GOSPEL: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commends almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, but emphasizes that spiritual devotion must not be done for show.
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 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. 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.”
I was a religion major in college. My very first class was not religion 101, Introduction to World Religions, because that was already full. My first class was Religion 102, Introduction to the STUDY of Religion. Some of you might be saying – how are those different? But, as I found out, learning about the tenets of individual religions was very different than studying Religion as a category. Why do people believe? How does belief affects us? How does Religion answer our deepest questions?
Dr. David Cain, God rest his soul, eventually was my advisor and a bit of a mentor. He said “Studying Religion is about questions with a capital Q and answers with a lower-case a.” That is, the questions you ask are more important than the answers you receive. Ask better questions. The answers are not the point, but it is in the asking where we find faith – belief – hope – deeper relationship and religion in its purest form.
Usually asking questions together deepens relationships. The courage to ask a question, the vulnerability involved, and the reaching out – I’m not sure, what do you think? Here’s what I think, but I’m interested in your reasons. Can I ask you what you’d do if you were me? Asking questions together can bring us together in our vulnerability and uncertainty.
Which is why this theme is perfect for the night we come into God’s presence, vulnerable and uncertain, to be met with promise and forgiveness. Ash Wednesday is honest about the reality of death, the finitude of life, and the endless grace of God. It has a way of stripping away our illusions about who we are and about the lives we’ve created for ourselves. When our illusions disappear, our unspoken questions surface. Ash Wednesday invites us to trust God, take courage, and ask the questions.
The scriptures for Ash Wednesday are full of unspoken questions. In the voice of the prophet Joel, God uses rhetorical questions to draw God’s people into deeper reflection on and greater awareness of the injustice around them. The unspoken questions here might be voiced by the people asking, “What have we done?” “Can we really be forgiven?” “Can we really admit to our shortcomings together and survive?” God’s answer is not only yes, but together you will thrive.
The unspoken questions in St. Paul’s 2 letter to the church in Corinth are what makes the epistles so challenging to study. While we have Paul’s 1st and 2nd letter to the congregation – we do not have the congregation’s letter to Paul! What were they asking him? When is the day of salvation? How can we survive this violence and injustice?
Our Gospel text comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and it is mostly declarative statements about who you are and how to live accordingly. What might the questions from the crowds have been?
How should I give alms? How should I pray? What should I do when I fast?
Does God even see me?
What questions do you bring tonight? Spoken or unspoken. Maybe they are the sort of question you only feel comfortable asking yourself in the safety of solitude. Is this all there is? Why am I here? Am I good enough?
The simplest answer to that is Nope, Because, and Yup. But it’s in the asking that we learn that truth for ourselves.
I received ashes as a child and only had one question. When can I wash these off? Do you wash your face first thing, or do you go to bed with your ashes? Allow them to sit and rub off naturally. The mark you receive tonight is temporary, a reminder of your frailty and mortality – but I trace them over the mark received in baptism. The mark of the cross that claims you as a child of God, and that identity is unchangeable and permanent.
We may be dust, but dust that we are, we are loved. As Paul writes, we are accounted dead… and yet terrifically alive. We have nothing, and yet by God’s love we have it all. Nothing in this world, even death, can separate you from God’s love in Jesus Christ. That is the secret scratched in ashes and imposed upon our foreheads. This is what God can do with dust and ash. Nothing can separate you from God’s love. May our questions bind us together and bring us deeper into that love.