Renewing-Reforming: Ash Wednesday
Pastor Leta Arndt Behrens
Sermon Scripture: 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. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so 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. 6But 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. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so 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; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Read Here (remembering a sermon is the preached word and this is an approximation! ):
When my children were very young, babies really, we started a nightly ritual of prayer and blessing. I of course, wanted the perfect bedtime prayer, one that would set the tone for their night, wake them well in the morning, and well I guess I was really looking for the magic sleeping potion to get them to sleep and stay asleep and since Jesus had given me these precious children I thought maybe he could give a mama a hand and help them sleep through the night… in their beds… the whole time… so, perhaps slightly exhausted, I turned to prayer.
There was the well known prayer of course for children, one that I had not really grown up saying but had heard a time or two. Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. This was horrifying to me. How could I put my babies to sleep with the thought of death? How could I hold them, rock them, tuck them in and even consider that their beautiful lives would someday not be right here safe in my arms? That defied every bone in my motherly body and was not something I could face at all really, let alone nightly.
And so instead, I discovered a ‘new’ version of the prayer that starts the same, now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep—but changes the last lines: may angels watch me through the night and wake me with the morning light. That was much better, still is, to my mother ears that want to deny mortality for my children and want to control the world, even control God, to keep them safe.
We live in a death denying culture. One that tells us that 60 is the new 30, that we can look younger and shiny with just a little botox and tummy tuck, hair dye and the right clothes, right work out program, right meditation or mindfulness routine. Our medical sciences have advanced us in wonderful life giving ways and in ways that lead us to be genuinely shocked by a diagnosis that is terminal. A few centuries ago, children saw death as a reality in their lives and now, death, while it is still real, has become something we think we can protect them from, deny as far away. or maybe it is something we try to protect ourselves from, or at least something that we don’t want to face or admit or live into every day.
Which is why we need Lent, why we need this day of Ashes, why we say the words ashes to ashes, dust to dust to everyone from the oldest in the room to the newest, softest infant head. And why this is not a day of depression or sadness, but a day of refreshment and truth and hope.
Psalm 51 is a psalm of confession, of laying open the truth of our sin, our guilt, our transgressions to God, who knows the depths of us, in a way that is honest, open, and real. There is no room for blaming another person in this psalm. There are no excuses. There is no room for pretending that sin and death and evil don’t exist. It is all right there. We spend so much of our days, our energy, our words and talk to ourselves thinking we can control ourselves—control our words in prayer so they are just right and God will be pleased and even then we are led to think we can control God. But Psalm 51 reminds us of the truth of our humanity, our mortality, our need for God in the world and for God intimately in our lives.
This psalm is a flat out, on our knees, prostrate on the floor even, confession that the truth is we cannot deny our own sin and we cannot defy death; no matter how much love we have or how much praying we do or how many things we give up for Lent, the truth is before us in the ashes. We are dust and to dust we will return. Right here in these ashes and dust we cannot pretend anything, we cannot hide behind words or actions when we lay our hearts to open at the feet of Jesus.
This is a day that we need every year to come forward and say that we can only come before God and know that we are known in truth and still even in that truth, we are loved and promised life. Create in me a clean heart O God and renew a right spirit within me. This is a request and it is a promise. Ash Wednesday refreshes us in this new spirit because it reminds us of truth and then we are set free once again.
The words of prayer that we say with our children in our nightly ritual are still words of truth because they promise God’s presence no matter what comes in the night or throughout our days. And the blessing we give, marking them with the sign of the cross on their forehead is a blessing that invokes not just the death in their baptism, but also the life.
These ashes mark us not only as mortal but as claimed as beloved. These ashes mark us not only as broken but as pieced together and given new life in baptism. These ashes mark us not as holy or pious or good or strong, but as those with eyes and ears and hearts ready to return to God, to walk into Lent refreshed and renewed, and to live and die held in God’s blessing.