A sermon given at Colonial Church for Ash Wednesday on February 26, 2020.
“The Lord spoke to Moses saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘These are the appointed festivals of the Lord that you shall proclaim as holy convocations, my appointed festivals.’ Six days shall work, be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of complete rest. A Holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the Lord throughout your settlements. These are the appointed festivals of the Lord, the Holy convocations, which you shall celebrate at the time appointed for them. In the first month, on the 14th day of the month at twilight, there shall be a Passover offering to the Lord, and on the 15th day of the same month is the festival of unleavened bread to the Lord. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day, you shall have a Holy convocation. You shall not work at your occupations. For seven days, you shall present the Lord’s offerings by fire. On the seventh day, there shall be a Holy convocation. You shall not work at your occupations.”
– Leviticus 23:1-8
Let’s pray together.
God, I thank you that on this night we get to gather together and together with you to turn our faces to Jerusalem that we might find life. It’s in your name that we gather, O Christ.
Earlier today I commented to Jeff that this is probably not the most normative of Ash Wednesday passages that I’ve selected. So if you’ve never been to an Ash Wednesday service where Leviticus 23 has been read, you probably number amongst…the majority of the rest of the Christian Church, so welcome!
Why did I select Leviticus 23 as we begin this Lenten journey? I did so because of the importance of what is stated in this passage, and the importance in our gathering, I’m speaking, of course, of the importance of remembering. As human people, we so often forget. And so we gather on nights like this…to remember.
If you’re like me, you sometimes forget things…like, for instance, you forget that you shouldn’t plan a church picnic on your anniversary (sorry, babe). Sometimes we all forget. Sometimes we forget that we are loved, that grace is indeed not just for everyone else, but also for us. We forget the loves that sustain us, and sometimes we forget even ourselves. But one of the beautiful things about God’s journey with God’s people, both Israel up until us who are gathered this night, is that God’s grace is for us…and it helps us remember.
Here in Leviticus 23, God’s people are invited to schedule their years and their days and their lives so that they might be a people who remember. What I share with you tonight will be some wisdom that was gleaned from a conversation in one of our Scripture Circles, things which stood out to me…about remembering.
When I was studying this passage, one of the first things that blew my mind, which I feel kind of silly admitting, is the realization I had that the Jewish calendar referenced in Leviticus 23 is lunisolar. It’s rooted in a seven-day, 28-day cycle, which, for some of my women out there, the 28 day cycles might sound familiar. Isn’t that cool? It’s in the Bible! A calendar that’s connected to the cycle of women’s bodies. That there is a connection between God and our bodies and this earth and sacred time…how cool is that? And as we journey through these days and years of remembrance, they are comprised of seven days with rest on the seventh, and likewise, every month there is a reset and release that our bodies engage in as well. Indeed, God made Sabbath for humans!
Do you remember when Sabbath was started? On the final day of creation, God made humans…and the next day God rested. God rested not just because God was tired, but because I think because it is a reminder to us humans that we are finite. We were born into the world dependent upon God’s grace and creation, there is already food to eat and breathe to breathe, not on account of any work we have done, but because of who God is. YHWH alone is our source and we’re invited to rest…each day, each week, each month…to rest and trust and remember that we’re human and we are held by a loving God.
So here in Leviticus 23, we’re brought into the calendar year in the Jewish community. The year begins with the first month on the 14th day, the second week, with Passover, and then moves into the Festival of Unleavened Bread.
A few details that I want to call to mind for us as we consider this passage.
First off: Passover itself — the Passover is the reminder to the people of Israel, people who had been enslaved for 400 years, that God had heard their cries and intervened and saved them. The night of Passover, as Exodus records, the enslaved people put blood of the lamb on their thresholds and doorposts so that indeed they might be saved and their children, their young boys would not die. And so, to this day, Jewish people begin the year in this remembrance, both a remembrance that they had been enslaved…and remembrance that God saved them. This is where they start their year and move with God into the year in that remembrance. Memory is a central theme for living rightly in the ways of YHWH. When we look at the story of God’s people of Israel, we see that things go awry every time they forget, right? They go into the land and sometimes they become the oppressors because they forget that they were once enslaved, so every year God in God’s grace says, “We’re going to have another time for you to pause, so you remember. Remember, it is for freedom that I have called you. Remember.”
The celebration of Passover (The Festival of Unleavened Bread)—begins with a search throughout the house for any leaven. Observant Jews will gather any leaven and they will burn it, declaring any chametz, as they call it, “The dust of the earth.” Any echoes you’re hearing to our gathering this night (Ash Wednesday, right? Tonight you will be marked by the ash of the cross, reminded that you are from dust).
They gather the leaven and burn it, for they do not have need of it for what will come in this festival. They instead are called to eat matzo, unleavened bread. In so doing, the people are reminded not only did they have unleavened bread because they were a people who sojourned, but also as a reminder that they were a people who had been enslaved. Matzo was not a rich person’s bread. It was a bread that the common person would have eaten. And so, as they move into the festival, they are called in the Passover Seder dinner to remember the Exodus, to remember the God who had freed them from slavery.
