A sermon for Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:12, 12-17, or Isaiah 58:1-12, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, Psalm 103:8-14
Earth to earth, ashes to ashes and dust to dust. With each phrase a handful of heavy dirt lands on the coffin to a deep resounding thump. Gathered family and friends grow quieter and quitter and quitter. It is the singular moment from our Easter grounded burial rite I believe emerges from today’s fasting rite. And I do not see the two as of some sort of divine clock with the imposition of ashes marking the beginning and earth, ashes, dust marking some final ending. Both are markers of repentance, and both mark an occasion of self-reflection and our own efforts, or lack thereof, to align all our lives with our created roles as the image of God.
It’s been a challenge since the beginning. The prophet Joel proclaims God’s decree to rend our hearts, not our cloths. The Prophet Isaiah gives voice to our question:
Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?
He gives voice to God’s answer:
Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after: a day to show off humility? (Isaiah 58:5 (MSG))
This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
to break the chains of injustice,
[to] get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
[to] free the oppressed,
[and] cancel debts.
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
sharing your food with the hungry,
inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
being available to your own families. (Isaiah 58:6-7 (MSG))
One difference between the two voices is a focus on the individual verses a focus on the entire community, especially the least within its boundaries. Repentance is not about our behavior with respect to ourselves, like dramatically tearing our shirts off or putting on a good show of humility, on the appointed day. Repentance may be understood as how we go about reflecting the image of God, with our focus on the other. On occasion we can be the image of God to another within ourselves. But, as a rule, to bear the image of God requires of communal commitment to those exploited by:
– a self-serving justice system to those exploited by self-serving business enterprises,
– who set wages so employees qualify for public assistance,
– who set hours to avoid benefits all together,
– who keep the debate about immigration all stirred up , allowing them to benefit from the fear illegal immigrants have of officials, allowing business to exploit their work ethic,
– intentionally overly complex process to get needed help,
– enticing pay-day loans that lead to crushing debit by smartly designed ads, that prey on pressing needs.
We often give generously as individuals. As a society we are increasingly hard-hearted. Evidence: We will begrudging pay millions to incarcerate offenders, when we could pay thousands, to house the homeless, care for the mentally ill, provide real services to youth in trouble. We’ll make bold pronouncements about the immorality of those with differing sexual orientations; and totally ignore sexual abuse by white male, family members. I suspect you get my point.
As to changing our behaviors? Well it, has been, is, and will be hard work. However, the reluctant Jonah’s lack luster effort in Nineveh is enough for an entire city, who previously worship other gods, to repent, to change their ways, in dramatic fashion. God is merciful. Secondly, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, links us to that strange Easter hope that even at grave side we know eternal hope, we know our beloved, is, and we will be received into God’s eternal presence. And as we are thereby certain that God is with us at the grave’s edge, so may we be certain God is with us in every effort to be the image of God we are created to be; even as we emerge from the ashes.