Sermon: Ash Wednesday, 3/6/19

Ash Wednesday C2019
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, Isaiah 58

by Pastor Sarah Stadler

On Ash Wednesday, we confront ourselves.

We begin worship in silence. We cannot avoid the thoughts inside our heads.

We confess our sin, our most grievous sin. We cannot avoid the truth of our communal confession, that we are a broken people.

We receive ashes on our forehead and hear: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. We cannot avoid our mortality.

We hear Jesus’ warning: Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them. We cannot avoid the fact that we like to be seen as good by others.

We hear Isaiah’s hard truth: Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. We cannot avoid how we perpetuate injustice in many ways.

On Ash Wednesday, we confront ourselves.

And we are not fond of confronting ourselves. In fact, most of us are out of practice of confronting ourselves.

Doing so is tricky because confronting ourselves does not mean blaming ourselves. It does not mean shaming ourselves. It is not telling ourselves we’re not good enough. No. Blame, shame, accusation is not Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday, we confront ourselves, however we are. Ash Wednesday is like standing in front of a mirror. There’s no need for the mirror to speak, to blame, to shame, to accuse; simply by standing in front of it, we see ourselves. Standing in front of the mirror, we cannot avoid ourselves.

When we look in that mirror, we see what we do, not what we think or what we say, but what we do, actually do. And that’s startling: to measure how or if we follow Jesus only by what we actually do—with no commentary, no explanations, no excuses. When we see ourselves, we do not need to blame, shame, or accuse ourselves but just see plainly that we, all of us, me included, are not as ethical as we believe, not as consistent, not as good. When we stand in front of that mirror, we may even find that we don’t follow Jesus, that we have no desire to follow Jesus, that we straight up avoid questions of large importance, such as questions of justice and questions of love. Still, amazingly, just as Jesus fails to judge the Pharisees in Matthew chapter 6, he fails to judge us. When Jesus sees us, he sees exactly how we are, and while we are a dishonest, inconsistent, self-centered people, Jesus somehow avoids blame, shame, and accusation.

Jesus calls us to walk the walk, not simply talk the talk. In fact, he recommends not talking—only doing. Give. Don’t talk about giving. Pray. Don’t talk about praying. Fast. Don’t talk about fasting. No judgment. He just shows us to ourselves.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus uses the Pharisees as an object lesson because they, among all the people of Jesus’ world, hold the highest opinion and thus the most unrealistic opinion of themselves. They happen to be the most religious of all the people in Jesus’ world, the most proper, the most legalistically pure. Jesus does not condemn them. He just describes what they do.

By contrast, the disciples who follow Jesus, his friends with whom he breaks bread, the sick and demented crowds who flock to him, the women who stay with him at the cross, these people are not so religious, not so pure, not so proper. They are broken too, just like the Pharisees. But they know it. They are able to look in the mirror and see themselves.

That’s who Jesus teaches in Matthew chapter six, courageous people who take a good look in the mirror and hear the gospel in the midst of the law. For the law warns: Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them. But the gospel declares: I see you exactly as you are, and still, I love you. That’s Ash Wednesday.

Thanks be to God! Amen.