- Parish House
Sermon for Ash Wednesday, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
We are creatures of habit, aren’t we? And probably more so than we even realize. It sometimes takes another person to point out a habit or a pattern for us to be aware of it. It has been brought to my attention, for example, that I tend to wear the same thing every Tuesday. Maybe I could have figured that one out for myself. But a more surprising example happened the other day when a neighbor commented on a pile of junk behind my house.
The backstory is that we live in a beautiful old home that has needed a fair amount of renovation. So we fix an area up, rest for a while, and then tackle another. I had no idea that there was a recognizable pattern to this. We just started a renovation on the shed in the back, where, in a different age the live-in housekeeper would have stayed. Jason gutted it over the weekend so that it can be rebuilt. He put all of the debris into a big pile. My neighbor came out and said, “Oh, it’s the annual Alexander pile of debris with an old toilet on top.” And she was right. Two years ago we gutted the upstairs bathroom. Last year it was the little bathroom downstairs. Each year, we have indeed created such a noteworthy pile, apparently on a schedule we didn’t even see.
And we realized that there is yet a deeper pattern to this. Just about the time of year when I feel the need to de-clutter and deep clean for spring, Jason feels the need to take on a renovation – which means debris and dust, so much dust – our projects apparently working at cross purposes. We are creatures of opposing habits. But that sermon on marriage will have to wait for another day. Today I want to talk about that dust.
I recognize that the dust is no ordinary dust. It comes from structures and the lives that have passed through them for almost a century. It comes from stories. Some of it comes from mistakes, both in the built environment and in the lives of its inhabitants. It is the dust of that which has deteriorated, and which needs to be cleared away so that the structures can be rebuilt and restored to their beauty.
This kind of dusty project bears a strong resemblance to the task of Ash Wednesday, if we translate the project to our souls. It’s a bit of an annual renovation. In a moment we will pray with Psalm 51. “Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; wash me, and I shall be clean indeed… Create in my a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” It is a prayer to remove the debris of where we have gone wrong, to be rid of whatever dusty pile weighs us down. It is a prayer to restore the workings of our hearts to their natural beauty, shed of our sins and rebuilt once again through the grace of God.
Jesus knew of this continual need for renovation. He knew, for example, that we have a tendency to do things for show or for credit or to soothe our complicated egos, even with religious practices like fasting and prayer. Such motives only bring destruction, he said. They need clearing out. Prayer, fasting, almsgiving – when free from a misguided intention they are life-giving. But when we do them for the wrong reasons, they are the sort of thing that deteriorate in us over time and leave us with destruction.
Jesus was clear that there is another way. Our healing, our restoration, our deep sense of worth, these come from moving our hearts in a different direction, freeing them from false motives and missteps, and aligning our desires more closely to God’s own. In classical Christian language, this is our need to orient our misdirected wills to God’s will. That is the source of righteousness and peace. And it is the point of any renovation project of the soul. It is the heart of today’s religious observance.
Christianity, at its core, presumes both that we need to change from time to time and that we can. Jesus mentioned our need for repentance time and again, and promised his grace to make it possible. However small or large the renovation needed in our hearts, there is always more forgiveness provided than we need. The Gospel shows us that grace is also limitless, and that God rejoices whenever we repent and return. C. S. Lewis once said that repentance is not something God demands of you before God will take you back and let you off the hook. Repentance is simply a description of what going back is like. It is the renovation, the clearing out of debris, the redirecting and rebuilding of our wills toward righteousness and peace. It is the reality that the habits of our hearts can be changed, renewed, and ultimately made beautiful once again.
Today, we will receive ashes on our foreheads, with the words that we are dust and to dust we shall return. This is a powerful reminder of our mortality, which we contemplate this day. But dust always has another story to tell. It is also the evidence of a renovation project. When brought before God, dust is evidence that there is a grace more powerful than any of our debris. Dust is evidence that there is a forgiveness stronger than any of our habits. And dust is evidence that there is always hope for any soul in need of restoration.