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Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on Ash Wednesday, Mar. 5, 2014.

Ash Wednesday, Year A (RCL): Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.

I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

          Not too long after we married, Chrissie and I were in The Eternal City. She, returning to her favorite city in the whole world, was there on business while I was there to experience Rome for the very first time.

          One of the sites I had to visit, based on Chrissie’s description, was the Capuchin Crypt. It is a small space of tiny chapels located beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini on the Via Veneto near Piazza Barberini. The six chapels contain the skeletal remains of almost 3,700 bodies believed to be Capuchin friars buried by their order. There are separate chapels arranged with skulls, pelvic bones, and leg and thigh bones all over the floors, walls, and ceilings, and there is one chapel with three skeletons dressed in monks’ habits. The Catholic order insists that this display is not meant to be macabre, but rather that is serves as a silent reminder of the swift passage of life on Earth and our own mortality. With the three skeletal monks, there is a sign which says, "What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be..."

This day, Ash Wednesday, invites us into the season of Lent with a solemn call to fasting and repentance as we begin our journey to the baptismal waters of Easter. As we hear in today’s lessons, now is the appropriate time to return to the Lord. During Lent, the people of God reflect on the meaning of their baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection. And the sign of ashes vividly signifies to us our human mortality and frailty.

What seems like an ending is really an invitation to make each day a new beginning, in which we are washed in God’s mercy and forgiveness. With the cross on our brow, we long for the spiritual renewal that flows from the springtime Easter feast to come.

          Our Old Testament reading today says that, because of the coming Day of the Lord, the prophet Joel calls the people to a community lament, a formal expression of sorrow or mourning, especially in verse or song. The repentant community reminds God of his gracious character and asks God to spare the people, lest the nations doubt God’s power to save.

And while cited only in the Old Testament (in Isaiah 58 which we did not read today), ASHES are the primary image for this day.

Since the twelfth century, the ashes, made from burning last year’s palms, cycle around from the triumphant celebration of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem to the humiliation of sinners covering their heads in ashes while shrouded in sackcloth. Ashes may also bring to mind the fire of the Easter Vigil. Honesty is always a good, if painful thing: this is the acceptable day when we are honest about sin and death. The ash cross marks one’s forehead as if it is the brand of one’s owner. We journey forward wearing the sign of the cross.

          The ministry of spreading the gospel endures many challenges and hardships. Through this ministry, God’s reconciling activity in the death of Christ reaches into the depths of our lives to bring us into a right relationship with God. In this way, God accepts us into the reality of divine salvation.

          Today, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commends almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, but emphasizes that spiritual devotion must not be done for show.

          The gospel reading is the source for the three disciplines of Lent that have proved useful for many of Christ’s followers, from then to now. To increase one’s giving to the poor, to increase one’s attention to prayer, and to decrease one’s focus on the self: the idea is that such disciplines open up the self to our God and to our neighbor.

          The acceptable time, the day of salvation, are ways that Paul describes the here and now of the life of the baptized. Ash Wednesday calls us each day into life with Jesus Christ.

          Several beloved hymns call Christ our treasure. The treasure described in both Matthew and Paul – “poor, yet making many rich”—is the countercultural value of the baptized life.

          In Matthew, Jesus teaches about the spiritual practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Doing these with integrity, means focusing on how they connect us to God and neighbor, not how they make us look impressive to others.

This causes me to consider some of our neighbors: 1) The Muslim group that gathers for prayer and teaching in our parish hall each Friday afternoon; and 2) the community that worships together just up Seminary Road at Temple Beth El Hebrew Congregation. Our practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are similar to three of the five “pillars” of Islam, core practices of Muslim life. Judaism also emphasizes prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and all three traditions stress the confession of faith in one God. Ash Wednesday could be a time to repent of our focus on religious practices we use to divide us from others, including other religions, and focus on how we share similar ways of connecting to God and neighbor when we do so with integrity.

          Jesus urges his followers to keep their piety private rather than be used as a means of displaying one’s righteousness to others. There is a strange irony in hearing this text and then marking foreheads with ashes, likely to be seen by others after they leave worship.

          There is a poem by Michael Coffey titled “When My Time Comes for Ashes and Dust.” It connects Ash Wednesday’s emphasis on the solemn reality of death with the call to full, exuberant living today. The poem’s image of a funeral procession of drums awakens people to enjoy the rhythms of life “before your final walk down the aisle in a little ashy urn.”

          Ash Wednesday is an intensification of our regular rite of confession and forgiveness, a rare time in our culture during which we acknowledge our sin and beg for renewal. The Kyrie also recalls Ash Wednesday: Lord, have mercy, Lord, have mercy, over and over. At communion we sing, “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.” There is always more and more need for mercy.

The priest who presented me to this diocese for Holy Orders, Bob Malm of Grace Church, would often exclaim, "We are dust bound for glory." I think of that, especially now, as he makes a brave recovery from a fall which resulted in a broken neck. You see: Bob is a runner, and not only a runner, but a marathoner. He has run in over 30 Boston Marathon. Often, when I would see him training as he ran the streets of Del Ray, I would holler each time I saw him "Dust Bound for Glory!"

The Capuchin friars of long ago remind us "What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be..."

Our liturgy this Ash Wednesday reminds us to ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.’

But let me remind us all, who believe in a gracious and loving God, and who follow the Way of Jesus Christ our Lord, that we are all Dust Bound for Glory.