Ash Wednesday Sermon
Behold, now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.
The Ash Wednesday liturgy is powerful, and can be quite moving. "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return." It can feel far too close for comfort when we receive the sign of the cross on our own foreheads and hear those words.
But Ash Wednesday, of course, is not about comfort. Some people think it is too negative and they stay away from church that day. They think it is too depressing. Who wants to walk around with a smudge of ashes on their forehead? And who wants to think about death, anyway?
And then there's Lent -- again, too negative, too depressing, too serious, too much of a focus on sin. Why can't we just be positive, people ask. Why can't we just talk about the good things, the happy things? Why all this focus on sin and negativity? Why can't we just go straight to Easter?
Most of us realize that the human life is full of good and bad, happy and sad. We know that good things don't come without cost, without some sacrifice at times, without some hard work. And we understand that life and death are part of the cycle of our human life.
We all experience many small losses, or little deaths, throughout our lives. One pastor I knew announced deaths to his congregation by saying, “We are once again reminded that we have here no abiding city. It has pleased God in his infinite mercy to call someone from our midst.”
I think of having no abiding city when I think of the many times I have moved and all the places I have lived because God has called me to serve there. Even if you have lived here all your life; people you care about have moved away. All these things cause us to grieve and all these things are a part of life.
Today's scripture readings tell us to pay attention to what's important. The prophet Joel says, “ Return to the Lord with all your hearts…” In the Gospel, Jesus says, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
Ash Wednesday and the liturgy of this day, can remind us of the things that are important. But it is not an easy message -- it reminds us that we must be focused, that we must make choices, that we really can't go through life on automatic pilot.
In our culture, we still have a strong tendency to deny death, even while our media and entertainment are full of images of violence and death. But we don't want to think about the reality of it, we don't want to talk about it, we don't want to acknowledge it.
However, we miss something deep, and rich, and important when we try to ignore the fact that we will all die. That's one thing that those who are facing life-threatening illnesses can teach us -- once you have stood at the edge of the river of life, things never look the same again.
It becomes easier to see what the important things in life are -- it's easier to brush aside the trivial things that consume the precious time you have left, however little or much time that might be.
This is why Ash Wednesday is important to us as Christians. Observing Lent helps us get our priorities straight. We realize that Jesus died and we too must all die. We can’t ignore the reality when we hear the words, “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”.
When we acknowledge that our time on earth is limited, even for the youngest ones who will live to a ripe old age, we will start seriously looking at how we spend our time.
We must ask ourselves if we are spending the gift of time doing what God would have us do.
We must ask ourselves if we are spending our lives being the people God calls us to be.
Christians have always known the importance of living in the present. After all, we worship a God whose name is "I am", not "I was" or "I will be".
Living in the present is the point of today's Gospel -- to know where our treasure is, to understand what is important. Living in the present is the awareness of God's gift of life, God's gift of time, and God's gift of love.
There is no time to waste, and Ash Wednesday reminds us of this. It is a day that calls us back to our humanity and our mortality.
Ash Wednesday reminds us of how important it is to know where our treasure is, where our hearts are. Often when we read this Gospel and we hear this verse about treasure, we tend to think of it as money and possessions. But our treasure is also our time, and people we love, and our lives, and our relationship with God. Our treasure is not only this precious life we have now, but also what we hope for in the life to come.
Ash Wednesday tells us to not take a moment of this time for granted -- to live and love to the fullest, to treasure this precious world, to treasure those we love and those who love us, to treat this precious earth and these precious people with tenderness and respect. This present moment is all we have. This moment.
Ash Wednesday tells us to pay attention to the present moment. Behold, now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of Salvation.
Return to the Lord your God. For God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Amen.