Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

From today’s Epistle Lesson: “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation.” I speak to you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

     The Season of Lent invites God’s people to a time of inward reflection and to repent for every thought, word and deed that separates us from God, the church and each other. So, it is not surprising that for many, these 40 days which commemorate Christ’s own 40 day fast in the wilderness, lead to a deeper understanding that God’s mercy and grace is always available to those who will turn to God.

Frankly, I like Lent because it affirms that the Christian faith is a life-long journey: a journey where the light of Christ continues to shine ever more deeply into the farthest reaches of our hearts and minds as we grow in our faith and love of God. And as that light probes more deeply, we are invited to recognize who we really are – name all those secret sins and thoughts – and then open ourselves up that much further to the wonder of God’s boundless grace to us mere mortals; grace poured out in abundance to us who, as the Psalmist says, are nothing more than dust.

     For those looking for a place to start in their own time of reflection, consider the Psalms. They remind us that we are prone to sin and tend to stray from God’s ways; that we just cannot help ourselves because we are mortal! And yet, Lent assures us that even though we are mortals we are still God’s redeemed children who are invited into an even deeper communion with God in and through Christ. 

     It is appropriate then that on this day our texts begin with repentance: that’s a great place to start any time of self-examination. And those lessons note the various kinds of repentance. There is national repentance such as that which Joel proclaimed in today’s Old Testament lesson. There is repentance within the Church, the gathered community of faith that St. Paul says constantly struggles with a hostile world that seeks to destroy it, especially from within. And Jesus, in today’s Gospel lesson, speaks of personal repentance, as well as the dangers of self-serving piety.

    Each text speaks of different kinds of repentance and yet, they all focus on the same message: lip service will not do. Outward signs of repentance mean nothing unless they come from the heart and mind of God’s people. Otherwise, our actions become self-serving and self-promoting. At least that has been true in my own life.

I have shared with you before how I used to love strutting into the local grocers after attending my home church’s evening Ash Wednesday service. I would linger in the aisles just long enough to ensure that the clerks and customers could see my ashes. I would imagine their comments, “Wow, he must be really holy” and I’d think to myself – in all humility, of course - “Yes, I am.” And then I’d add, “But, Jesus says we’re not supposed to brag about it so I keep it quiet. Thanks for noticing though!” I am grateful for a kind priest who observed my behavior and reminded me there was a box of tissues in the Narthex so that those of us who might be tempted to strut our repentance could remove the ashes as we exited the building. Jesus says beware of practicing piety in front of others in order to be seen by them because what really matters is not the outward sign, but the invisible grace within us that accompanies true repentance and amendment of life from the heart.

And that is what tonight’s ashes are about. There is a sacramental message here as the ashes serve as an outward and visible sign of our mortality and, hopefully, our deepening inner awareness of how sin separates us from God, from each other and from the Church. But most all, those ashes can become a visible reminder of our need for God’s grace within. And when we grasp that reality, Lent’s call to be honest with ourselves and choose to amend our lives and return to God’s ways, enables us to experience the truly transforming power of God’s mercy and grace that accompanies repentance. God’s grace and mercy that, St. Paul says, is available to us right now. “Now is the time” Paul says, “the acceptable time – today is the day of salvation. Act upon it, embrace it today!” The truth is, Christ’s healing light is aching to shine within us and bring us into deeper relationship with God if we will choose to welcome that light.

     And so, my friends, I invite you this evening to come and receive of God’s grace. Open your hearts and allow the light of Christ by the power Holy Spirit, to shine deep within you. God is waiting to restore you to health and wholeness.  “Now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation.” Amen.