1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgement.
5 Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
6 You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be cleaner than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
15 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased.
17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
‘Beware of practising 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.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
So many of the commentaries one reads to prepare a short sermon for Ash Wednesday say something along the lines of, “Ash Wednesday is a good chance for you to remind your church family of life’s fragility, of how close our mortality clings to us, of the realities of death and dying.” But I don’t think any of us need that reminder in the same way this year. We are aware now more than ever of how the death-dealing forces in our world wreak havoc on our collective life. Over 470k people in the US alone have died from COVID. We have not been able to safely hug our beloveds for a year. We have seen that the greatest weight of death and suffering lands on our Black and Brown siblings, who have died at disproportionate rates to the virus because of the many systems denying them access to life. We have seen anew that essential workers are actually sacrificial workers to our god of capitalism, profit at all costs, even the cost of precious lives.
Death has also made itself known to us as we look inward. We learn every day new ways that we actually participate in death-dealing systems of oppression rooted in white supremacy, corporate greed, imperialism, and all the -isms that choke the life from this world. This whole year has brought to the surface the frailties of our bodies, our mental health, our relationships, our waning trust in a God who sometimes feels so far away. Indeed, this year, the ashes of our lives seem to be all around us. Which makes me ask: why do we need to put these ashes on our foreheads when we already see them everywhere we look?
In an effort to answer this question, I was struck in both our Scripture readings today with all the language about the transformation God does in the inward places of our lives. Psalm 51 speaks of God desiring truth in the inward being, inviting God to teach us wisdom in our secret hearts. Jesus, in Matthew 6, urges us to give our alms and do our fasting in secret, because our heavenly Parent who sees what is done in secret will reward us. When we pray, we are to go into our room and shut our doors, because again, in that secret place, hidden in an embracing darkness, we meet God. We may want to keep God out here at arm’s length where we feel a sense of control, but our God wants access to the intimate spaces of our lives, the places deep within. The place we store our greatest treasures.
So this year, I wonder if the invitation for us on Ash Wednesday is to not simply have the ashes on our foreheads, but rather to allow the Spirit to blow those ashes into the tender, intimate, deep spaces on the very inside of our hearts. To let the ashes of all that white supremacy has burned down in our country make the sign of the cross on our secret heart. To let the ashes of our dreams that died this last year come into our room with us as we shut the door, holding them in prayer before our God. To let the ashes of everything we have lost make their way into the deepest parts of our being. Why, you ask, would we decide to let those painful ashes into the core of who we are? Because when we let our hearts break for the things that break God’s heart, that’s the beginning of ashes turning to soil, soil from which new life has an opportunity to grow.
During Advent, I told our church family about my newfound joy in having a compost container in my backyard. Because it’s where I put the dead things of my life, and somehow, almost by magic, they turn into the most beautiful, chocolate cake soil I’ve ever seen. I’ve learned along the way that a main ingredient in the composting process is oxygen, air that the compost container breathes in through holes in the side, so that inside the inner heart of that bin, special bacteria can thrive, consuming the old ashes of what we had for dinner and transforming them into nurturing, life-sustaining garden soil.
The inner places of our lives, our secret hearts as Psalm 51 puts it, can be like this compost bin if, and only if, we let the dead things, the ashes, pierce us, move us, break our hearts, change our course, cause us to repent and turn around. This is what we do when we confess our sins – we admit that so much around us and in us has died and we let go of the ashes, we drop them into the darkness of the compost bin, allowing them to join the transformative work of that dark, secret place. That letting go is where it all begins. Because the Holy Spirit is like that oxygen surrounding all of it and breathing right through it, consuming the old and transforming it into the new, until the deepest part of our being becomes fertile soil for new life to grow.
So this Ash Wednesday, as we put ashes or indeed soil on our foreheads, we name the death that surrounds us and we also entrust ourselves to this Spirit, this wind, oxygen, breath of God that will turn our ashes into gladness, that will remake our brokenness into the ground from which green things can grow. Amen.