God is waiting to meet us in the ashes of our lives

Sermon by Andy Wurm for Ash Wednesday 2nd March 2022

Today on Ash Wednesday, we have a cross drawn on our foreheads with ashes.

The cross of ash can represent many things, but today, let’s think about it as the coming together of two things: the cross, representing God’s unconditional love and ashes representing our mortality.

Pertinent to today is the old story of the ‘Ash Girl’, the girl who has to sit in her ashes, or cinders – the girl who became known as Cinderella. Crushed by her step-sisters, she must ‘sit’ in the cinders of her life, and when she does, the prince appears and she lived happily ever after.

One way we can take that story is that to live ‘happily ever after’, we have to face up to our mortality: that is, face up to the limitations of our lives, which include limitations we impose upon ourselves and limitations imposed by ‘society’ or ‘culture’. There are also limitations imposed by nature, such as our looks. Those we must accept. The others we can do something about.

If we don’t face up to those things, they are likely to run our lives without us knowing. Generally speaking, people are aware of those things, and there is no end to solutions offered. The most simplistic solution offered is that if everyone loved each other, the world would be a better place. We all know that’s true, but the reality is that it’s not that straight-forward. Will-power is not enough.

This truth is conveyed in verse 17 of today’s psalm (51): the sacrifice of God is a broken spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. What’s it’s naming is that we have to see how imperfect we are, and how driven we are by forces outside of ourselves, before we can begin to be free of them. We have to realise and accept that we are empty, misled, blind, selfish, ambitious, afraid, faithless, and so on.

To realise and accept all that about ourselves is liberating: we are free of having to be perfect. But it isn’t experienced as such. Who feels good about realising they are misled, or empty? When we begin to embrace those aspects of ourselves, all we feel is a broken and contrite heart. We can feel that we are a failure. That’s why human beings tend to fill our lives up with all sorts of things, to avoid seeing what we really are. Maybe the hardest aspect that, is it can also reveal the depths of our faithlessness, because instead of feeling our imperfections don’t matter because God is with us, we tend to forget God and feel the imperfection of our lives is a disaster, from which there is no escape.

But, as the psalm says, God will not despise the sacrifice of a broken spirit. In other words, God will embrace our facing of the truth of ourselves. Groups like AA and Weightwatchers know this. They might not describe it that way, but they know that facing the truth about yourself is the beginning of change for the better.

Let’s turn to today’s gospel passage, in which Jesus outlines some ways in which God can help us turn our mortal nature into life.

He begins with ‘beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them’. He goes on to describe things people to, and are rewarded by others, such as publicly giving generous donations away. They have received their reward, he says. And that’s a big problem. Their reward is public affirmation – needing it, and drawing energy and affirmation from it. Once you do that, you’re addicted. If your actions are driven by how much affirmation from others you’ll receive, then you will only or mostly, do only what results in getting that reward. So you become a puppet of other people and the forces which decide what shall be rewarded and what shall be punished. Before you know it, you will not be an individual deciding what to do, but there will be a manifestation of all that is socially acceptable and fashionable at the time, and it will be labelled ‘you’.

The reward from the Father who sees in secret, is that life and communion flows from doing the ‘right thing’, or acting in ways that are loving and appropriate for a world shared with others.

That’s why, when you pray, Jesus says it’s best to go into a room and shut the door and pray to your Father who sees you in secret. In other words, enter into, or make, a space, that is cut off from the world, which bombards you with messages about what you should be, or what you should do. Much of that is to serve the power interests of those who are not concerned with the common good. Much of that is trying to make you a servant of values, individuals and corporate bodies, rather than servants of God, who by definition, wants you to serve only in ways that enhance and fulfill your life, and serve the common good.

When you pray, Jesus says, do not heap up empty phrases, thinking you will be heard because of you’re using many words – your Father knows what you need before you ask him. If you think you can’t pray, just sit still and see what rises in your hearts. I bet one thing on everyone’s heart at present would be Ukraine. You don’t have to try hard to let that rise to the surface. God knows everything on your heart, even more than you do. Why pray then? Because you want to and you need to. That you want to, is obvious because things just rise to the surface. Your soul wants to deal with them. You were made to rest in God (St Augustine’s prayer). In other words, you were made to be at peace and at one with yourself and the world around you, so that you could be yourself. When you’re not, your soul searches for answers, for peace and so on. Letting it search, reach out, ask for what it wants, is what you need to do. Words are only needed to help you realise what you are yearning for. And if we’re praying together with each other, those words can help others pray too.

Then Jesus tells us to forgive others their trespasses, so that your heavenly Father will forgive you. It doesn’t mean God will be nice and forgiving to you if you are to others. It means you will only be able to receive forgiveness from God if you offer it to others. We treat ourselves as we treat others, because the same values drive our attitudes and behaviour towards others, as drives our attitudes and behaviour towards ourselves. And being forgiven doesn’t mean being let off the naughty things we’ve done, so much as being liberated from the ways we are caught up being driven to act dysfunctionally and destructively.

Last of all in Jesus’ ‘Ash Wednesday advice’, is the suggestion to not store up treasures on earth, but to store up treasures in heaven. Treasures on earth include material possessions, but also attitudes, values and patterns of behaviour, which are not linked to, or expressions of, what we might call ‘heavenly’ things: things which connect us to God and give us life, such as faith hope and love, things which no-one or no circumstance can take away from us. I might spend my whole day doing good for other people, yet experience no peace within myself – which begs the question of what’s really driving me, and what is it I really have to offer others. Or I might use my achievements to feel worthwhile, but what happens when they fade into my past?

This Lent, let’s spend time ‘sitting in the ashes’ or ‘with the ashes’ of our lives, which have much in common with the ashes of others’ lives and with the ashes of the world.

The path which leads to life is a broken and contrite heart. God won’t condemn us for the imperfections of our lives. God will meet us there, lovingly embrace us and give us what we need.