I want to thank you all for coming out tonight instead of staying home and watching the Charlie Brown Ash Wednesday Special with your kids.
There is a Michael Bolton Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special, but there’s no Peanuts Ash Wednesday Special. Nobody grew up watching a stop-motion Burl Ives saying ‘Hey kid, you’re a sinner and you’re going to die.’
Ash Wednesday doesn’t get anyone like Kris Kringle or Krampus. Starbucks doesn’t unveil any Sin-themed soy lattes for Ash Wednesday.
Christmas has been commercialized and loaded down with crap. Easter has been sentimentalized by bunnies and butterflies and metaphors of springtime renewal, but, there aren’t any Ash Wednesday office parties.
Meanwhile, we ship our ill and aging off to die in private while we put inflatable Grim Reapers in our front lawns on Halloween in the hopes that death will turn out to be a joke because when we lie awake at night we know our sin is not make believe.
What we mean by the soot we smear on Ash Wednesday- culturally speaking- remains an unsullied message. There’s no marketing, no media, no movie tie-ins or product placements for Ash Wednesday.
Nobody but Christians want anything do with talk about Sin and Death, which is a shame because, as allergic as our culture is to the ashes, what we do with them tonight has more to do with love actually than any saccharine Hugh Grant movie.
As allergic as our culture is to Death and Sin, what we do tonight with oil and ash is about love actually.
Because when you do away with the concept of sin, the category of shame is your only alternative. With sin, what’s wrong with me is just what’s wrong with me. Leaving sin behind is lonely-making. Without a concept of sin, there is no correlative category of grace, and you’re left only with what St. Paul would call the crushing accusations of the Law.
Accused by the Law and in the absence of Grace, we self-justify. We perform and we pretend. We wear masks- like Jesus condemns in our text tonight. We project a purer false self out into the world, which of course is just a way to shame others lest we be shamed first.
This is what I mean-
Frances Lee is a Cultural Studies scholar in Seattle. In an article entitled Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice, Lee describes her decades-long exodus out of a shame-based conservative evangelical Christianity only to find the same sort toxic dogma practiced by progressives in the social justice-minded activist communities where she landed.
“There is an underlying current of fear in my community, and it is separate from the daily fear of police brutality, eviction, discrimination, and street harassment. It is the fear of appearing impure.”
Both communities, Lee argues, both sex-obsessed evangelicals and justice-driven progressives seek to justify themselves in the relentless pursuit to acquire purity according to the standards of their convictions.
Law, whether it’s law according to evangelicals or activists, always accuses, and Lee notes how the need in progressive social justice communities to be reckoned as pure produces a suffocating, shaming fear of being counted as impure:
“[A kind of] social death follows after being labeled a ‘bad’ activist.
When I was a Christian, all I could think about was being good, showing goodness, and proving to my parents and my spiritual leaders that I was on the right path to God. All the while, I believed I would never be good enough, so I had to strain for the rest of my life towards an impossible destination of perfection.
I feel compelled to do the same things as a [progressive] activist a decade later. I self-police what I say in activist spaces. I stopped commenting on social media with questions for fear of being called out. I am always ready to apologize for anything I do that a community member deems wrong, oppressive, or inappropriate- no questions asked. The amount of energy I spend demonstrating purity in order to stay in the good graces of fast-moving activist community is enormous.
Progressive activists are some of the judgiest people I’ve ever met, myself included. At times, I have found myself performing activism more than doing activism. It is a terrible thing to be afraid of my own community, and know they’re probably just as afraid of me.
“Ultimately,” says Frances Lee- and, pay attention- this is the point on Ash Wednesday- “the quest for purity is a treacherous distraction for the well-intentioned.”
What Frances Lee describes is what the Apostle Paul means when he warns that our well-intentioned efforts to acquire righteousness on our own lead to death.
It kills us.
Frances Lee escaped the toxic dogma of one community only to discover it again in an opposite sort of community.
She left her evangelical Church hoping to find respite from the demands of purity and relief from the suffocating pretense those demands require.
In St. Paul’s terms, she fled the Law but the Law found her.
Yet she had been searching for Law’s opposite.
What Frances Lee found in neither, not in her evangelical upbringing nor among her progressive activists, is what the Church offers you tonight with oil and ash and a promise that sounds frightening at first.
“To dust you came and to dust you will return.”
Ash Wednesday is the antidote to the treacherous distraction of the well-intentioned because the medicine administered tonight is not grim but, to those who know they are sick, it is the good news of the gospel.
