Ash Wednesday Sermon: Clean Heart, Dirty Forehead


If Jesus saw us today, I bet he would have good chuckle to himself.
Reading this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, and from Joel, and from the other scriptures, it all seems a bit of a paradox. Over and over again, we read scriptures apparently decrying religious practice for show…and yet here we are, observing a day where we impose ashes on our foreheads, and outward and visible show of faith.
We will leave here tonight with dirty foreheads. That is a given, and almost goes without saying. We Methodists in recent years have reclaimed the observance of Ash Wednesday, and honestly, I have mixed emotions about it. On the one hand, I believe it is an important expression of our heritage, our tradition as Christians, and as a matter of personal spiritual expression. I think it’s honestly quite poignant and beautiful in a strange way, this communal profession of repentance. On the other hand, I read Jesus’s words, and I begin to doubt. Do we do this because we are supposed to do it, obligated by tradition and guilt? Or do we gather here today because we mean it?

The Actor’s Faith

A word Jesus repeats often in this passage is the word hypocrite.
The word is from Greek, and in our common conversation, hypocrite is someone who in essence says one thing and does another. However, in Jesus’s time, it had no such connotation. Rather, a hypocrite was a word for a stage actor, and carried no moral weight. However, Jesus uses this word, an actor, and pins it on us to make a point.
Jesus uses an old rhetorical device known as hyperbole to show what he means. He describes people blowing a trumpet when they give their offering–well, nobody actually did that. Nobody literally blew a trumpet to signal their giving, but we certainly know people who, in a manner of speaking, toot their own horn when they do something good.
Heck, we’ve turned into an art form these days, publically televised with press and huge cardboard paychecks. I’ve seen it countless times. People with glad smiling faces, appreciative of their generous donor, who always has the same smarmy smile, gladly accepting with apparent humility the praise they receive for their donation. I understand the reasoning behind these events; public relations involving charity is significant issue many face, especially in the corporate world, but for most people the idea is all about spin and looking good. In other words, they are actors playing out a part.
Now, not all actors are televised. Actors do, however, practice a very self-centered faith. “I have a relationship with Jesus” they might say “and that’s what really matters. I need people to see that I have faith. I need people to know that I am a good Christian, that I am faithful, that I am charitable, and most of all that I am the most humble person they will ever meet.” Now, again, I exaggerate, but there is a significant portion of us that may not say this aloud or even actively think it, but we act it nonetheless.
Jesus does not want actors. He may love them, and want to be in relationship with them, but if your relationship with him is primarily caught up in acting the part, then Jesus is not interested.
Jesus is not interested in a faith comprised of outward shows of piety. Jesus is not interested in a faith that puts one’s own stature in the public eye ahead of inward repentance. Jesus is not interested in reading your bumper stickers, nor the signs in your front lawn. Jesus is not interested in longwinded prayers designed to glorify one’s own faith rather than to express desire for God’s Spirit to transform. Jesus is not interested in an actor’s faith, but rather faith in action.

Faith in Action

There is a crucial difference between an actor’s faith and faith in action. An actors faith has a dirty forehead, a satisfied quota of personal giving, a well-said prayer or a full storehouse of Christian merchandise.
Faith in action begins with just that: faith. Faith is what ought to have propelled us here tonight. Faith is what anchors us in this season of Lent. It reminds us that what is now will not last, but there is something, someone who is everlasting. Faith reminds us that we are incomplete, that we are not self-sufficient, that we rely on God. Faith reminds us that we are made of dust, and in the end, to dust we shall return.
For Jesus, acts of faith are not bad. In fact, he’s quite in favor of them. In his sermon, Jesus is not telling us to give, or pray, or fast. We should be doing those anyway. Rather, he’s telling us how we ought to approach prayer, giving, and fasting.
Lent is a season of repentance, of putting faith in action. It is not simply a time of action.
One must have both. If faith without works is dead, then works without faith are empty. When you put on the ashes, do so not as a sign to the world that you are a Christian, but as a sign to yourself that you are human. That you are imbued with the knowledge that this life is temporary, but faith and love live on beyond you. That salvation is yours, but only because you understand that you are not at the center of it. God is at work. We are here to recognize God working in us.
This Lent, act in faith. Leave here not with a dirty forehead, but with a clean heart. Nobody can see a clean heart, but it is far more important than a dirty forehead covered in the ashes of palm branches. May God create in us clean hearts. Amen.

About grantimusmax

Grant Barnes, aka Grantimus Maximus, aka The Nerdcore Theologian. Currently, he is a PhD Candidate at the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, California. He is a graduate of Perkins School of Theology with a Masters Degree in Divinity. He graduated from Texas State University Cum Laude with a Bachelor's degree in English, minor in History. He watches way too many movies, reads too many books, listens to too much music, and plays too many video games to ever join the mundane reality people claim is the "Real World." He rejects your reality, and replaces it with a vision of what could be, a better one, shaped by his love for God.
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