Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019
[sermon begins after Bible reading; see the end of the sermon for two more Bible readings referenced in the sermon.]
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. 2 “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. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
5 “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. 6 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.
16 “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. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 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.
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
In a hand-drawn cartoon, Charlie Brown in his signature yellow shirt with the wide, horizontal zig-zag stripe, sits beside his beloved white dog Snoopy at the end of boating dock. We see their backs as they look out over the blue water in front of them. Rocks and a few trees sit in the distance at the sides of the calm lake waters that meet the blue sky out at the horizon. In a speech balloon over Charlie Brown’s mostly hairless head, he says to his friend with the drooping, black ears, “Some day, we will all die, Snoopy.” Snoopy replies, “True, but on all the other days, we will not.” This comic pops up from time-to-time on social media. I couldn’t figure out if it’s Charles Schultz’s actual work but it’s been enough times across my screen that I can tell it means something to a number of people. The simple scene and the two sentence conversation gets at something true. In a similar way, Ash Wednesday gets at something true – someday we will die but on all the other days we will not.
Being honest about our death someday, frames our days of living today. We often learn a lot about a thing by what we think of as its opposite. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians hones in on opposites in the verses we heard today – imposters yet true, unknown yet well known, dying yet alive, sorrowful yet always rejoicing, having nothing yet possessing everything… Paul gives us opposites and offers us an example of what living looks like through the lens of the gospel. It’s as if he’s laying down a bit of challenge to people who think they have this Christian living thing down but are doing a poor job of it. His alternative is a set of opposites that leaves us scratching our heads but smacks of honest truth. A perfect message for us as we begin Lent. Because Lent never moves us to easy answers. Lent deepens us into reflection. Reflection about ourselves with relentless honesty that reveals the motivations and actions of our daily living.
It’s these very motivations and actions that are called into question by the Gospel of Matthew reading. If we think Jesus’ challenge about keeping piety secret validates our natural tendency to be quiet Christians then we may be missing something. Jesus was warning his disciples about pious prancing emptied of all concern for the neighbor. His words are flying fast and furious as part of the Sermon on the Mount that pushes his listeners out of their comfort zones and into the work of Christian love for neighbor. Jesus often singled out the publically righteous. The publically righteous used their piety as a gauge through which everyone else’s worthiness before God is judged. In light of this challenge, how are we to understand the cross of ash marked on our foreheads? It’s a valid question.
I have to admit, there were quite a few years when I just couldn’t figure out Lent. The ash, the repentance, the reflection about sin with the shadow of the cross looming larger with each passing day toward Good Friday. I used to say with some frequency and none too gently, “Can we just get to Easter already?!!” My wonderfully faith-filled friend Chris and I laugh about my Lenten laments in those days whenever my love of Lent comes up now. She takes some pleasure in reminding me because now it’s hard for me to imagine how I could possibly rejoice more in the relentless honesty of this season.
Like Charlie Brown, I found myself in a particularly philosophical mood a few years ago. From that mood, I said to someone, “Isn’t it weird that from the moment we’re born we begin to die?” He immediately said, “Yes, but we’re also living.” It’s impossible for me to remember when the dots finally connected. But I can tell you that the connections worked backwards from the cross of ash echoing back from the cross of Good Friday. The ash goes on the forehead with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I swear there are times I can hear the grit of ash when it’s smeared on skin one way and then the other, priming us to begin at our end, priming us to live fully knowing that it is God who promises to hold us through death. So the ash we end up wearing on our foreheads is pure promise.
When I take communion out to our home-centered folks, I often quote another one of the Apostle Paul’s Bible verses. It goes like this:
“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.”
Other Bible translations say, “…the quick and the dead.” Regardless, I say this verse at people’s bedsides and recliners because the reminder that God’s promises encompass our whole lives, even into life eternal, can never come too many times. Because, deep down, we know a few things are true. We know that our piety will never fully reflect our mixed motivations and inconsistent actions. We know we can never love our neighbor or ourselves enough under our own steam. (Check out that Isaiah reading again if you’re in any doubt.)
We also know that God’s love working in us and through us makes loving our neighbors and ourselves possible because it’s God who loved us first. The movement of love is from God to us. That’s what we wear on our foreheads in the form of ash.
For now, today, we begin at the end with the cross on our foreheads reminding us that we are fragile creatures who experience the freedom of living through the truth of our last day. Because, in the end, we are reminded once more that our purpose in Jesus is first to be loved by the God who is, who was, and who is to come. Loved unconditionally. Loved so much that we are free to wonder about our motivations and our actions without worrying about the love freely given to us. Loved so much that hearts are transformed by the grace of unconditional love. Reminded that we are loved and to love. When someone asks you what that ash is about, tell them that essential thing that means everything – that it reminds you first you are loved. and that this promise includes everyone. No exceptions.
This is good news indeed. Amen.
 2 Corinthians 6:9-10
 Frank L. Crouch, Dean and Vice President, Moravian Theological Seminary. Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 for Ash Wednesday on March 6, 2019. Working Preacher, Luther Seminary. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3983
 Matthew 5, 6, 7 [full chapters]
 Romans 14:7-9
Isaiah 58:1-12 Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. 2 Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. 3 “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. 4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. 5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10 if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11 The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 …we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
6:1 As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2 For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 3 We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4 but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7 truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8 in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9 as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.