ASH WEDNESDAY SERMON: Doesn’t Jesus say not to show off?

Rev. Stephen Baldwin

NT: Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21

Ministers are criticized, usually fairly, for not practicing what we preach. (What human does? But that’s another sermon.) So after reading that passage where Jesus says not to practice your piety in front of others to be seen, I decided it might be hard to preach that and then ask you to practice it by getting a giant cross smeared on your forehead in ashes for everyone you pass on the street to see.

So I considered the options. How could we practice what Jesus preaches by taking the ashes seriously and remembering our mortality while not showing off in front of others?

Option 1, forget the ashes. Who needs a giant cross on their forehead?

Option 2, forget what other people think of us walking around with ashes on our forehead. If we don’t do it to show off, then who cares if others see it that way.

Option 3, impose the ashes on your forehead during the service and then wait with a towel at the back of the sanctuary so I can wipe them off before you leave. (I know a minister who does this!)

Option 4, impose the ashes in a more conspicuous place. Jonah sat in ashes. Jeremiah rolled in ashes. What’s so special about the forehead?

I thought and prayed about it all week. How can we practice what Jesus preaches by taking the ashes and repentance seriously while not simply showing off for others? And the answer became clear.

Ash Wednesday has to include ashes. They are black and grey and useless and charred and universal. Just about anything will turn to ashes with enough heat. They remind us that this world, including us, is temporary.

The ashes may only be a symbol, but they are a powerful symbol of the dust from which God created us and the dust to which we will one day return. You are dust, and to dust you shall return.

But I confess, having seen someone last year with a cross that went from the crown of their head to their eyebrow, a cross of ashes can give a self-righteous appearance. It can look like we are trying to show off, and Jesus warns us against that, teaching that we should do it for the right reasons, not just to be seen by others.

And that’s when it hit me. When we place ashes on our forehead, the only ones who see them are others. We cannot see them ourselves. What if we placed the ashes in a more conspicuous place? In a place where others would be less likely to see them and we would be more likely to see them?

In a few moments, I’ll invite you forward to receive the ashes on the back of your hand. And I encourage you to keep them there for at least the remainder of the night. Not to show others how pious you are. But to remind yourself of your roots. Genesis says that we were formed from the dust of the ground, right? In Hebrew, it says “adam” (which means “humankind”) was formed from “adamah” (which means dirt). We are dirt people, formed from dust, and to dust we shall one day return.

This Lent I encourage you, instead of giving something up, to give something back. Become a better Christian. Remember your roots. And to help you in that task, I have a handout that suggests one small thing you can do each day in Lent to give back to God. After you receive the ashes on your hand, please take one with you as you return to your seat. And always remember, whether you can see the dust of your body or not, that you need your creator–the one who formed you from the dirt. We all need God’s grace, God’s love, and God’s creative powers which can make something out of nothing. Amen.

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