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The symbol of the Ashes still matters – an Ash Wednesday Sermon

GOSPEL: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Jesus said to the disciples:] 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….

*Note: Sermons are posted in the manuscript draft that they were preached in, and may contain typos or other errors that were resolved in my delivery. See the Sherwood Park Lutheran Facebook Page for video

The ashy cross smeared onto a forehead on Ash Wednesday still holds a place of symbolic meaning in our world. You may have already seen a few folks out and about today bearing their ashes still on their foreheads. You might see some TV personalities who will wear their ashes on their news programs or late night variety shows. Today is that day when Christians can be seen out in the world with that black smudge on their faces, a visible sign that they have been to church in the middle of the week as Lent begins. 

Just a few days ago we were up on the mountain of Transfiguration, followed by the mountain that is our Annual Meeting. Places and moments to look around and survey the world around us, to see the paths that we have travelled and hopefully see the route of the journey ahead. 

But as Jesus and the disciples and us come down from that mountain top moment, we enter back into the fray of the valley and we soon encounter the symbol of the Ashes.

The Ashes that are imposed on our foreheads and their meaning transcend time and space. Even without knowing much about Ash Wednesday or Church or Christianity, the image of an ash marked face seems to say something profound, something important.  Something about impermanence and mortality, something about our limits and our finite nature, something about just how we live lives that constantly run parallel to death. 

Ash Wednesday not only reminds us of our mortality, but reminds us that death takes many shapes in our lives. From the small deaths of sin, conflict, division, suffering and strife to the way death is imposed our on emotions, our bodies and very beings. 

In this way, there is a discomfort that comes with Ash Wednesday. We work so hard to avoid thinking about and considering our own mortality. We strive to sanitize death, to make it clinical and distant and remote, very unlike the meshy smudge of ashes that will be stamped onto our foreheads tonight. We want to keep death far from our minds and experience for as long as we can. 

For many of the funerals that I did early on as a pastor, funeral directors would come prepared for the committals at the grave. They would often bring vials of sand for the moment when I would commend the deceased to the ground saying, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” As I said the portion of the prayer of committal, I would mark the casket with the cross with the sand. The little metal vial would make it easy to produce a cross in sand as it poured evenly onto the caskets. It was the correct liturgical action, yet it seemed careful and contained. The symbol was muted by the neatness. 

In more recent years as graveside committals have become more rare, funeral directors have mostly stopped bringing the vials of sand. So I have been required to go back to the traditional means for marking caskets with the symbol of the cross – I have been using dirt. Dirt from the grave itself, usually piled nearby under a green turf carpet attempting to hide the fact that this grave is a hole in the ground. 

The symbol changes when you go from holding a carefully filled vial of sand to grabbing a handful of dirt and marking a clumpy cross on a casket. The sand usually blended into the finished wood the casket, while the dirt feel like dumping a handful of soil onto a carefully set dinning room table. The dirt doesn’t feel like it belongs. And yet as the words are said, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” it becomes a proclamation of defiance. Defiance against our attempts to contain death, to keep ourselves detached and removed from the messiness of death. Caskets and graves are not little condos in the ground, but in that moment we are returning a person, a loved one to the impermanent and mortal place from where we were created. 

Dropping those clumps of dirt on caskets and marking foreheads with wispy palm ashes are moments that go hand in hand. Symbols that say something more than words about them can, they are the very thing from where we come from and to where we return. As God took the dirt and formed the Adam – the dirt creature in Hebrew – God brought human beings into existence. Our bodies are destined to return to the same dirt and mud, the same dust and ash. And as we make that proclamation at Funerals and on Ash Wednesday, the dirt and the ashes bring us close where we came from and to where we return.  

And yet, the ashes aren’t just reminders of our mortality, they aren’t just the embodiment of our fragility and finitude. 

The ashes remind us that the God who first created life out of the mud and earth, dust and ash has now taken on our flesh, our dusty finite flesh. And in that earthy flesh destined to die, God will do again what God did in the beginning. From the ashy cross and the dusty grave, God will breath life in to these earthy bodies of ours. Even from the ash that we bear tonight, even from the clumps of dirt that will be place on our graves, God will create new and resurrected life. 

