Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
1 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Years ago, I was working at a congregation and we had a traditional Ash Wednesday service, with the imposition of ashes. It was a typical Ash Wednesday. The church gathered at noon and in the evening for the somber service that begins the season of Lent. Those of us who were at the noon service wrestled with that annual internal crisis – do I wash off my ashes or do I leave them on all afternoon? In the evening, we all ate soup together and we went home in silence.
It was a normal Ash Wednesday. Nothing unusual, nothing to see here.
And then Sunday rolled around. The church started to gather like it always did for Sunday worship. People arrived in their Sunday attire – some in a suit or a dress, others in jeans and untucked collared shirt. The pastors put on their robes, the acolytes struggled to tie that knot that goes around their waste.
It was a normal Sunday. Nothing unusual, nothing to see here.
Until Richard walked in.
Richard was an ordinary man who faithfully showed up to all the church worship services. He never said much, but his presence was predictable. He was at the Ash Wednesday service. And here he was, back in church on Sunday morning. Only this time there was something noticeably different about him.
You see it was Sunday morning, but Richard still had on his ashes.
Now, you could tell that they were ashes that had lived through about four days of life – a couple of wardrobe changes, a handful of nights on a pillow, maybe a scratch of the forehead or two. But one thing was clear…those were Ash Wednesday ashes still marking Richard’s forehead on Sunday.
And many of us couldn’t help but chuckle silently in embarrassment for Richard. Had Richard not showered since Wednesday? Had he not looked in a mirror? What’s going on here? Do we say anything to him? We all were just a little uncomfortable with this.
You see, Richard’s imposition of ashes had become an imposition to us and our Sunday routine.
Imposition. It is an interesting word we use on Ash Wednesday, isn’t it? The imposition of ashes.
Think about it for a moment. We don’t say, “The Anointing of Ashes” like we would with oil. We don’t say, “Blessing of Ashes” like we might with water at the font or sign of the cross at communion.
No, we say, “The Imposition of Ashes.”
Because that’s what this is. An imposition.
Meaning an action that demands someone’s attention. An action that puts in place something that is an unfair or unwelcome demand or burden.
Imposition of ashes. An imposition indeed.
More often than not, and by design this imposition demands attention. Specifically, your attention. The one upon whom this cross is placed. But it grabs the attention of those who can see it too. Wear your ashes down the sidewalk or to the grocery store and it will demand someone’s attention. But this imposition of ashes is also a burden. Place an ashy cross on the forehead a young child, and it will very much feel like putting in place something that is unwelcome and a burden. The burden of truth – we are dying. All of us.
As a kid, this smudged cross was always more attention grabbing than burden. I can remember each year rushing to the nearest mirror as soon as we got home from church just to look at my ashes. How was Pastor Carol’s smearing this year? My siblings and I would sort of giggle at the sight of each other’s crosses made of ash. Some looked like they were applied with a q-tip and others with a paint brush. No two look exactly the same, but they represent the same thing.
Now as an adult, it is more burden. It startles me when I look up from washing my hands in the bathroom. Or when I glance in the rearview mirror on my way home. Or when I peak in on my sleeping children and see that smudge on their resting foreheads.
The attention grabbing, burden of truth – we are dying. All of us.
And it is the burden of truth we work so hard to hide. We hide it when we refuse to use a walker after a fall, because, c’mon, don’t be ridiculous, I’m just fine thank you very much. We hide it when we conveniently forget to make our annual doctor’s appointment two years in a row. My health is fine, we say. It’s a truth we hide when we keep children home from funerals or when we say, “Jessica passed away” rather than “Jessica died.”
And yet, on a day like today, it is a truth that cannot hide. The secret is out. We are dying. All of us.
