Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
1 “Beware of practicing 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. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so 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. 6 But 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. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so 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.
“You are stardust and to stardust you shall return.”
These are the words I’ll say to whatever poor souls happen to ask me what I’m up to downtown today between 3 and 5:30 pm;
I’ll be poised, ready to give out “ashes to go,”
and Hershey kisses. And paper stars with inspirational words on them.
I’ll stick out like a sore thumb.
It will be the opposite of praying in secret.
Did I mention there will be glitter in these ashes?
I mixed them in as a sign of my intention to be an ally alongside the LGBTQ community,
mixed that glitter in in the tradition of other churches that have done so,
so that I might mark the bodies of my gay, lesbian, bi and trans friends with a sign of their mortality
but also a sign of their belovedness.
It will be the opposite of praying in secret.
In fact, most of what we do in our churches is the opposite of everything Jesus tells us in this Sermon on the Mount we ought not to do.
The robes, the confessional hymns, the big stewardship campaigns, the widely advertised classes on spiritual disciplines. If you are a church person, you do this, and you know what I’m talking about. We do this.
And we will all leave here today with a big ol’ ash cross on our foreheads, and we’ll go to work or the grocery store or, if you’re like me, you will go pick up a pepperoni heart-shaped pizza from Papa Murphy’s and just be the most obvious church-going Christian ever.
And then maybe someone will ask you what it means.
Maybe you’ll say it’s from church. Ash Wednesday. Have a nice day.
Maybe you’ll say it’s a sign of your mortality, of your sinfulness. Have a nice day?
Maybe you’ll say it’s a ritual you grew up with, and you don’t remember what it means.
There’s no judgment. That is usually the case with most of us.
No matter what you say, there’s a good chance that Jesus would call you a hypocrite.
You’re in decent company: I am literally going to be a standing on a street corner today, just like the scribes and the pharisees Jesus’ has so much contempt for.
The scribes and the pharisees were the “good Jews.” They followed the laws and codes of Judaism to a tee and had a sense that they were more blessed by God because of it. They thought themselves “more Jewish” than the rest.
And Jesus has a lot of contempt for this. He ministered with his disciples and those gathered on that mountain–folks desperate for a new way, a different reality, a true Messiah–and his mission was all about debunking the popular wisdom that the better you follow the rules the more blessed you are.
And yet we have gathered as good Christians, to do the public ritual that we hold dear. Something that makes us publicly announce our adherence to the codes. That separates us from everyone else with their clean faces.
I didn’t grow up with Ash Wednesday as a ritual, I grew up in a less-liturgical setting, but when I first stumbled upon the tradition it felt like yessssssssssss another thing I can do to be more Christian.
We will each reconcile our presence here, the ashes on our foreheads, in our own way.
I trust, and I choose to believe, that it is not all religious posturing. Not all hypocrisy.
Here is how I will make meaning of this day:
Meister Eckhart, a 13th century Christian mystic, once wrote: To be full of things is to be empty of God; to be empty of things is to be full of God.
For me, Ash Wednesday is a day for such a paradox.
Not a day when I add one more thing to my list of piousness, but rather the one day of the year when I am really clear, in a public way, about how human I am.
A day to take things away rather than to add things on.
A day to be less Christian and more human:
more honest about the shame that lives deep in me; the fear that comes from thinking I will never be enough.
More honest about the jagged vulnerability within me, the way so many things, especially love, feels risky.
More honest about how I often fear the day, hopefully far in the future, my husband will die.
How I don’t usually give money to folks who ask me for it,
how I have made embarrassing assumptions in casual conversation about people of color,
how I have sometimes not believed women who tell me their stories.
How I am bound up in systems of injustice that are destroying our planet.
How I keep on keeping on, adding more things–activities, TV shows, friendships, Target runs, another glass of wine–hoping against hope that they will be enough to keep the truth at bay.
The truth that I am just human.
From dust I came and to dust I will return.
I was guilty of just such a flurry of activity recently. One of my very best friends in the world is having her first child, her long-awaited baby. She is due next month.
We celebrated her baby shower this past weekend, and amidst all the busyness of life, I had overcommitted myself to bringing a vegetable tray, buying the champagne, planning the games and making the party favors. I did not really have time for all of that. It was tempting, as I scrambled to wash and dry the onesies for the decorate-a-onesie station to think: gosh, it’s just a baby.
Which is true. Babies get born literally every minute of every day.
It’s tempting to think: it’s just a baby.
And yet: it’s a baby.
One of God’s great affirmations that what God created is good.
We are just human.
And yet: we are human.
Literally made of bits and pieces of stardust, magical debris from cosmic explosions billions of years ago that continues to float through the air and land on Earth: on our corn, on our wheat, on our coffee plants. We eat and drink it and it becomes a part of us. Over and over, until we die.
At which point our bones become a part of the earth, co-mingling with all that stardust, and becoming a part of the soil and the plants and bread and wine we eat today.
We are made of stardust.
We are also made of one another.
We are human.
What a beloved thing we have been created to be.
The God who wore skin to be close to us certainly seems to believe so.
That incarnate God seems to believe that following codes and laws, being good Christians or good Jews; that is not where our blessedness lies. God came to us as a stardust creature, a human, and so I cannot help but believe that, when everything else has been stripped away, our blessedness is in our humanness.
The things that divide us– our religion, our attitude, our fear of loving the other for fear it might disrupt our comfort, might change who we are. Well, that is all so irrelevant when you consider the stars.
The list of things that divide us is puny compared to that thing which unites us.
We are made of the same God-given stuff.
The same rotting bones.
The same stardust.
Stardust that walks around in skin to be one another’s neighbors, teachers, nurses.
Confidants, siblings; house-builders and taco-makers.
And all of a sudden, “us” and “them” has become “we.”
All of a sudden, we are a we.
A family of star specks.
We are so small.
So mortal. So human.
What very good news.
Remember: you are stardust and to stardust you shall return.