March 6, 2019 – Ash Wednesday
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen on St. Paul's YouTube page.
A few months ago, the Mega Millions jackpot was over $1.5 billion. Did you buy a ticket? I did. Here in Arkansas, it was as easy as walking into a gas station and buying one. Back in Alabama, a state that doesn’t participate in the lottery, anytime the jackpot gets really high, someone you know at work or a friend or a cousin will collect money and take off of work to drive across the state line to buy everyone tickets. I only play when the jackpots are huge, and I don’t ever expect to win—rationally speaking, no one should—but what I am buying is a chance to dream. It’s fun to think about what you would do with all of that money, and it seems a little easier dream about it when you have a ticket in your hand.
The odds of winning the Mega Millions jackpot are 1 in 302,575,350, and still we dream. The odds of reaching the end of your natural life are a perfect 1 in 1, yet how often do we think about our own death? Perhaps you’ve noticed how people tend to talk about “when I win the lottery” but always seem to say “if I die.” Why is that so out of balance? Why do we take time to consider seriously the astronomically minuscule likelihood of becoming a billionaire yet hardly give more than a passing thought to planning for the end of our lives? Because death makes a lousy commercial.
Today, the church invites us to consider what the world asks us to forget: we will all die one day. There’s no amount of retinol, no plastic surgeon’s nip or tuck, no exercise regimen, no sunny retirement community, no reverse mortgage, no life annuity that will enable us to escape the inevitable. The commercials on television don’t come out and say it, of course. To name it would cause the illusion to disappear. But the world is selling us one excuse after another to pretend that our turn won’t come. Today, this one day of the year, as we mark ourselves with ashes, with the very carbon of which we are made—the very dust to which our bodies one day will return—we proclaim the strange yet universal truth of our mortality, and that is very good news indeed.
Why is that good news? Because, as Jesus tells us, we’re either storing up treasure for ourselves here on earth or up in heaven, and the pile of money and accomplishments and reputation that we make for ourselves in this life won’t do us any good when we’re dead. More to the point, an honest glimpse at our own mortality enables us to see what God is offering us instead. In the end, no matter who we are or what we’ve done, all of us become the same pile of lifeless, breathless fertilizer, yet God loves each of us just the same anyway. That’s radically good news.
Whenever you give alms, Jesus tells us, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that your giving may be done in secret. Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door where no one except God can see you. Whenever you fast, wash your face and don’t talk about it or post about it on Facebook so that people won’t know what you’re doing. If you practice your piety so that others can see it, you might be held in high esteem by them, but what good will that do you in the end? The harder you work to build a name for yourself in this life the harder it is to see the truth that God loves you no matter what. Whether your name is on the children’s wing at the local hospital or on a plaque in the cemetery for unclaimed corpses left at the morgue, you are the same beloved treasure in God’s eyes.
Remembering that is repentance. Embodying that is repentance. Embracing that truth is repentance. We come to church on Ash Wednesday not to convince God that we are sorry for all of the mistakes that we have made but to return to the fundamental truth that we so often deny: that we are God’s beloved creation, and God hates nothing that God has made. The collect for Ash Wednesday envisions something truly remarkable and perhaps even miraculous. We seek to obtain of God “perfect remission and forgiveness.” We are here in pursuit of a forgiveness that isn’t momentary or partial but perfect, complete, whole, and finished. And we get to that place of perfect forgiveness not by pretending that we are good enough for God’s love but by doing the opposite—by “worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness.”
In other words, we take off the mask. We stop pretending. We quit putting our best foot forward and jump all the way in with our whole imperfect selves. We say to God, “Here I am—the broken, sinful, imperfect, selfish creature that you have made and that you nevertheless embrace as your own beloved treasure.” To say that and believe it is truly to return to God.
Today, as we come forward to be marked with the ashen cross, we receive, in effect, a lottery ticket that is guaranteed to pay off some day. And, when it does, when we stand naked before the one who created us, the only thing that can clothe us is God’s love and mercy. Between now and then, we can either make a name for ourselves in this life or accept the name that God has given us, which is “Beloved.” But hearing God whisper that name into our ears is pretty hard when we’re busy convincing the world and ourselves how good we are.