Over the Passover Seder dinner meal, four questions are typically asked of the youngest children. They are great questions.
The stage is set with the central question “Why is this night different from other nights?” I ask us that same question, why is this night different? What do we remember this night, friends? Why Ash Wednesday? Let’s pause and sit with that question. Why is tonight different from other nights?
They are then asked:
- On all other nights we eat leavened products and matzah, and on this night only matzah.
- On all other nights we eat all vegetables, and on this night only bitter herbs.
- On all other nights, we don’t dip our food even once, and on this night we dip twice.
- On all other nights we eat sitting or reclining, and on this night we only recline.
And for us tonight, my friends, we will make the signs of the cross on our foreheads with ashes. Do you know why? Why only tonight do we mark ourselves with ash? What is the grace we celebrate? Do we remember why we gather? Do we remember why Lent? Do we remember why we turn our faces to Jerusalem? Do we remember who this Jesus is? Do we remember that the cross is for us? What makes tonight different. Let us pause so that we might remember.
Because sometimes we forget.
In Leviticus 23, we’re reminded that the Sabbath comes every seven days. That in the first month on the 14th day we have Passover and Festival of Unleavened Bread which lasts for seven days. Then seven weeks later is the Festival of the First Fruits. And then in the seventh month on the first day is the Festival of Trumpets which leads to the 10th day, which is the Day of Atonement and then the Festival of Booths.
Every seven years there is a Sabbath and every seven times seven years there is a year of Jubilee, which is sabbath for the land and forgiveness of all debts. All of these things are designed to remind the people — people who forget — that God is our source; that freedom is our calling. And we are to live in accordance with the rhythm of the God of all life in whom we live and move and have our being…through remembrance and rest.
And so my friends, on this night as we remember the ashes, we are reminded that we’re in need of at least a once-a-year reset. A night to remember that we are dependent upon the love and grace of God. That as human people, we are frail, we’re imperfect, we harm oneanother and we have been harmed and we are in need of grace.
So much of this world teaches us to put on strong armor, to walk around with personas that we are sure will keep us safe. And tonight the ashes call… they call us to remember…to remember that we are dependent earthlings formed from dust, and to dust we will return.
Ash Wednesday is the invitation into Lent. Where for the next 40 days, we journey with Jesus, turning our faces towards Jerusalem. Not because we are nothing, but because we are vulnerable people who need to be held in the love and grace of God, brought back to the cross, reminded that we are beloved ones, meant to know the good news and have our lives transformed again and again and evermore.
The other thing that I wanted to remind us of tonight, is that the Christian liturgical calendar begins not in Passover, but in Advent, because the place we begin is the place where Emmanuel, God comes to earth and is with us.
As we prepare for Ash Wednesday, typically churches burn the palm branches from Palm Sunday the year before. We do this symbolically, because it reminds us that we think we know how salvation comes: we think it comes in power, that Jesus was here to blow things up and get rid of the Roman empire. And yet, Jesus comes on a donkey bringing peace. And isn’t that just like hope?
“Hope Interrupts,” our Lenten sermon series, is a reminder to us that God shows up not with triumphant sounds or blasts of horns, but in a way much more like a light of a candle that illuminates the dark. And as we hold that light that was born in Advent, and we share it with one another, the brilliance of God’s new morn is birthed both in us and through us and around us, indeed.
In Creation and in Sabbath, we are reminded that we are dependent upon the God of the universe who has already been creating, and so we rest. In Passover, we are reminded that we were a people who were enslaved and brought to freedom by this God. In Advent, we are reminded that God has made a home among us, brining light to our despair and dark. And then, on Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that we are vulnerable and frail and in need…and that we are indeed image bearers of God. The God who is indeed, Emmanuel with us.
And in a world where we know pain and we know sorrow, what if instead of the Lenten journey being a call for us to bear arms and destroy one another, the call of is one that invites us more deeply into the way of Christ, the way of life. For indeed, we are made from dust, to dust we will return. And in between those two moments, we are held by grace of the creator and sustainer of all things, including us. And this allows us to remember so that we might truly live.
So may the hope of Jesus Christ be yours this night. Wherever you are in need, may you know you are not alone in this journey. May we remember. And may we journey with Jesus all the way to Jerusalem and into life. Amen.
Receive then this benediction: “Blessing the Dust – A Blessing for Ash Wednesday” (by Jan Richardson).
All those days
you felt like dust,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners
or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial –
did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?
This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.
This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.
This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.
So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are
but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
 See, for instance: https://www.britannica.com/topic/lunisolar-calendar
 Jan Richardson, “Blessing the Dust – A Blessing for Ash Wednesday,” Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessing for the Seasons (Orlando: Wanton Gospeller, 2015), 89.