And so on this first step into the season of Lent, on this night of Ashes, we also are reminded of God’s promises made to the Adam, made again in the waters of Baptism, reinforced tonight and kept at the end – Remember that you are dust and even in the dust there is life. 

Practicing life and death with the ashes – A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

GOSPEL: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Jesus said to the disciples:] 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…
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. 6But 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….

Growing up my family was committed to being in church every Sunday, and often another night of the week for youth or orchestra practice or another church event. 

But Ash Wednesday was one of those days that seemed to get lost in the shuffle of family life. The way it moved around because of Easter, it sometimes landed on the same night as sports or music practice, some years its was during reading week at University. 

Yet, on the years when we did make it, it felt like it came out of nowhere. 

Church has just been merrily humming along through Christmas and the new year. Stories of Jesus’ miracles and the memorable story of Jesus going up the mountain, being transformed into dazzling white. A story that I can remember occupying my imagination as a child. 

Then all of sudden, the brightness of that moment is gone and rather than a mountain top, Jesus is giving a dinner table lecture on pride and boastfulness. Jesus’ instruction to pray behind locked doors invoked the image of praying in the closet to my mind as a child. 

But then the year that I did my pastoral internship, my supervisor had me help him burn the palms from the palm Sunday the year before. And a strand of connection materialized, a circle from humanity’s act of welcoming and then crucifying Messiah was made. This Ash Wednesday confession both rooted us in our great sin of trying to be God in God’s place both before the day of ashes and in the time to come as we retold the story of Holy Week soon again. 

In my first years as a pastor, the weight of Ash Wednesday would eventually hit me like never before. Ash Wednesday in its pacing and words feels like a funeral liturgy. Funerals which can come at any time and out of nowhere, interrupting any season of life. 

A good friend and seminary classmate wound up serving neighbouring coigretaion, and so we shared Ash Wednesday worship. As we stood together at front of the church, while worshippers came forward to receive ashes, the blessing took on more weight. 

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” takes on all kinds of new meaning when you have stood over a casket being lowered into a grave, and while dirt made the sign of the cross while declaring “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust.” Especially so when you are imposing ashes onto the foreheads of spouses and siblings and cousins and friends of those whom you have blessed into the earth. 

As we made the sign of the cross in ashes on those that we served, finally it came time for my friend’s eldest son to receive ashes, maybe 5 or 6 years old at the time. I remember my friend stumbling back as if hit by a wall. He tried to compose himself to reach forward with his ashy thumb to mark his son. But he was barely able to choke out the words, “Remember you are dust…”

It is a pleasure to bless those whom we love. But it is a terrible burden to make that same sign of the cross in ash, to receive that sign of the cross in ash from those that we love – a souse, a child, a parent, a friend or even any cherished sibling in Christ. 

I could not help but think of that Ash Wednesday moment this week when I saw the video of Ukrainian father weeping as he hugged his young daughter goodbye. It was an Ash Wednesday moment seen around the world. 

For you see, Ash Wednesday truly the acknowledgement of the realities of sin and death in our world. WE confess both the truth of our sinfulness and the truth of our mortality.

And we practice. 

Just like in Nighttime Prayer, when we entrust our selves into God’s care through the night, it is an echo of the same blessing of entrusting ourselves to God that is said at funerals, the same blessing repeated at grave sides just before “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” On Ash Wednesday we rehearse having ashes and dirt put on us in the sign of the cross.

But even if we do not make it to Ash Wednesday each year the Ashes – the signs and symbols of sin and death – are still all around us. The signs of humanity’s sin, and suffering, the signs of our morality and dying are all around us. 

What is the pandemic if not Ashes?

What were the convoy protests if not Ashes?

What is this war in Ukraine if not ashes?

And yet…

And yet even though the Ashes dominate the day, even though they seem to ever surround us… 

The ashes are not the real point of the day.

The Ashes are a symbol that blows away in the wind, that washes off without a problem, that disappears as easily as they appear. Their impermanence is the point.

