Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2024

February 2, 2024 | by Thomas Hermans-Webster

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 Psalm 51:1-17 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 Isaiah 58:1-12

As with all lectionary passages, these texts must be engaged within the broader context of the worship service and the world in which the worship service happens. Here’s the moment that so many preachers point out the seeming irony of the gospel for this service, in which Jesus instructs those with him to “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” whenever they pray all while we gather in public, put a very un-secret mark on our faces, and go about our day (Mt. 6:6). We can certainly have a light-hearted chuckle at the seeming disconnect between our practice and the traditional reading from Matthew’s gospel before we consider these scriptural witnesses more closely.

The preacher faces passages that seem at once too familiar yet only associated with a singular event in the Christian year in these readings. Thankfully, the dichotomy that may exist between preaching a classic and trying to find something new in a tired text is only an illusion. As the process-relational preacher knows well, the spiraling creative advance of life means that even familiar approaches to familiar places happen in new temporal, personal, and relational contexts.

Before diving too deeply into these scriptures, open yourself to God’s presence, memory, and vision. What’s happening in your life? the lives of your people? your community? our world?

Our world is full of death, decay, and dust. Sometimes, these are the aftermath of a terribly violent event. Other times, the tragedy of it all is that we lose. In Whiteheadian process terms, this is a distinction between specific evils–terribly violent events or destructive events that cause us to feel discord and to suffer–and the ultimate evil in the temporal world–“the fact that the past fades, that time is a perpetual perishing” (Alfred North Whitehead, Process & Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, Corrected Edition, (New York: Free Press, 1978), 340.).

Hearing Jesus’s teaching more fully, the process-relational-minded congregation can recognize how Jesus is concerned with the relationships fostered in our piety. When we practice our piety, do we do so in order to participate in God’s healing and creative presence with Earth, with our common planetary home of cosmic dust? Or, when we practice our piety, do we do it in order to be seen by others while we do it? Notice that Jesus does not prohibit the practice of piety. Rather, we are encouraged to pursue self-critical reflection upon our piety and practice our piety toward heaven. In process-relational terms, heaven is not an escapist fantasy land of bright, white, exceptional purity that is elsewhere or elsewhen. Heaven is on offer every time that God invites us into God’s own weaving of the events of the world, the divine vision for loving-shalom, and the possibilities for our life together in Love.

In other theological approaches, Jesus’s admonishment to not store up for ourselves treasures on earth is understood to perpetuate a dichotomy between heaven and earth that includes a denigration of the very dust of our own human bodies. I have neither the time nor the space in this commentary to fully dismantle this unfortunate denial of the goodness of incarnation and the significance of God’s ordination of matter for the sake of our salvation, but the preacher should be acutely aware that members of the congregation may be primed to hear Jesus’s distinction between earth and heaven here as a core text for death-dealing theologies of embodiment.

Disrupting the strict binary between earth and heaven, dust and Spirit, process-relational theology can read Jesus’s words as a continuation of the healthy refocus from earlier in the pericope. Moths, rust, and thieves can remind us of the realities of the perpetual perishing that characterizes our world (Mt 6:19). The present really does fade into the past. The past really does fade from our memory. People, human and other-than-human, really are victims and perpetrators of death and destruction. Storing up our treasure on earth, focusing our heart on perpetual perishing is a dangerous act akin to practicing our piety for the consumption of other humans rather than deepening our relationship with the Love who knits our cosmic home into zesty life together.

But storing up our treasure in heaven, focusing our heart on the dynamic interplay of the world, the divine vision, and our possible co-creative partnership with God, never calls us away from the solidarity of our relationships in this world. “We do not have to accept injustice and abuse while we wait for some better, eternal life in a world beyond the present,” Karen Baker-Fletcher insists (Karen Baker-Fletcher, Sisters of Dust, Sisters of Spirit: Womanist Wordings on God and Creation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 120-121.).  The season of Lent further frames the homiletic approach to these texts, for we know that growing in our life-in-Christ calls us to recognize our own lives as en-Spirited dusty ones who belong to heaven and earth (Baker-Fletcher, Sisters of Dust, Sisters of Spirit, 125.). Furthermore, Lent teaches us that becoming “reconciled to God…so that in Christ we might become the righteousness of God” may very well lead us into places of real and present crucifixion as active con-Spiritors in God’s creative, responsive, saving love (2 Cor. 5:20b-21).

Practicing our piety with dusty, ashy crosses on our foreheads aims our lives precisely toward a relationship with Love who chooses a fast that will loose the bonds of injustice, will undo the thongs of the yoke, will let the oppressed go free, will break every yoke, will share bread with the hungry, will bring the homeless into Their own house, and will clothe the naked (Isaiah 58:6-7). The fast that the Lord chooses in Isaiah is a direct, heavenly, salvific response to the very real losses of oppressive events in our world. Receiving the ashes of this day marks one’s entry into that very fast as a co-creative participant in God’s abundant mercy (Joel 2:13).

For the process preacher, “remember you are dust” become words that situate our solitariness within a whole cosmic web of dust. Do not ignore the realities of destruction, death, and decay. I “urge you not to accept the grace of God in vain” by diluting the ashes with glitter as if the shiny plastic bits offer an affirmation of the recipient amid the ashes (2 Cor. 6:1). As people of dust and spirit, the ashes bring us to the creative horizon of a new season. They mark us as ready participants for God’s vision of the world, yet we are the ones who must take up the fast (Monica Coleman, Making a Way out of No Way: A Womanist Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 56.).

On the edge of Lent, what will you do with your dusty, ashy solitariness? with your realization that you are uniquely and decisively you? with your recognition that being you means being infinitely and intimately related with myriad other dusty and ashy star-stuff-filled creatures throughout the cosmos? What from the world will you incorporate into your fast? What will you let perish?

Blow the trumpet! Gather the people! Sanctify the congregation! Pursue the en-Christed life, the ashy-Spirit life, the solidarity-in-creative-Love life together! See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!

Tom is an ordained United Methodist Elder and process theologian. He earned his PhD from Boston University School of Theology, where he developed a process theology of Holy Communion in a sacramental ecotheology. Currently, he serves as the Acquiring Editor at Orbis Books, an affiliate faculty member in Wesleyan and Methodist theology at Memphis Theological Seminary, the Lecturer in United Methodist History and Doctrine at Yale Divinity School, and on the steering committee of the Open and Relational Theologies Unit of the AAR.