Welcome to our Ash Wednesday service for March 2, 2022. We are glad that you are here.
The bulletin for this service can be found here. This service of course will be slightly different format than our regular Sunday services, and the bulletin will outline it all. But as usual, the words that you need to know will appear on your screen.
As in the tradition of Ash Wednesday, there will be an imposition of ashes. While you who are watching from home aren’t expected to have any ashes prepared for that portion of the service, you can wait until those physically in the space receive their ashes, and you will be instructed to mark your own foreheads with your fingers. If you wish to use some sort of dirt or soil, you may, but it is not necessary. And of course you can also have a lit candle in your space throughout the service.
May God’s grace and mercy be upon you this day and throughout the Lenten season and always!
O Lord, by your Spirit open to us the Words of Life, a spring of water that shall never fail, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Have the day that you deserve.” I’ve been hearing that phrase a lot lately. Not being said by or to me, mind you, but by some frustrated folk to other folk who quite frankly have disillusioned them with their attitudes and closed mindedness and selfishness. And as you can imagine, that is happening a lot these days with all the divisiveness that is going on. So this phrase is used as a sort of passive-aggressive way of wishing someone harm without actually saying that you wish them harm. By offering someone the day that they deserve means that they probably don’t deserve a good day, and the hope is that something would happen that would somehow open their eyes to their follies and setbacks, at least the ones they have in our opinion. I have to admit though, it does sound a lot better than “drop dead” or “if I never see you again it’ll be too soon” or even “go to H-E-double hockey sticks”.
But in all seriousness, I have been hearing this phrase a lot lately because as I said, the world has been pretty divided. I know, it has always been divided, probably since the first signs of sentient life, but with the rise of social media essentially being this global platform for pretty much anyone with access to the internet to voice their opinions however misguided or not, the divisions have become so much more clear. It was already clear how patriotic people could be when it came to sports and them cheering for their home team for no reason other than it being their home team, but in recent years with the pandemic, politics, and even your main operating system of choice on your devices, people really seem to be at odds with each other as no one could agree on anything. Not even to disagree.
So when did things get so polarized? When did the world start to think in such black and white terms? When did we start defining ourselves by our opinions, our allegiances, and even our faith, and then using those self-imposed labels to ostracize others who don’t fall in our same categories? Well again, maybe always. But just from my perspective, people seem angrier now. People seem more hurt and broken. People seem more like they should perhaps maybe get the day that they deserve. And maybe that is just what is fair.
You know, in a funny sort of way, it kind of sounds like Jesus is telling people to have the day that they deserve in these Ash Wednesday texts. These are the same texts we get for every Ash Wednesday, almost like the lectionary writers don’t expect that we would get the same people show up year after year. But hey, we sure showed them, huh? Jesus’ instruction to his disciples in this passage, about proper fasting and alms giving, seems to allude to us getting what we deserve because of our strict and disciplined observance of how things should be done or lack thereof.
“Beware,” Jesus says, “for then you have no reward”. “Don’t be like the hypocrites… they have received their reward.” “Do this and that in secret, because God who sees in secret will reward you.” Reward, reward, reward. Interesting language that is chosen here, I think if it were up to us, we would use something like “consequence” or “effect” or maybe even “punishment”. At least, those are the words we would use for those hypocrites and the unrighteous and those that we just don’t like, for ourselves we’d probably use “reward” quite easily.
But what is Jesus talking about here anyway? What is the lesson? What is this elusive reward?
Off the bat, we’d say it’s heaven, right? We do good and we’ll get to go to heaven. If we don’t do good, then the reward changes to something a lot less pleasant. Isn’t that what makes most sense in the common understanding of our faith? Isn’t that sort of the textbook Sunday School answer? Isn’t that what we’d like to believe because we want to know that all our hard work and efforts were worth it? I mean, we’re not doing all this Christianity stuff for nothing, are we? Shouldn’t we get the afterlife that we deserve?
That’s the thing though, do we really want what we deserve? I mean really really deserve? I know, some of you might be thinking that you aren’t that bad and most of our lives can be justified by momentary lapses in judgement, or misunderstandings, or somehow it just wasn’t our fault… “the devil made us do it.” I mean we can’t really be held responsible and punished for those, can we?
I think most of us can agree that we actually can. While right off the bat we might think that we’re good enough, but after a bit of digging and soul searching we find that no… we actually aren’t. We can be so selfish. We can be very manipulative. We have a greater capacity for evil than we ever could imagine or admit. And that is a very sobering thought.
But it takes this kind of self-reflection and admission to see how sinful we actually are. It takes a certain amount of revelation of shame and guilt to see just how much we are in need of a Saviour. And it takes a great deal of humility to understand that we are completely and totally forgiven.
We are, you know. By God’s love we are joined together with all the saints of all times and places. By God’s grace we made to be perfect. By God’s mercy we aren’t given the day that we deserve, but we are given so much more beyond anything we could ever earn or imagine.
And so this brings me to today, Ash Wednesday, the solemnness of the day, the nature of the season, the contriteness of heart that is asked of us. This day that we are reminded of our mortality and limited time on this planet, this season that reminds us of our need of forgiveness and strength, this time that lands in the church calendar in a very specific place… right before the resurrection of Easter.
See we are very mortal. We are very limited. And we are very sinful. But the joy in this day and in this season is that while our lives are fleeting, while we might see that we don’t deserve all that much, while we are told that we are dust and to dust we shall return… we are given life. We are shown love. We are welcomed to bask in God’s presence, full of joy and community and above all, God’s grace that has welcomed us there in the first place.
The good news is that this invitation is offered to all: all hypocrites, all who openly think they are better than the rest, all who have sin, and reminds us all of when it comes down to the nitty gritty, we are all the same carbon based life forms that came from the same place and will return to the same place. What really matters then is what we do with this information, and how it affects us and the way we live our short and limited lives. Not to earn our place or to gain some kind of reward, but as a response to this immeasurable grace that has first been given to us.
So when we pray, it isn’t to those who are judging us, but it is to the God who already declared us beloved. When we give generously, it isn’t for the approval of others or for the tax receipt, but it is to reflect God’s generosity given to us. And when we live humbly and with discipline, whether that be in the form of a fast or something else, it isn’t to show the world how spiritual or devout we are, but it is to remind ourselves of where our true strength, our true identities, our true selves reside, in the great and wide arms of the living (and loving) God who created the universe.
So in a few moments we all will be marked with a sign of the cross, not to set us apart in any way, those with ash in this space and those with no ash in your homes, but to remind us all of how we are equally sinners, equally saved, equally getting so much more than what we deserve.
As we journey together through this season of Lent, may we be able to tear down the walls that divide us, understand the anger and frustration that separate us, and humbly accept the love and grace that join us together. Thanks be to God. Amen.