By Vicar Abby Ferjak
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return” - these are the words we hear each year on this day. Words that propel us into the season of Lent. A time of reflection. A time of relentless honesty about ourselves and our motivations. A time to draw closer to God. A time to soak in God’s unending mercy. We begin this time each year with these words that pierce through all of the things we might think we are to remind us of our common origins and the end that we each will eventually meet. To remind us of whose we are - no more or less than God’s. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
We hear echoes of our mortality and Jesus bidding us to self-examination in the gospel. Jesus began this teaching on the mount by proclaiming blessed those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. We meet him in our Ash Wednesday text after he has told his followers to turn the other cheek, to love their enemies, to be clear in their speech and to honor their “yeses” and “noes.” Jesus cuts to the heart of the matter - one’s motivation for these actions - honesty about who we are. You see, it seems there were plenty of people practicing public righteousness not because they wanted to profess God’s love or inspire others to generosity. These hypocrites, as Jesus calls them, were performing public acts of righteousness in order to build up their own honor and reputation, not because they actually cared about the beggar outside their door or the widow down the street. Jesus uses these people trumpeting their public displays of devotion as a warning to his disciples - treasures on earth are temporary. Your reputation and your honor, if reliant on others’ perceptions, will fade away. Instead, store up treasure in heaven that cannot be destroyed or taken away. You will find your heart where you find your treasure.
Hypocrite - I believe it is a title none of us would choose to hold. I certainly don’t want to be someone who says one thing but does the opposite or professes one thing but acts in a way that is antithetical to that professed belief, especially when it comes to the most important business of following Jesus. I’m also sure we all hope that the church would be an institution free of hypocrisy - one that follows in Jesus’ footsteps and helps others to do the same. Unfortunately, it seems that if the church has been guilty of one thing throughout the ages, it is hypocrisy - of putting our own power and honor before our devotion to Jesus’ radical call to love and justice. This all too familiar theme reared its ugly head yet again in the news this week. It’s been a tough week for the universal church, hasn’t it? Whole systems devoted to denying and covering up sexual abuse that operated for decades undetected. Institutional votes to strengthen exclusions and sanctions against the diversity of God’s people who God has called to the work of professional ministry. And that’s just this week. We could go on to list the myriad of ways our very own Lutheran church has protected power rather than freed the oppressed - in Nazi Germany, in the denial of dignity to queer people, in prioritizing white voices over others. We are not immune to the consequences of being human.
I am not immune to the consequences of being human, either. It’s easier for me to see the ways our church and its institutions fall short than for me to to take time for some honest self-examination and reflection on my mortality. It’s hard to look at one’s own hypocrisy, because fundamentally hypocrisy is being dishonest with the world and also with yourself about who you are. We are not the perfect people we want the world to see nor are we the worms we secretly might think we are on our worst days. That is what this day and this season invite us to do - to live into the radical honesty of who we are and who God created us to be.
It’s hard to take an honest look at yourself, but today of all days, God leads us forward to feel our sin and our mortality placed on our foreheads for all to see. God bids us to rend our hearts, to be reconciled to God. With a cross made of ashes we are reminded both of our mortality and our identities as baptized children of God. Simultaneously sinners and saints - simultaneously hypocrites and Christians earnestly striving to follow Jesus. In this season of repentance, we can both name the crisis - be honest with ourselves about our mortality and sin - the sin that we are complicit in, the sin that runs through our institutions - and we can name the promise that is embedded on our foreheads and in our hearts - we are children of God and God’s mercy is abundant.
God’s abundant mercy meets us when we turn from self-protection to protection of the vulnerable and oppressed. God’s abundant mercy meets us when we reconcile with that one person we just didn’t believe God would ever give us the heart to embrace again. God’s abundant mercy meets us when our treasures become God’s beloved people, those who experience poverty, justice making, and institutions that give life rather than take it away.
As we enter this season of Lent, we are invited to live into the radical honesty of that cross made of ash - that we are only God’s not our own. We are invited to seek to align our experience of God and our true identity as one of God’s with the way we actually live. We are invited to become fully mortally human and whole, which means taking an honest look at where we are being called to repentance. We are invited to stop pretending and start living more authentically as who we are - people who need others and are needed. People who screw up and do better the next time. People who belong to God. Amen.
From Vicar Abby Ferjak’s sermon at 7:30pm worship on Ash Wednesday
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