Marked by the Cross
Ash Wednesday, March 2, 2022
Pastor Arne Bergland
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So, whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room, and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your father who is in secret; and your father who sees in secret will reward you.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store uop for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
The season of Lent brings our reality into sharp focus. Beginning with Ash Wednesday we are reminded of our mortality. As humans our reality is that we live… and we die. To give heed to our humanity is to come face to face with our shortcomings before God. With ashes on our forehead, we are called to be open about that reality.
Ash Wednesday begins for the Christian world a time to focus on the discipline of faith. And tonight, even though so much of the world gives little heed to such discipline, I would urge you to consider Lent as an opportunity to deepen your relationship with God. Focusing on our reality we do so in light of God’s promise. Lent is also a time of refreshment as we allow the waters of baptism to wash over us bringing forgiveness and new life. In the process we may come to a deeper understanding that in our reality there is death and yet this promise from God that we do not go from life to death but death to life.
This Lenten discipline is not so much about rearranging our life, as it is about taking up new life. It is a time of honesty about our excuses and rebellion.
I once heard the bishop of the metropolitan New York synod speak on the theme of Christian vocation. Bishop Bowman talked about being in his offices at the church center in Manhattan on 9-11. From the church center you could see the trade center . As the chaos of that day was playing itself out one pastor asked him what he could do. The bishop told him to just be what he was, a pastor. So this pastor decided to take baptismal oil to the trade center. As firemen went up the stairs he anointed them with the sign of the cross on their foreheads. Survivors of that tragedy can recall the glistening foreheads of those brave rescuers many of whom went to their death to save people that they didn’t even know. They did so marked with the sign of the cross.
That sign etched on your brow at baptism is a bold sign. Years ago, Iraqi citizens were able to vote in elections for the first time in half a century. They did so in defiance of the threats of terrorist thugs bent on preventing them from voting. These brave souls trekked long miles to their designated polling places. To prevent fraud, officials required each person to soak their index finger in indelible paint. That long-lasting pigment meant, of course, that for the next several days, in the unprotected environment of Iraq’s mean streets, terrorists would be able to spot those who branded themselves as patriots. They were marked with the reality of what they had done.
One commentator likened it to the badge which marks us on Ash Wednesday, and he was clearly on to something. But as the Iraqi election is about more than a weeks’ worth of discolored digits, so this season of the cross reaches beyond one day with a blackened brow. Ash Wednesday launches Christ’s church into Lent, a time of limited and voluntary denial which sharpens our focus on the unlimited — but no less voluntary — sacrifice made by our Savior.
You see it is all about death and life. It is all about being lost and found. It is all about a God who loves us too much to leave us in the dark. As the ashes of last year’s palms make the cross on our forehead, we hear those words, “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Know this night that the cross puts sin and shame to death. It is the “and yet” to our reality. Even though we are all fall down, even though we fail in so many ways, even though death has a grip on us, Christ raises us up. Christ raises us from the ashes of our lives that we might be refreshed in his love, that we might be remade through his sacrifice and that we might smell the sweet fragrance of the new life that he gives us.
I once was at a Lutheran youth event that featured musicians who came from a different faith expression. During their performance they stopped the music to let us know that they carried a small cross in their pocket to remind themselves of who they were as people of faith. Later I was able to have a conversation with the leader of the band. I asked him about that practice and told him that as a Lutheran I also always carried a cross with me. It was the cross the pastor made on my brow at my baptism. Bishop Bowman said, “Be who you are.” Marked with the cross on your brow, be who you are, a beloved child of God. Your realty will be met by the and yet of God’s promise