyway, but rethink what our treasure is. For God, we are treasure. Can we see our own lives as treasure? What if our discipline this Lent is to notice when we get anxious or fearful and pausing in prayer and asking God to take our hearts again? Repent, for we tried to take them into our own hands. Those around us who we worry about, out of love or out of fear, they too are God’s treasure. Can we return their hearts to God and take them off our hands? These lives, your life, is God’s treasure. Is it better to cling to it or might God be able to hold us for awhile? Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Ash Wednesday invites us to be completely real and honest about our lives, to take stock of what we value, what we give our time and talent and resources to, what we give our energy and worries and fears and anxiety to. Ash Wednesday invites us to name what is ash so to illumine what is treasure. We smudge ash and whisper truth. It’s not to be morbid, its to be, if only here and only for a moment, honest, honest and at peace.

In a moment you will be invited to come forward and have an ashen cross placed on your forehead. It is a sign of hope, of promise, of peace. From dust you have come and it is God’s own hands that took dust and, with love and tenderness, created your body, and kissed your face to give you life. In this action we remember that we are never far from God for in our humanity, we are joined with God, in our birth and in our death, we are joined with God.

I visited a friend in the hospital near the end of his life. There was no way around it, he was old. That day when I went into his room I found him in a deep sleep. My rule is don’t wake a sleeping baby and don’t wake a hospital patient, it’s not easy to get that kind of sleep at the hospital. I left my card on the side table, whispered a prayer and was about to leave when I was suddenly struck in that moment by the beauty of my friend. He was a 90-year-old man in a hospital gown, curled up on his side with a thin hospital sheet tucked around him. His face was covered in whiskers, his hair was a mess, but oddly enough he looked to me like a beautiful child, he reminded me of my own beautiful child. They were 90 years apart but something about him, his peacefulness, vulnerability and tenderness, the way he was sleeping, was like a child. I felt a deep sense of peace in that moment, where I had felt some anxiety. My daughter was the person I knew who had most recently been in the presence of God. Looking closely at her face I can still see some of the marks of God’s hand where She fashioned Lydia Grace from the dust. God left a bit of a smudge of dust on her forehead, you can still see it when you look very closely—the mark of God’s touch. I think I could see a bit of that dust on my friends wrinkled forehead, and it makes sense as he was very soon to return to the presence of God…and to dust you will return.

In that moment my infant and my old friend were so close together, so close to the hands of God. We are that close, we just easily forget it. In Ash Wednesday we can return, return to the truth that we are this close to God. We are returning to that place where our earthly lives begin and end both held in the palm of God, as we put that smudge of ash on our faces. From God you have come and to God you will return.

Last Published: February 12, 2016 11:00 PM