One of the most important parts of this service is the Invitation to a Holy Lent, which I will issue to you after my sermon. In it, we are called to examine ourselves and our lives and to repent of our sins. We are to do this through prayer, fasting, and self-denial. We are also called to read the Scriptures and reflect on “God’s holy Word.” Afterwards, you will be invited to come forward and have ashes smudged upon your forehead as a reminder that God created us from dust, and to dust, we shall return.

Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are mortal, not something we like to spend a great deal of time considering. It is a truth that we often avoid acknowledging. We are born, we live for a limited amount of time, and then we die. In our faith, we speak of the promise of eternal life for our souls—but we also value life as we know it today. This mortal life can be filled with blessings, and it can be full of tragedies. Our faith does not protect us from adversity; it only helps us find peace in the midst of it.

God’s love is ever-present; the challenge for us is often to be aware of God’s grace in our lives. This season, Lent, is not a time for celebration, but it can be holy when we use it to seek an understanding of how we shut God out of our lives. We do this whenever we attempt to find happiness on our own, without regard for the needs of others.

Chaos surrounds us in our lives today. The political unrest in our country and throughout the world, the pandemic that is still impacting our lives, and the threat of yet another world war are added to whatever challenges we may be experiencing in our personal lives. Still, God is present.

We have a great deal to reflect on during Lent. We can reflect on the things we have done and the things we have left undone. Or we can reflect on what we can do to make a difference in this world that is broken by sin. Our current circumstances remind me of the wisdom found in the Serenity Prayer, which has long been attributed to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference— living one day at a time.

What can we change? What can we influence? And what is beyond our ability to either influence or change?

Coming to St. John’s, I see a long history of how, working together, this church has made and continues to make a difference here. Some of the ministries you began are now independent of us. Over the coming months, we will be re-examining the changing needs of our downtown area and of our community and considering new opportunities we have to share the love of Christ in tangible ways. Lent is a good time for us to begin this reflection individually and then collectively.

In the Gospel, Jesus warns us of practicing piety in order to be seen by others. The ashes are not placed upon your forehead so that others may see you are faithful and have been to church. No, they are placed upon your forehead to remind you that our time on earth is limited. We have been placed here as both an expression of God’s love and as an instrument of God’s love for creation.

Jesus reminds us of this when he says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up 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 last verse of this passage is an important one for each of us to reflect upon at any time, but especially during Lent, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Let us pray.

Loving God, you have created us to be instruments of your love. Help us to use this season of reflection to look for opportunities to share your love with others in our community and in our lives. Help us to determine what we can change and to use our treasures to make a difference in the lives of others. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.