Sermon for ‘Ash Sunday’
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
There is a genre of sermons in which the preacher reminds the congregation that we are all wretched sinners, miserable worms who, if we got our just deserts, would burn forever in the fires of Hell. It’s known as a ‘dangling them over the pit’ sermon, and it’s not as popular nowadays as it used to be. The closest I’ve ever come to experiencing it was at a National Christian Youth Convention some twenty-one years ago when an enthusiastic evangelist taught us all a rap: ‘God has a plan; Man has a problem; the choice is up to you!’ I have to confess that part of my issue with these rap lyrics was that he couldn’t even bother to make them gender-inclusive. Honestly, how hard would it be to say ‘People have a problem’ or ‘Humanity has a problem’? But the other reason I disliked it was his emphasis on the fact that we were all miserable failures unless and until we chose to follow God’s plan. I was twenty-one years’ old, very judgemental, and definitely leaning towards the concept of ‘original blessing’ rather than ‘original sin’.
You might have noticed that I still lean that way in my preaching. I suspect that if I looked at all my sermons the phrase that I repeat most is something along the lines of ‘God loves us’, ‘we are loved by God’, ‘we are all God’s beloved children’. It’s the message that I say over and over again to children, because I believe it is the most important thing they can learn as they grow up in the church. Some of them seem to learn it almost too well. I remember the seven-year-old who asked me if that meant that God would still love him even if he killed someone. I had to say, ‘yes’, because of course I believe that God would still love him even if he committed genocide, but I hastened to add that God would really prefer him not to kill anyone, and in fact not killing people was specifically mentioned in the Ten Commandments.
But today we are commemorating the beginning of Lent, that time of preparation and penitence, and so it is a good time focus a little less on how much God loves us, and a little more on how we fail to live up to that love. It is also a good time to be reminded that while I would never describe us as miserable worms, as Job’s friend Bildad the Shuhite does – ‘a mortal, who is a maggot, and a human being, who is a worm!’ (Job 25:6) – we are far from being perfect and sinless. Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, is a day to remind us of the other side of the coin. We are God’s beloved children and we are mortals who come from dust and who one day will return to dust and in the meantime constantly fail and fall short and turn away from God and need to return in repentance. The good news is, of course, that no matter how often we fall and fail, no matter how often we turn away, God is there, waiting for us and loving us when we return.
One of the elements of an Ash Wednesday service is the imposition of ashes, when our foreheads are marked as a visible sign of our repentance. We then enter Lent, when we often fast from something to remind ourselves that we cannot live by bread alone, that our relationship with God is more important than material possessions, and as a sign of repentance. So it is fascinating that the lectionary readings for Ash Wednesday collectively tell us that God prefers a contrite heart to a material sacrifice; that the fasting that God wants does not involve sackcloth, ashes and humility, but instead doing justice; and that if we are to do pious acts like fasting and praying and giving alms we are to do them quietly and in private so no one but God knows of them. Interesting readings, given what we’re about to do after the sermon and over the next six weeks of Lent.
We have these readings on Ash Wednesday to remind us not to become too proud of our humility. That sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s not. It is devastatingly easy to take pride in our religion and our relationship with God and to imagine that we know what life is all about. This is what the people that Isaiah was addressing in today’s reading seem to have done. They approach God with confidence, believing that they have done all that God asks of them, and that God is then letting them down by not rewarding them. ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’ These are not ungodly people. These are not people who have deliberately turned their backs on God. They are religious – but they are not righteous, and the prophet thunders at them: ‘Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.’ Seeking God and delighting to know God’s ways is not enough if it is not accompanied by justice.
It is hard to try to be righteous without becoming self-righteous. People who try to loose the bonds of injustice are often accused of being do-gooders, especially if they suggest that other people should join them in that work. This week the Greens’ member for Melbourne called on the government to end offshore immigration detention and the Prime Minister responded by saying: ‘(Mr Bandt’s) party, from time to time, tries to create the impression that it has a monopoly on empathy and a monopoly on morality. It does not’. No one likes people who claim that they are standing on higher moral ground. Today’s readings remind us to be very, very careful of falling into the trap of believing that we are more righteous than others. To claim that is to be like the hypocrites who sound trumpets in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may be praised by others.
On the other hand, approaching God with a contrite heart, aware of all the things we have done wrong, does not mean that we can’t try to do right. We are dust and to dust we shall return, but we have a lot to do in between the two. We cannot wait until we are perfect ourselves to fast as God wants. The Greens do not have a monopoly on morality and empathy, but that doesn’t mean that Adam Bandt should be quiet about a situation of obvious injustice. In the same way, in the words of today’s psalm, we know our transgressions, and our sin is ever before us, but that should not stop us from doing what God wants. And centuries of prophecy, culminating in the message of Jesus, tells us what God wants: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke, to share our bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into our houses; when we see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide ourselves from our own kin. It’s a comprehensive program and one that can only be done collectively, which is one reason that the church exists. In doing it the church will occasionally have to do what the prophets did and call out injustice and oppression when we see it, and when doing that we will undoubtedly be accused of being holier-than-thou. But we have no choice in the matter. This is what God wants of us.
Today, at the beginning of Lent, we remember all the ways in which we fall short, all the things of which we have to repent. And we turn again to God, recommitting ourselves to doing justice and ending oppression in all the ways we can. Lent reminds us that our role as Christ’s followers is to seek to be righteous without being self-righteous, as difficult as that is. So with God’s help may our light rise in the darkness, and may we be springs of water, whose waters never fail. Amen.