The Ashes only ever reveal what is already and was always there – what is underneath the sign they mark.

The mark of the One who has claimed us from the beginning.

The sign of the One of will not leave us to our morality, who will not leave us to the ashes and dust.

The cross of the One who turns the Ashes into something new, who turns us into someones made new.

Just as the ashes are all around, so to is the sign of the one in whom we are made new. 

The Ashes remind us that we are finite beings on our way to death AND they also remind us that One whose Cross they are marked in is the God of Life. 

The One who is also all around, found among the ashes wherever they are.

The One is comes to us in Word, Holy Baths and Holy Meals. 

Who does not abandon us in the time to trial and tribulation, who holds pandemics, occupations and even war in God’s hands. 

The One whose cross marks our bodies forever a sign that while we practice for the time when we die… we also rehearse and practice the promise that we too, on the 3rd will be called forth from our graves, as the ashes fall away, into resurrection and new life. 

Nothing but Ashes

Joel 2:1-2,12-17

Return to the Lord, your God,

for he is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,

and relents from punishing. (Read the whole passage)

Tonight we stand at the bottom of the mountain, down in the valley and our perspective has changed. Just a few days ago on top of the Mountain of Transfiguration, Jesus stood between Moses and Elijah as Peter, James and John looked on. And there, Peter wanted to set up shop up on the mountain. You see, the perspective from the mountain top makes everything look great. The world below looks idyllic, like a perfect paradise in every direction. Yet, the story ends as Jesus sets off down the mountain with his disciples in tow.

And now that we are down from the mountain, and the idyllic view of the world is no more. Up close, down in the valley things are less paradise and more real, more authentic. There is no veneer, there is no benefit of distance, there are no flaws that can be glossed over. In the valley, there is brutal honesty.

Jesus didn’t take us up the mountain to be dazzled and amazed. Jesus took us up so that we can witness the prophet of the most high named by God and then sent to God’s people. Sent down to the valley of humanity and death. Down to us.

And down in the valley, down with humanity, the truth is revealed. We are revealed for what we are.

And down in the valley, our worst fears are confirmed. All that we thought about ourselves, all that we thought we could accomplish, all that we thought had meaning, all that we thought was significant is not what we thought at all.

Down in the valley of Ashes, we aren’t just sinners needing forgiveness.

We aren’t just the suffering needing consolation

We aren’t just dying needing good news.

We aren’t just the dead needing new life.

Down in the valley of Ashes, we are nothing. Just like the ash that will mark our brows

We are nothing.

Sin and death turns our lives, our beings, our selves into nothing.

All our living and our doing and our being will mean nothing once we are dead and gone.

This is what this valley of Ashes reveals:

A process that we have no control over, no power to stop.

And so just as the prophet Joel tells us how the people of Israel faced destruction and desolation, faced being blotted out from the earth by conquering armies… they gathered together in worship, gathered around the only real and honest thing they knew.

We too gather around the ashes, gather around prayer and the Word of God.

We gather before the One who brought us down from the mountain.

Before the One who stands beside us in the valley of Ash.

Before the One whose cross gives shape to the nothingness that will mark us.

And we confess and repent and pray and hope that this One will do the thing that we cannot do.

That this holy One of God, this prophet of the most high, this Messiah sent to save…

We hope that this One will turn our nothing into something.

And just as the prophet Joel tells us how the people of Israel faced destruction…

They were met by the One who is gracious and merciful,

The One who is slow to Anger.

The One who is abounding in steadfast love.

And this One did what they could not.

This One turned their nothingness into something. Their ash into a cross. Their death into life.

And this One who met the people of Israel comes also to meet us.

This Christ comes down the mountain and finds us in our valley of Ashes,

and reminds us that this cross stamped on our forehead was first stamped in baptism.

This Christ comes down the mountain and gathers here with us, here in this moment of brutal honesty, this moment of our final hope in the face of destruction.

And this Christ declares that our nothingness is not the end.

The Christ declares that our death is not the end.

This Christ declares that our sin is not the end.