No matter how much booze you give up or how much bible-reading you take on for Lent, tonight isn’t about penance in a quest for purity and it’s not about needing to pretend when you fail to find that purity through your piety.
Ash Wednesday isn’t about your performance in life or your piety in religion at all. Ash Wednesday is about the grace of God given to us and for you in Jesus Christ and him crucified.
In other words-
Ash Wednesday is about grace.
Ash Wednesday is about freedom.
Freedom from the fear of your impurity.
And freedom from the fear of death.
(Death being the wage paid for your impurity)
Ash Wednesday is about grace.
But it’s not your fault if you experience some cognitive dissonance tonight.
Ash Wednesday can look and sound like it’s exactly the sort of righteousness-chasing, purity-performing that Frances Lee critiques and, even worse, what Jesus Christ forbids.
After all, in the Gospel passage assigned for every Ash Wednesday, Christ in his Sermon on the Mount commands us to do the very opposite of what it appears we’re about to do.
We will practice our piety before others; there is no ad space more public than your forehead.
We will disfigure your face with oily ash, and then we’ll send you forth with unwashed faces not into the privacy of your prayer closet but out into the world where you will be tempted to repeat after the Pharisee “Thank God, I am not like other men.”
Ash Wednesday’s promise of grace can get lost in the contradictions.
And there’s more than a few contradictions tonight.
For example, when you come forward tonight, we’ll say “Remember that from dust you came and to dust you shall return” but then we’ll mark your forehead with ash not dust.
God formed Adam not from ash but from the dust of the earth, and when you die- and, news flash- you’re not getting out of life alive- it’s dirt I will throw on your casket, mud not ash.
Shouldn’t we be soiling your head with soil not ash?
Sure, ash is a symbol for repentance and mourning in scripture, but it’s a pile of ashes Job sits on in sackcloth not a smudge streaked across his brow.
If you’re not clear about what we do here tonight, then, despite your good intentions, the ashes and the oil will be but another example of what Frances Lee calls a treacherous distraction.
That is, they’ll be nothing more than an exercise of purity-seeking piety, a work of worship that, King David tells us tonight, God despises- a work of worship that God tells the prophet Isaiah is no better than a filthy rag.
In which case, it’s probably a mercy there aren’t any Charlie Brown Ash Wednesday Specials.
Because the stakes are high then, I want to set your ashes straight before you come forward for the cross.
The first point- I know, another 3-point sermon. If you want me to give these up for Lent you better tell me tonight. The first point to know about the ashy cross we smear across your fore-head is that it’s a cross.
What we do tonight with oil and ashes is not a treacherous distraction.
It’s not, as Jesus warns, practicing your piety before others because the cross on your forehead marks you out not as a pious person but as an impious person.
The cross is absolutely irreligious.
The cross is a reminder the very best of our piety put God to death; therefore, on Ash Wednesday Christians come out of the closet and with a soot scarlet letter freely admit that we are not just flawed and not just broken (that’s a romantic Christian word) but sinners.
Sin is the only word that appropriately names our racism and our prejudice, our violence and apathy and avarice.
We are the worst text messages that we send. We are the email we accidentally reply all to. We are the school shootings we tolerate.
The cross on your forehead announces that before God’s Law you are a failure.
You have not loved God with your whole heart. You have not loved your neighbor as much as you love yourself, and you haven’t even begun to love your enemies.
In fact, loving your enemies is just one of the many commandments you’ve left undone- and that’s the real problem for most of you, what you’ve left undone.
You see, like Job’s, the cruciform ashes are ashes of mourning because the cross on you is the outward, visible sign that inside and unseen the hammer of God’s Law has crushed your sinful heart; so that, no longer curved in on itself your heart has no where else to turn but the grace of God alone.
What’s important about the ashen cross is that it’s a cross.
So don’t worry about Jesus’ warning tonight.
What we do with ash and oil tonight does not violate Christ’s command against virtue-signaling because the cross signifies your vice. It brands you not as someone who thinks he’s holy but as someone who knows his need.
A soot colored cross is more inclusive than any rainbow flag.
Tonight Christians remember that- on paper at least- we are, in fact, the most inclusive people in the world.
We are all sinners.
Smudged or not smudged. Christian or not, activist or evangelical, whether you’re resisting or making America great again- none of us are clean. None of us are pure. All of us would love to have a John Kelly keeping our secrets.
There is no need for us to shame one another because between us there is no distinction.
We are- all of us- sinners.
And the wage paid out for sin is death. The wages of sin is death, the Apostle Paul writes.
We mix up our metaphors tonight, dust…ash…dirt…sin…death…because the wage for the sin we should mourn with ashes is a death marked by the throwing of dirt.
