Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
It is the first Sunday of Lent. I have been through a lifetime of first Sundays of Lent. And each one is different. Today, we did something I have never done before, nor have I seen it done before – we acknowledged the ashes of grief and repentance on the first Sunday and not just on Ash Wednesday.
I have always been of two minds about the Imposition of Ashes. On the one hand, Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others.” So, why do we put ashes on our foreheads, where we cannot see them ourselves, and ONLY others can see them?
In the time of Jesus, grieving was very public, but I would not consider it an act of piety. It was a ritual of grief, which is healing. One wailed, and cried when a loved one was lost, or when a battle was lost. One sat in the dirt and put dust or ashes on one’s head. Dry ashes or dust powdered all over a person makes them look sickly, ghostlike. Their actions displayed that part of them has died.
The ash Jesus criticized was the ash put on the face when one was fasting to disfigure one’s appearance. In Isaiah 58, it was the ash worn to get God’s attention, when the heart was far from God. The fasting God sought was the fast from self-interest in order to make room for justice. So, if the ash on the forehead is only a statement that we are fasting, it seems something to reconsider. But if it is a sign of public repentance and sorrow and acting in justice, that may be something else altogether.
On the other hand, it is true that when we are at a crux time in our lives, we mark it with a ritual or a symbol. When we marry, there is a ring, or a tattoo. When we graduate there is a gown and a hat. When we win an athletic contest, there is a trophy. These life turning points are happy ones. But how do we mark the ones which are not celebrations, but regrets. In the divorce recovery group, we have noted that there is not ceremony for the ending of a marriage, but rather it is something done quietly in the courts and we are informed by mail that it happened. With the imposition of ashes, we do a hard thing – we say, before God and everyone, that we are embarking on a path which denies our self-interest and makes room in our houses for what God may bring. So, ashes help us to say, “this is important,” and to have it witnessed by the community.
Jesus didn’t say just, “beware of practicing your piety before others.” The sentence goes on, “in order to be seen by therm.” So, intention is very important here. Why are you doing this? In order to be seen by others? Is it for show?
Jack Kornfield tells a story which is on point here: There is a story from the time Bill Moyers was press secretary for President Lyndon Johnson. At a White House cabinet lunch, Moyers, who was trained as a minister, was asked to offer the grace. “Speak up, Bill,” commanded Johnson, “I can’t hear a damned thing.” From his end of the table, Moyers answered softly, “I wasn’t addressing you, Mr. President.”
[Kornfield, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, p. 26]
When Jesus talks about giving alms, he calls on hyperbole, by saying not to be like those who blow the trumpet before them as they are bringing their gifts. This was not a Jewish practice. But we all understand what he is saying.
On Ash Wednesday, I usually offer an alternative to get me out of this dilemma. Have the ashes placed on one’s hand, or one’s forehead – your choice. I received the ash on my hand this year, and I was surprised by the impact it had on me. In past years, I have forgotten about the black smudge on my forehead, and have been surprised to see it when I go to wash up before bed. But this year, I saw it when I ate, when I typed on the computer, when I drove the car when I was reading a book. I was reminded about it constantly. But only from the hours from 6pm until I went to bed. I valued the mark and felt a loss when it was washed off.
So I wondered about a mark which could visibly carry this reminder with me through Lent. As a child, I had a necklace with a mustard seed in it, to remind me of how little faith it take to move mountains, and to give me courage to follow Jesus. I wonder if they have ash jewelry? This year, Karen Preston offers us all a book mark. Use it for whatever you read most – particularly your Lenten devotional guide. Or, tape your bookmark to your mirror, or onto your coffee maker during Lent. Let it be a mark of your intention to follow Jesus.
We will be looking at the Sermon on the Mount during Lent this year. This was Jesus’ first sermon in Matthew’s gospel. It is a sermon on what it means to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself, what Jesus and many of the other rabbis knew was the heart of the Torah. Everything else which God wants from human behavior comes from these two commandments. Jesus’ life and teachings were all commentary on these two principles.
When we live by the law of love, we cannot use our cleverness to create a product and then create a need in the consumer to have that product, so we can get rich. We cannot go out and conquer nations, just because we have the power. Instead, we know that there are human beings, beloved by God who will be hurt or killed. We cannot thoughtlessly use more and more of our planet’s resources, because we know that God loves our planet and has designed it to work in balance, not in greed. And you can imagine other examples on your own.
So will the smudge on your hand cause you to buy different things at the store? Will the smudge help you remember to bring in your grocery bags or carry out your purchases in your arms? Will the smudge help you write that card to someone who is hurting? Will that smudge cause you to hold your tongue when you flash with anger?
Let’s be practical. The Sermon on the Mount is nothing if not practical. Jesus is not be facetious or metaphorical. He wants us to do the work of living in love just as he did. This Lent, how will your intention to follow Jesus change how you live your life?
This all sounds like a downer. It isn’t. Let me assure you! There is one more phrase, repeated three time after each of the illustrations of not living for public acclaim: “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
And what are the rewards of living a life with love at the center (besides following Jesus)? Love draws people like a magnet. People want to be around others with whom they are seen and appreciated and loved. The most common reason I have heard these days why people come to church is to find community. There is no deeper longing in the human heart that to love and be loved. Will this love make life all fall into place and all your endeavors succeed? No…. And yes. If your intention is to love and you love, then your highest endeavor has succeeded. End of story.
The blessings of being surrounded with a community of connection cannot be overstated. It is what we are made for. Is it worth giving up self-interest to be loved and to love? Of course! God is love. And God’s breath lives in us. So we too, are meant for love.
I have said it many times, and I will say it again. One of my deepest joys on Sunday mornings is to see you move around and find each one to greet, and welcome and love. You can’t be paused until you have touched every single one! There is so much love in the room. It is like electricity. Have you been rewarded by your heavenly Father? Yes! With love. Don’t lose sight of it. It was what Jesus lived for. The tempter tried to distract him from it. But to no avail. Love is enough. More than enough.