February 22, 2023

Ash Wednesday

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Facing the Music

The Reverend Linda Mackie Griggs

Recording of the sermon:

Ash Wednesday     

Isaiah 58:1-12

“Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.”

It’s the first day of Lent. We’ve just entered a season of fasting, prayer, and repentance. We will soon be told that we are dust; that we are mortal. We’ll have ashes pressed onto our foreheads. Now imagine Isaiah standing where I am now, staring us all down, fire in his eyes.  He asks the first question:

“Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself?”

Um, yes?

He glares his disapproval. Strike one.

“Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie down in sackcloth and ashes? 

Well, more or less, symbolically, yes…?

He draws himself up taller, you imagine steam coming out of his ears. Strike two. 

He tries again:

“Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”

Well, we thought that was the idea…

Strike three. 

We all just flunked the Ash Wednesday quiz.

In this passage Isaiah has taken Israel to task for forgetting the meaning, intent, and purpose of their ritual acts. The people had forgotten the true nature of their relationship with God and slipped back into old idolatrous habits. They felt that God should shower blessings upon them in return for their outward signs of worship, and then were dismayed when God did not seem to be holding up God’s part of the transaction. But Isaiah chastised them, saying that worship is not simply transactional. It must be relational.

Isaiah mocks their pleas to God:

“’Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’”

As if the whole point of what they were doing was simply to attract God’s attention. Isaiah denounces the hypocrisy of making the right motions and saying the right words, yet not also practicing true righteousness and justice by caring for the marginalized and oppressed: 

“’Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers…. you fast only to quarrel and fight and to strike with a wicked fist.’”

Isaiah says that acts of worship that do not also reflect God’s love in the world do not constitute the fast that God requires. And then Isaiah asks those three awkward questions–questions to which we thought we knew the answers: 

Is this the fast that God chooses? 



Then why are we here, getting ashes on our heads? 

That’s the tension. The tension we need today. The purpose of a holy Lent is to help us discern what God is calling out of us, not what we should expect from God in return for our Ash Wednesday worship and Lenten spiritual practices of giving something up, or taking something on. God has already loved us into being from the dust of Creation, and the grace that continues to flow from that love is irrevocable. We need nothing more. Ours is to respond by reflecting that love and grace in the world. Our actions here today, and in this season, must be rooted in that call; that vocation.

I heard recently that the difference between a stick in the mud and a flute is that a stick in the mud is full of itself, while a flute has been emptied of itself so that it can make music.

What a great image as we engage the tension of Lent in the context of Isaiah’s critique. What an intriguing way to help us discern the difference between meaningful spiritual discipline and rote ritual for its own sake.

Emptying ourselves–Of what do we empty ourselves? It’s hard enough to do with our attics and closets and basements and storage units. What about our inner lives and intentions needs to be thrown out in order to make room for God?

That’s going to be different for each of us, but first, we need to empty ourselves of a belief that our lives are just about ourselves. We are deeply connected to everyone and everything because we all share the fact of our dust-ness; dust that came from that first singular spark of Creation. So, when we are invited to self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting and self-denial, we are challenged to respond with the hard work of weeding out those things that hold us back from deeper relationship with God, one another, and Creation–of tossing away the clutter of self-absorption and fragile ego that deludes us into thinking that our lives are all about us rather than our relationship with the world and our fellow children of God. We are challenged to clear out the junk of greed, fear and guilt to make room for vulnerability, humility, gratitude, generosity, and perhaps even the ability to laugh at ourselves. That would be music to God’s ears.

It’s a tall order. Which is why it is good that we have forty days to get started. God calls us to make the journey–to be faithful even when we are not successful, because being human, being dust–means that we are flawed. Flawed but still irrevocably beloved. We make this Lenten journey together, and together we uphold one another. The mark of the cross unites us on the journey–we do not make it alone; thanks be to God for that. 

We are dust, yes. But we don’t need to be sticks in the mud. My prayer for all of us is for a holy and challenging Lent, that, through whichever Lenten disciplines we choose, we may empty ourselves, becoming instruments of healing and justice in the world. Becoming the bearers of God’s joyous Easter song.