Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
This afternoon, I had a visit from Pastor Gary Gilbert from the Union Congregational United Church of Christ. He had been asked to deliver some materials to me, and after introducing myself, I invited him to sit and chat for a few moments. We didn’t talk about anything too important, but he invited me over in the afternoon for Union’s Ash Wednesday service, and I was happy to accept the invitation (which is also why I already have ashes on my forehead).
He introduced me to the folks gathered there that afternoon, and I was surprised by how many people recognized me once they heard my name. How did they know me already? They read the paper—and all of them had read the wonderful article that Jan Hintz wrote for the Three Lakes News. I had to keep reminding them that I didn’t write the article, so any compliments should be directed to Jan.
But I admit, there was something about having people recognize my name and face being in the newspaper felt kinda good. I’ve only been in the paper a couple of times before, and usually candid shots like when someone at TubaChristmas Chicago this little kid (me) playing this giant horn, and thought it odd enough to photograph and use in the paper. This was different though. I wasn’t puffing my chest or anything, but there was a certain element of pride in people recognizing me.
Now, I am by no means a celebrity, and please, don’t treat me like one. But it’s not hard to understand why, when a new building is built and needs a name, or an event needs a sponsor, billionaires from all over bid to have their name put on it. To have one’s name out in public like that lends a certain air of immortality to life. Who will soon forget the likes John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, or yes, even Curly Lambeau.
Corporations do this too. Aside from the aforementioned, try to name a sports stadium that isn’t named after a corporation. We name everything after corporations. That’s why, during a Blackhawks game, you can have an AT&T Video Replay on a Citgo Petroleum Powerplay Goal in the Fifth/Third Bank Third Period.
The same thing can happen in church. I haven’t noticed this too much around here, and I thank you for that, but I’ve seen churches where every pew, every chair, every candelabra, every cup, has someone’s name attached to it as a memorial. Now, except in excess, this itself is not necessarily a bad thing. But we get so caught up in the names and legacy of people that we can lose sight of what’s important. My internship site did a “clean-up”, trying to throw away old, broken junk, and I can’t tell you how many useless pieces of trash were put back in storage because, at one point, they had been memorial gifts—even if the name had long since worn off.
Both as institutions and as people, we care about our pride. We care that people know who we are, recognize us for our contributions, and give us our due—even if it’s as simple as a smile, a thank you, or a hug. We want that recognition.
Lent, then is a challenging season. It is a quieter time, a time of preparation for the upcoming Easter feast. In ancient times, Lent was the last stretch of preparation for those seeking to be baptized as Christians. It was a time for serious reflection, examination, and scrutiny.
It wasn’t a time for pride. Pride had to be left out on the doorstep. Your status, your wealth, your connections, and even your family meant nothing. Even at the baptism, you were stripped naked, immersed in the water, and then draped in a single white tunic—the origin of the albs we wear today.
We all could use a good breaking down of our pride. The many Lenten disciplines are designed to do exactly that. In a country in which, compared to the rest of the world, we live in gross overabundance, what would it mean to acknowledge our wealth that we take for granted, and give up a luxury?
In a society that expects us to always be on the move, always quote-unquote “productive”, always maximizing every second of our time, what would it mean to take 5 minutes each day—10 minutes? 20? 30?–and simply pray. If you are like me, praying alone, without any guide, is hard. My mind wanders. I want to do what I want to do instead. So maybe this is the perfect discipline for me.
And in a world that puts looking beautiful at the top of its list for being important, what would it mean, for even just one day, to walk around with a big, ugly, smudge of dirt on your forehead, in the name of the faith?
I’ve always found it ironic that the day on which we hear Jesus say, “Do not practice your piety before others,” is the day on which we put a visible mark of our faith on our forehead. But in today’s American society, I think it is absolutely appropriate, on this day to do so.
Putting big splotches of dirt on our heads isn’t being boastful. It doesn’t make us look “cool” or popular. It is dirty. It’s messy. It makes us stand out, but not in flashy ways. The girl at Baker’s this afternoon didn’t treat me like a superstar and stroke my ego when she saw my ashes—she thought I had a really bad tattoo. That’s what she saw when she looked at me—awkwardness.
Further, the ashes are the ultimate dismantler of our pride. You’ve heard the phrase, “You can’t take it with you”, right? When we put the ashes on our heads, we are told, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Eventually, you will die. There’s no skirting around it, there’s no avoiding it. You will die. And everything you work for will eventually die, too. We may have the Rockefeller Center, but John D. Rockefeller is dead. Do kids these days even know who Rockefeller was? I doubt it.
Lent reminds us that everything we build, every thing we work for, everything we own and buy—it all disappears. We are dust, and to dust we will return. No ifs, ands, or buts.
Our pride will die with us. It has to, for there to be any new life and resurrection. We are mortal, and we will die. But Lent is a season of preparation that leads to Easter. We die so that we might have new life. But we do have to die. And that’s not something to be afraid of.
Tonight, you are invited to have the ashes put on your forehead. To let your pride die. To be reminded of your own mortality, to face that with humility. You will die. But you will also have new life. Lent leads to Easter.
But for now, remember you are dust, and to dust you will return. Amen.