In our gospel reading, it’s a bit odd to hear Jesus encourage so much secrecy on a day like today. Like giving alms with your right hand in such a way that your left hand has no idea. Shhh…it’s a secret. Or when you pray, go into a room and close the door. Shh…it’s a secret. Or when you fast, wash your face, put on some make up – don’t make it look like you’re fasting. Shhh…it’s a secret. I don’t understand Jesus’ effort at secrecy in faith on a day like today when the biggest secret is let out. When our mortality and our faith are on display like no other day of the year.
But there is one thing that Jesus says today that rings true. Jesus’ concern about the honesty of our faith. Don’t be hypocrites, he says. Which in some ways is the worst thing you can be in our society, it seems. Someone who says one thing and does another.
But there is a deeper meaning to that word I think, both for Jesus and for us. The word hypocrite comes from theater. It was a word that described actors who hide who they really are behind a dramatic theatrical mask.
Don’t be a hypocrite, Jesus says. Don’t hide behind the mask. Come out as you really are.
Which is a fitting message for today. On this Ash Wednesday, Jesus asks us to let down our masks and look at who we really are – vulnerable, fragile and frail creatures whose time is limited.
Ash Wednesday is the day when we take off the mask. When we stop being hypocrites, when we stop pretending, even if just for a moment. Because sometimes a moment, a glance at this shadowy cross imposed on us and our beloveds is all we can bear.
Back to Richard and his Sunday ashes.
I wonder if seeing those Ash Wednesday ashes on Sunday wasn’t as embarrassing as it was disturbing. You see, in some ways, Richard that morning had become a walking preacher, prophet, parable of truth that we really didn’t want to think about. We had done the dying thing. On Wednesday. Couldn’t it stay there? Why did he have to remind us that we are fragile on all days of the year. That the mark of death will be as true this Sunday as it is today.
The imposition of ashes. An imposition indeed.
And that’s the link to today as Valentine’s Day as well. Valentine’s Day, like Ash Wednesday, is an incredibly vulnerable day too. On a day when some will profess their undying love for their beloved. On a day when the young one’s among us sign box after box of Nerds candy or fold their Transformer valentines for each one of their classmates, hoping that their brown paper bag will overflow with Valentine’s too. On a day when we pray that the box of chocolates and flowers will be a sign of love that is true. On a day when we rely on that the card, the email, the text, the spoken word to jump our heart back to beating again. On a day that we pray that there is love out there to be found – whether in a lover or a friend, a playmate or a neighbor, we are reminded just how vulnerable we are.
Our fragility in love and our fragility in death are about as human as it gets, and both are on display today.
And it is in the midst of all of that, on this day when hearts and ashes collide in a bizarre and yet somewhat fitting event, we learn this: that we are marked by God’s love. Even unto death. Because that mark on your forehead, it is not just ash. It is not just a scar across a human life. It is ash with shape to it. In the form of a cross. The cross, that place where God’s beloved died because of his very big heart. That shadowy cross, now mark on you in the very same place we mark oil in baptism. In the same place we mark with water in blessing. All in remembrance of your belovedness.
Hymn write, Thomas Dorsey know that deep promise of belovednesss. Hear now his story. A story where the fragility of love and the fragility of death collide, and amongst the rumble is the enduring promises of God.
In 1932, as Thomas Dorsey was leading a service at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Chicago, a man came on to the platform and handed him a telegram that said, ‘Your wife Nettie has died giving birth.’ He rushed home, only to find the baby also died shortly afterwards. In this moment, Thomas was living a nightmare. He was hanging on to faith, and sanity, by a thread. Sitting in a friend’s house a few days later, he experienced a peace the world cannot give. He began to sing words that could have only come from the Holy Spirit.
“Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn; Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light: Take my hand, precious Lord, Lead me home.”
And suddenly a hymn was born. And a heart was saved.
Even in the face of death, a faith and a peace that surpasses all understanding can be found in this promise: You will be cared for with the love of God. Always.
 Thomas G. Long, Whispering the Lyrics.
 Adapted from a telling by Sam Wells in Hanging By A Thread, pg. 36.