This Christ declares that our suffering is not the end.

This Christ declares that we are not the end.

This Christ declares that God IS our end

And our life

And our hope

And our meaning

And that this Ash that marks our brows, that the flaws and imperfections and humanity that mark our being… they are no longer signs of our ending, but signs that we are not alone, signs that we are loved, that we are beloved of God.

This Christ reminds us that our creation began in the very dust and ash we are smeared with. And that out of the dust and ash, out of the mud and the dirt God formed and shaped nothing into something, God formed and shaped the Adam, the dirt creature, the muddling, the first of creation. And then God reformed the Christ out of the dust and dirt of grave, into a new creation.

And that Remembering that we are dust and to dust we shall return is not just to reminder that in our humanity we shall all die and turn to nothing…

but that returning to dust we will return to the God of life.

How can there be anything but death in the ashes?

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Jesus said, “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.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you… (Read the whole passage)

Just a few days ago we along with Jesus and the disciples as they came across a Blind Man. Jesus spoke words reminiscent of creation, “I am the light of the world.” And then reached down into the mud, touched the eyes of the blind man. And then after washing in the pool of Siloam, the Blind Man’s eyes were opened.

The light streamed in. The world was revealed to him in a brand new way.

He could see.

It was a story of Transfiguration. A mountain top revelation.

But that was then.

Because here is the thing about shining a light… it reveal things that we might not want to see.

Everything looks great from the mountain top, everything looks great when there has been only the dark ness for so long.

But it isn’t long until, when we go down into the valley, when we get up close to the difficult and challenging places of the world… that we begin to see the flaws and faults.

The scratch and chips and cracks reveal themselves.

And the perfect beautiful world that we could see from the mountain top, the brilliant colours streaming through to eyes that had so long been dark, the vibrant wold that seems to be so full of good… becomes tainted.

The longer we look the more something seems off. The more see, the more truth is revealed.

The world is good but it is also bad. There is goodness and righteousness out there. But there is also evil and suffering.

And then, after we have been looking long enough, after we come close to the reality of the world too many times, after we have been hurt, and burned, and sinned against… we realize that most of what we are seeing is the bad stuff, the hard stuff, the tragic stuff.

And that is when we see them.

And what is when we see the ashes.

The ashes of a scorched world.

The ashes of broken relationships, broken promises, broken people.

The ashes show us death.

And then we find ourselves searching. Searching for the incredible light we once saw. Searching for the bright and vibrant colours. Searching to see like we did from the mountaintop.

So we end up here.

And when we keep showing up here, week after week, year after year… we begin to see some mountain tops. The Angels singing to shepherds, the magi coming searching after the star, and of course a transfiguration on the mountaintop.

And then somehow, inexplicably, we end up here.

We end up here, on the night of ashes.

The night that reminds of all the things we don’t want to remember.

Sin and suffering and death.

How can we ever see the light again on this night?

How can we find life in the scorched earth of this world?

How there be anything but death?

How can there be anything but death in the ashes?

And so we come and confess our sin. We hope for mercy.

It is here, on this night of death and ashes that God says,

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

We are not the ones who find the light.

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return”

We are not the ones who bring life to scorched and ash filled world.

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

We cannot conquer death.

Christ does.

Christ is the light. Christ brings life from the ashes. Christ conquers death.

You see, God does something on this night that is not found in the light or on the mountaintop.

God finds us in the ashes.

In the very thing thing, the dark, mucky, staining residue of death…. God finds us.

Remember that you are dust.

Because in the very substance of suffering, sin and death… God finds us in order to something that we could have never imaged, something that our eyes would never let us see.

In the ashes of lenten sin and repentance and wilderness.

In the ashes of our demand for a warlord messiah.

In the ashes of our cries for crucified blood.

In the ashes of cross.

God finds us… God finds us with forgiveness for sin.

God finds us… with Messiah who brings peace.

God finds us… with a God willing to die on a cross.

God finds us… in an empty grave.

We come here tonight, looking for light, looking for the mountaintop, looking for goodness and hope in the midst our darkness.

And we find ashes.

Ashes that remind us that we are dead. Dead people walking.

And yet, in the ashes of death… in the dark, grimy, lifeless ashes…

God finds us

And God re-members.

God re-members us to life.

On Ash Wednesday, we confess our sins of Mardi Gras.


Last night parades marched down streets all over the world. Dancers in elaborate costumes danced. Partiers around the globe partied. Musicians played beats and sounds that kept party going. The crowds took in Mardi Gras or Carnival. Maybe some of us ate pancakes and maple syrup. Maybe we cut off or shrived the fat of ham and sausages for Shrove Tuesday.

Tuesday was the last day of normal. They last day of full flavoured enjoyment. The day to use up the fat and the sugar in the house. It was almost like the day to finish the Christmas baking, to leave the last of the holidays behind.

Because today the fasting begins. Today we begin towards a different part of the story. The wondrous births, the visits from foreign kings, the dramatic baptisms, the mountain top wonders are done.

Today, we descend into the valley of Ashes. Today we hear the words:

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

When God reached down into the dirt of creation, when God grabbed the dirt in God’s hands, felt the dust and clay between God’s fingers, do you supposed God knew that the Adam, the first human of creation, the dirtling, was what would be made. Or did it take a while for Adam to take shape? Did God need to work the dirt before Adam appeared?

Adam was created from dust and ash, from dirt. He was formed and moulded with God’s very hands, and Eve too was formed in the dirt, for she was split from Adam.

Did God know then, as God worked the dirt into torso and arms and legs that Adam and Eve would eat the fruit? Did God know as hands and feet were formed, as finger nails and hair, eyes and teeth took shape that the human beings would choose power and temptation? Did God know as God breathed breath into their lungs and brought them to life that the Adam and the Eve, the dirt creatures would choose the fat, the wild abandon, the risk of death? Did God know that they would choose Mardi Gras without knowing it would lead them to Ash Wednesday?

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. 

On Ash Wednesday, we confess. We confess our sins of Mardi Gras. We confess our original sin. We confess that we choose ourselves, our own pleasure, our own comfort, our own security, our own fears, our own neurosis ahead of others. We confess that we cannot see beyond ourselves, we cannot escape our selfishness, we cannot stop getting in our own way.

Today, we confess our sins and we mark ourselves with Ash.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. 

Today, we cannot escape that the consequences of our choices mean death. Adam and Eve ate the fruit and they died. Abraham and Sarah laughed at God and they died. Moses lashed out in rage, and he died. King David lusted for Bathsheba and he died. Peter denied Christ and he too was crucified. Paul murdered Christians and he rotted in prison.

Their choices meant death.

And our choices mean death.

We let the weak and vulnerable fend for themselves. We make our world sick for the sake of stuff. We allow a few to hoard much and call greed “good business”. We call for war because we are more afraid of people on the other side of the earth than we are of the injustices and tragedies that are killing us here.

We keep choosing the fruit. The fat. Mardi Gras.

As if we forget that our choices lead to Ashes.

And so today, God says

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

But God doesn’t leave us in the dust. God doesn’t let our Mardi Gras choice be the end of us.

On Ash Wednesday God reminds who we are, but also who God is.

God says Remember that you are dust because I became dust with you.

To dust you shall return because I returned from the dust as well.

Remember that you are my dust and I am your dust.

Remember that I became dust on the cross, and returned from the dust as I walked from the empty tomb.

Remember that I returned your fruit. I returned your fat. I turned Mardi Gras into Ash Wednesday. And Ash Wednesday into Good Friday. And Good Friday into the 3rd day, the First Day of the Week.

Today, the choices of yesterday, our Mardi Gras choices, our choices of self before others, our choices of now before the future, our choice of consumption and destruction over conservation and reconciliation. Our choices lead us to ashes and to death.

Remember, that you are dust and to dust you shall return, says the Lord.

But remember also, says the Lord, that I am the one who formed you from the dust and dirt. I am the one who held you in my hands, who first loved you. I am the one who breathed life into you.

I did it once, says the Lord… and I will do it again.