Or the sprinkling of water.
And this is the second point you should understand as you come forward tonight.
The words we will say to you invite you to remember that you’re going to die.
The cross we smear on you invites you to remember that you deserve to.
That’s as offensive and counter-cultural as anything Christians do.
You deserve to die.
And you have.
The cross on your forehead isn’t just a symbol of your sin. The cross on your forehead is a symbol of your death to sin. That is, the cross is an oily and ashen reminder of your baptism. ‘To dust you came and to dust you shall return’ – you’re gonna die- is grim godawful news not good news unless it presumes the prior promise that by your baptism you have already died.
You will die, sure. To dust you came and, when your DNR kicks in or the safety net gets gutted or your children lose their patience, you’ll just as surely return to the dirt.
But the death that should haunt. The death that should keep you up at night, meeting God in your sins, the death that should haunt you is a death you’ve already died.
You’ve already been paid the wages your sins have earned.
What you have done and what you have left undone- what you have coming to you has already come to you by way of the grave we call a font.
By water and the Spirit, God drowned sinful you into Christ’s death.
The death Christ died he died to sin, once for all. The death Christ died he died for your sins, all of them, once, and in his blood by your baptism all your sins have been washed away.
The way we mix the metaphors tonight it’s not your fault if you missed it. What we do tonight neither confirms Frances Lee’s critique nor does it contradict Christ’s commandment. This ash is not a means to achieve purity or practice piety. We’re not inviting you to pretend or perform or prevaricate or protect your impurity from the shaming of others.
We do not smudge our foreheads to solicit God’s forgiveness for our sins. We smudge our foreheads to celebrate God’s once for all forgiveness of them.
The dust on your forehead says: “You were dead in your trespasses.”
But the cross on your forehead says: “You have been baptized. Into his death for your trespasses.”
The wages of sin smudged on your head is good news not grim news.
Your sin, though incontrovertible, cannot condemn you. There is therefore now no condemnation for you. The seal of that promise is your baptism into his death. The sign of that promise is the symbol of his death smeared on your temple.
And that promise should give you not only joy, it should- as Paul says- shut your mouth up. It should stop whatever words of judgment you might have on your lips because the ash marks us out as those who know that the Judge was judged in our place.
Of all the people in world we should be the least judgiest. Or at least the quickest to own up to it.
“Where is our humility when we examine the mistakes of others?” Frances Lee asks in her essay.
“There’s so much wrongdoing in the world. And yet grace and forgiveness are hard to come by in my circles.”
Humility and Grace and Forgiveness- in this circle at least, they shouldn’t be hard to find.
And that’s my final point:
The most important thing about the ashy cross you’re about to receive is that it won’t remain there.
You’re going to wash it off.
You’re going to wash it off because you’ve not only died with Christ to sin, but in your baptism you’ve been raised with Christ too. Because it’s not just that your sins have been reckoned to Christ, it’s that his purity has been imputed to you. As the Apostle Paul says in another Ash Wednesday reading: ‘He who knew no sin was made to be sin so that we might become the purity of God.’
He makes himself our sin.
He makes us his purity.
In other words-
However ‘woke’ you think are, whatever righteousness you have, whatever purity you have- it didn’t come from you.
Indeed, it had to come from outside of you.
By way of your baptism.
Just to make sure you didn’t miss the offense of that exchange, Martin Luther referred to the purity we do posses as ‘alien.’
Our alien purity. Our alien righteousness. Alien- as in, we don’t have either, purity or righteousness, on our own.
So what you’re doing tonight, by wearing a cross and then, just as quickly, washing it off again, you’re puncturing the inflated anthropology our culture gives you. The flattering self-image to which our culture would convert you- tonight, you’re kicking it in the ash, and you’re opting instead for a low anthropology.
As stern and old fashioned as it sounds, with ash you’re insisting that ‘No, we’re not- none of us- basically good people who are doing our best so that God can do the rest.’
We’re worse than flawed. We’re more than broken. ‘Nobody’s perfect’ doesn’t begin to put it right. We’re sinners.
And that’s how what we do here tonight is about love actually.
Such a sober assessment about ourselves is the only true path to patience and empathy and understanding for another- because acknowledging the worst about you is the surest way for you to accept it another.
So, ironically, or maybe not ironic at all, what you do with ash tonight has everything to do with that other holiday tonight.
For, if the fruit of a low anthropology is compassion and empathy and understanding and acceptance, then
Being able to say “I am a sinner who deserves to die” is the necessary precondition to saying “I love you, unto death.”