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Against Piety: a sermon for Ash Wednesday

February 21st, 2007 by isaac · 3 Comments

We had our Ash Wednesday service this evening. Below is the short sermon I prepared, but did not preach. For some reason I decided not to preach it as I sat there listening to the passages read during the service. But I thought I’d post it nonetheless. I mean, what else am I going to do with it?

Title: Against piety
Date: 2/21/07
Texts: Matthew 6:1-2; II Cor. 5:20b-6:20; Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Isaiah 58:1-17.

Jesus once said, “Only the one who loses her or his self will save it.” I think that’s a pretty good way to summarize what Lent is about. It’s about learning how to lose yourself, to let go of the self you and I have created—the identity we work so hard to protect. It’s about repenting, turning away from all the ways we have allowed sin to capture and infect our desires, our wants, our dreams.

But, at the same time, Lent itself, this season, tempts us with another kind of sin—we can replace one sin for another. That’s why the lectionary has us read Jesus’ words from Matthew 6 every year during Lent. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” (6:1). The temptation Lent offers us is to rush past the tough work of self-reflection, of listening to the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and instead doing those things that make us feel pious, and show others how good we are at being a Christian.

And that’s why we start our season of Lent with Ash Wednesday, where we remember that we come from ashes, from the earth, from dirt. Ash Wednesday sets aside time for us to be humbled, to recognize that no matter how good we may be at making ourselves feel like hot stuff, like the cream of the crop, like good solid Christians—I mean, we’re all here at church on a Wednesday evening after all… But no matter what we do, how we construct our self, we come up against a difficult truth. It’s a harsh reality. Genesis 3:19—“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” From dust you are and to dust you will return.

That’s what we are: dirt. But the question we must ask is this: how is this good news? The good news comes with the breath of God. Yes, we are dirt, but God has breathed life into our nostrils—God has filled us with life. And the call of Lent is to surrender our self to this same Spirit of God who filled our earthen bodies with life… and then wait and see what happens—to see where God will lead us when we loosen our tight fists around what we have, around what we’ve secured for our self. Ash Wednesday reminds us that our life is not something we achieve; rather, its something that we receive.

Our Anabaptist ancestors from the 16th century talked about discipleship as Glassenheit. It means something like surrender, or submission, self-abandonment, or yieldedness. For them, the Christian life was about learning how to abandon our sense of direction, to surrender our sense of control, for the sake of waiting patiently, even suffering patiently, and hope and pray for God’s Spirit to break forth, to birth something new. The God who breathed life into dust and made us, is still at work breathing new life into this world. And we can find this new life once we let go of the one we’ve made for ourselves.

In our passage from II Corinthians, Paul tells us about the advent, the arrival, of God’s new life. “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (6:2). Now is the time. Right now. In our midst God is doing something new—the day of salvation is here. And what does it look like? Paul says at the end of the passage that we are “as dying, and behold we live…as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” We have nothing, we are dust, and yet we possess everything, Paul says.

I think the point of all this is that we must come to grips with our nothingness—that we come from dust and return to dust—so that we receive what God wants to give us as a gift. And this calls us to open ourselves, to open our hands and arms, to open our lives, to let down our defenses and become vulnerable so that we can learn to receive God’s gifts.

But I can hear how all this sounds sorta selfish—this call to let go of our self so that we can receive something new from God. It almost sounds like a self-help sort of message—that Lent is about helping us get a better handle on life. It almost sounds like I’m turning Christianity into another technique for accessing the divine.

And once we’ve reached this point where we can speak confidently about how we can use this Lenten season to open ourselves to God and receive his new life, we have to contemplate our passage from Isaiah. For Isaiah, God gives us light so that we will explode in God’s light throughout the darkened world. “to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house.”

We let go of ourselves, we make ourselves available to God, so that God can pour out redemption for all people. The glory of the Lord “shall break forth like the dawn.” And we will be known as “the restorer of the streets to live on.”

Tags: sermons

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Curt McCallister // Feb 1, 2008 at 3:37 pm

    Very good comments, but best of all, the courage it must have taken not to give the sermon you had prepared. That was strong, brohter. God bless your ministry

  • 2 Ashes and Dust // Feb 5, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    [...] for Ash Wednesday, I’ve been going over the lectionary readings, reading Isaac’s non-sermoned sermon from last year, and browsing the resources over at textweek. Following is a mini-sermon I may give tomorrow if my [...]

  • 3 isaac // Feb 7, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    Curt, thank you for the kind comment. And I appreciate the blessings.