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Ash Wednesday (morning); Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

On Sunday, as some of you will have seen, during Sunday School we had a four year old make these ashes for us, by burning last year’s palm leaves. (Supervised by one adult and one clergyperson.) It was an interesting exercise trying to introduce Lent to a four year old. But maybe that’s the sort of thing that would be good for all of us to do, within ourselves, or with friends (like after the service): try to distill things to their simplest essence. And by doing that, maybe things will click in a simple — yes — but also profound, revelatory sort of way.

We realized that this might take a bit of time to work out, when I said that Lent was a serious time of year. “Do you know what ‘serious’ means,” I asked? “No,” she shook her head. I came up with the concept that Christmas is like morning recess, and Easter is like afternoon recess; they’re fun. But Lent is like the time we spend in class. And Kim amplified what I was trying to get at: “Does your teacher ever say ‘OK everybody, listen up! It’s time to learn something?” That works pretty well. Lent can be about learning. And Lent is about listening up. Listening inside yourself, to the good and maybe not-so-good things that are happening in there. And listening outside yourself: where is God at work as shown in scripture, in our life together as a church, and in the world?

There was another analogy. ‘Fun’ is eating a cake. ‘Serious’ is the work that we put into baking the cake with our parent or grandparent. We pay attention to the recipe, to the ingredients, and to the effort it takes to pour and stir.

But the best insight came from the child herself. We had burned the palms, mashed, stirred, and sifted them, and now we were spooning them into the clay jar. All of a sudden she shouted: “It’s like planting a flower!” At first I didn’t know what she meant. But then I realized: the black ashes looked and felt like dirt. (Ashes to ashes, earth to earth, dust to dust.) And the act of spooning them into the little jar was just like pouring soil into a clay flowerpot. I wouldn’t have come up with that on my own. But it makes sense. We’re going to hear it at our 10 o’clock service throughout Lent, after the bread is broken: “Let your Church be the wheat which bears its fruit in dying. If we have died with him, we shall live with him. If we hold firm, we shall reign with him.” Echoing what Jesus said, in the Gospel of John: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit.” Lent brings us back to the foundational claim of Christianity: that our faith hinges on the death (and new life) of Jesus. Life comes from death. Gain (true gain) comes from loss, or sacrifice. Our little practices or intentions can help to refocus or recenter ourselves on this. By going back to school, metaphorically. Or by disciplining ourselves by following a recipe, or working hard at stirring the contents of the pot.

But Lena’s four year old insight is the most profound: it’s like planting a seed. Lent is the soil in which the utterly simple (yet infinitely deep) good news of Easter can grow. So we take these 40 days to find the right pot, empty out the cobwebs or dead bugs. Fill it with good soil. Sift, till, and water it. And plant the seed of Easter.

But more than that: the good news of Easter is that salvation — whatever that means for you, me, and the world — salvation is through the death and the new life of Jesus. Today we are reminded that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” On the surface it doesn’t sound like good news. But it is: the good news is that you do not have to be God. You do not have to carry the whole world on your shoulders — because Jesus already did. If you have been carrying weights that have been pulling you down, set them aside in Lent. Not irresponsibly. But bury them in the soil of Lent so that God can resurrect them in the light of Easter. And resurrect you in Eastertide.

How often, through the busyness and the levity of the year, do we forget the simple message that is clear in today’s liturgy: that we are sinful (we naturally tend to gravitate to things that are distractions to, or imposters for God). We are imperfect. We are caught up in webs that hamper and hinder us, and others, and the world. And ignoring, or sugar-coating this is, itself, a heavy burden. But today we’re reminded of this, and that we are finite. The pandemic has maybe underscored this for us (at least for a time). Or in the shadow of an earthquake that took tens of thousands of lives, or reports of all-too-frequent mass shootings, we’re sometimes reminded of this. We are dust. But we are dust that God chose, and gathered together, and moulded into someone called “Beloved.” Today we admit our limitations and even our powerlessness in the face of some powers. But in doing so we return to that foundational tenet of our faith: that we are saved not by our own perfection or our own efforts, but by the love and mercy and power of God.

So look for the good news in that, and in today’s liturgy: be honest about your humanity, and all that means: you are flawed; you are fragile; you are not God. But use that to turn and open yourself up to the other half of the equation: there is a Power of Love at work that can bring life — real life — even to dust. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.” And find in him your true life. Amen.

© 2023 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter