This is a copy of my Ash Wednesday sermon from March 2, 2022.
One of my professors from Divinity School noted this week on social media, the remarkable irony of having this passage be one of our readings for Ash Wednesday – as we are running around with a physical mark on our bodies. He was not condemning the practice or even questioning it. Merely noting that there is something rather funny about us hearing Jesus preach on practicing our piety before others and then marking our foreheads in a way that makes everyone either go – yeah, that guy knows Jesus or do you know you have something on your face?
Seriously though, have you ever seen someone truly “practice their piety” in front of you. I mean in a way that tells you they are wayyy too excited to show off how well they know the old JC? Sometimes it is because they are genuinely excited, and in those moments, we should all rejoice. However, oftentimes, it is because they are far more concerned about what others think of their religion, rather than about what God thinks of their faith. (I say their, but most likely all of us have done this at some point).
For so many centuries piety has been about being the best at going through the motions correctly. Knowing how to show off the right way. Say the correct things. Doing all the best moves. In essence, precisely what Jesus was preaching against.
So, six years ago, Brad and I spent this week and the one following it in St. Louis, where my mom was in the midst of a mental breakdown and finally showing enough severe signs of Alzheimer’s that we were able to get her some help. A few months later, after having found out we were pregnant with twins on Easter Monday, we went to a regular sonagram appointment only to find that we could not find our babies’ heartbeats. At nine weeks of pregnancy, I became a walking tomb for my two little loves until they were ready to leave me.
About a week after that, I found myself at a monastery on a prayer retreat with leaders from a Presbyterian seminary. I had planned to attend months before. And as I sat among colleagues, God put me in a small group of women who had been there in their own lives. Gave me leaders who made space for me to be whatever I needed to be in those moments. And God held me in the strange gaps that were so bizarrely shaped in ways I never could have imagined. That week I found that God showed up in my life just at the moment I needed.
You see, this year Ash Wednesday has got me thinking a lot about what faith really looks like. What it means to actually be pious, rather than simply to appear like it. And this morning the quote that kept running through my head was this: Be messy and complicated and afraid and show up anyways. It’s by author Glennon Doyle Melton, famous for her work on Momastery. Be messy and complicated and afraid and show up anyways.
In so many ways, our world is in tatters right now. We do not know what will happen even tomorrow. What people need, more than anything, is for us to show up for them. To let them know they matter. To walk with them through the messy parts. To overcome our fear so they can overcome theirs. Because, whether we realize it or not, God has already shown up for us in far more ways than we can count. Every single day. And the best way we love God, the way we show our piety – is to love and show up for others the same way.
So, back to the crosses. When I picked up the boys from school this afternoon, I already had my cross on my face. And Luc looked up at my face and said, “what’s that Mommy?” I said, “It’s a sign to show that God loves us.”
You see, my friends, we may be made of dust, but our God has proven time and again to make beautiful things out of dust. Not to mention, there was that one time, on that hillside, when God really decided to show up for us with a love greater than no other.
Our crosses are not a mark of piety. They are a reminder to us of whose we are, so we can show up for the world, no matter how messy or complicated or afraid we may be.