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Sermon:  Ash Wednesday Year A, February 26, 2020

The Rev. Eileen Weglarz

Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a season of reflection, penance, and fasting… Following the example of the Ninevites who did penance in sackcloth and ashes (Jonah 3:6), we go to church to have our foreheads marked with ashes—in order to humble our hearts and be reminded that, in time, earthly life passes away.

Much of my sermon today is an excerpt from a homily by Barbara Brown Taylor, concerning Ash Wednesday, which depicts a brief history of humanity’s propensity to make choices that separate us from God.

“In many churches Lent begins with a sooty forehead, as believers kneel for the Ash Wednesday reminder that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.  It is not meant to depress or frighten us, but simply to remind us who we are:  human beings, mortals, not God.  

“It is also a dramatic way of taking us back to our beginnings—not only to that little pile of dust in the garden of Eden where the story began, but also to that Big Mistake made by the mother and father of us all before they had really gotten the hang of being human.  God said, ‘Don’t eat the fruit’; they ate the fruit, and the rest is history.

“They might have been immortal.  They might have stayed in the garden forever, but no.  Their curiosity got the best of them.  God gave them a test and they flunked.  ‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return.’  That is the sentence God pronounced on them that day, and we have inherited it from them, along with the curiosity and a few other things.  But Adam and Eve are not our only ancestors.  

“There is someone else who has claimed us as his kin. …As far as I can tell, what Adam and Jesus are both tempted by is the chance to play God. Whereas Adam stepped over the line and found humanity a curse, Jesus stayed behind the line and made humanity a blessing.  One man trespassed; one man stayed put.  One tried to be God; one was content to remain a human being.  

And the irony is that the one who tried to be God did not do too well as a human being, while the one who was content to be human became known as the Son of God.

“They are both alive and well in us.  You can feel them both tugging at you most days of your life, but if Adam’s story is our story, then Jesus’ story is ours as well.  We have both sets of (spiritual genes) in us.  We are kin to both of them.  And when the Adam in us is powerfully tempted to play God, the Jesus in us is more powerfully able to remain human, offering to keep us company on our own side of the line and showing us that the way to discover our Godlikeness is not to curse our humanity but to bless it, and to enter into it as fully as we dare—living a human-sized life this side of Eden, where the (God) who made us from the dust of the earth offers to breathe life into us again and again.”

As believers today, we really can’t claim any great advance in understanding about the mysterious gift of physical life that we are bequeathed for our traditional span of “toil and trouble.”  “The years of our life are threescore and ten, or even by reason of strength fourscore…”  (Psalm 90:10a).   But we can reflect on and value it as gift, at any stage.  

And the lesson of humility, that our “ashiness” serves to teach us, is perhaps never more evident than on this day.  In the words of the Sufi mystic Rumi:  “Come even though have you broken your vows

a thousand times.  Come, and come yet again.”