The face mask is the ashen cross for 2021.
This year instead of one night and some ash on our forehead
acting as the powerful but brief reminder of our mortality,
we are reminded of our mortality every day,
but especially, I think, when we wear a mask and when we see them all around us.
One columnist I read at some point said
that at no time in the history of world has a new article of clothing caught on so fast.
They’re all around us.
We see disposable and cloth masks.
We see people with single and double layered masks.
Some masks are plain, some are printed with images of Darth Vader or Master Yoda.
I even saw one on “Old Lutheran,” which is an online store,
that that had a picture of Martin Luther and said,
“Here I stand…You stand over there.”
So, we won’t have ashen crosses this year as a sign of our mortality,
because we’re worshipping online (or need to maintain social distance in-person)
but we have reminders all day, every day, that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
Like ashen crosses, everywhere we go, in the grocery store and Lowes,
we’re reminded of our frailty and fragility, the impermanence in this body,
we’re reminded daily of the death toll from the coronavirus
that has grown to nearly half a million people in our own country
and five times that around the world –
as well as the economic devastation, the stress, and difficulties it has caused.
The more I think about it, the more it seems as if this whole last year has been one long Ash Wednesday,
and one long season of Lent, with (hold up mask) ashen crosses on everyone’s face through it all.
In fact, the connection between this whole year and Lent is more specific that one might think.
The word “quarantine” – the word for the isolation we have been living through, day after day –
comes straight from the Italian word that literally means “40 days.”
In fact, in scripture, anytime we see 40 connected with time,
it means we’re talking about a long, long time –
a time too long to be comfortable – a liminal time of waiting.
For example, Noah and his family were in the boat while it rained 40 days and nights,
Moses was on the mountain with God 40 days and nights,
the Israelites wondered in the wilderness 40 years,
Jesus was in the desert 40 days.
Noah, Moses, the Israelites, even Jesus were quarantined.
A time of 40.
We are in a quarantine, a long season of Lent, a time of 40, that is,
an indefinite time of unknowing, a time of needing to trust God like never before.
A time with more questions than answers.
It is hard to wait here where we have to trust God more than ever,
but God is in the business of leading people out of quarantine…
Noah hit dry land,
Moses came down the mountain with the commandments,
God led the people to the promised land,
Jesus defeated the devil and the forces of evil and death and darkness in the wilderness,
And then journeyed on, making his way to the cross to secure our salvation. //
For us to remember our mortality means for us to remember our reliance on God alone.
It means to wait in this season of 40 days of Lent,
in this season of quarantine.
But we do not wait alone.
We wait with God
and we wait with God’s promise that Jesus will bring Easter and resurrection.
The same God who brought you and me to life from dust,
Has already proved that he can make life from dust!
So that we know, God will be there when we return to dust,
And God can and will remake us from dust again into a New Creation.
God who created, will re-create.
The God you come from is the God you go to.
So, Yes, this night, ashes, and our daily masks
are a reminder of our need for God,
but they are also a reminder of the way God promises to protect us.
And maybe it’s because all my masks have been made loving hands,
by Chris Crouch and Esther Lang and Cathy DeLesDenier,
and I have seen Joe and Brenda Barnes pick up disposable ones to share,
and I have seen our greeters on Sunday morning passing them out if anyone forgot theirs,
which is easy to do.
But, for me, a mask is an image of protection –
protection for me, protection for my family,
protection for the people I come in contact with,
and a promise that God is busy and active in the community
that is caring for those who are sick and in need,
and helping care for and prevent sickness.
The face mask is the ashen cross of 2021.
Every day, every mask we see is a promise, an act of care, a determination to love in action.
Just as the cross, ashen or watery is a sign of God’s protection and promise and the truth of Jesus’ trust in God.
Jesus trusted that God would bring him through the agony and isolation of death to resurrection life
and renewed relationship with God.
And Jesus still trusts God for us,
when the burden is too much,
when the quarantine feels too long,
when we can’t endure the time of 40.
when the quarantine feels too long,
We look to the cross and we are reminded that Jesus has taken our sin and sickness on himself,
God is with us in our death, and is leading the way to resurrection.
It is this same Jesus who invites us to renewed commitment tonight,
who is encouraging us toward acts of prayer, and fasting, and selfless giving,
with the promise that our Father who sees in secret, will reward us.
And that feels like a timely promise.
Because it feels a bit like we all do live secret lives –
with an inability to gather in large groups publicly,
or with the need to keep distance from one another,
and living in public with our faces covered –
It feels like we do have a secret life –
when I see my friend Jon in person, I wonder does Jon have a beard or did he shave? It’s a secret!
What did Steven’s lower face look like again? I don’t know! it’s a secret!
Did Susan smile at me or not? It’s a secret!
It feels like we live in secret now.
But Jesus says that God sees in the secret.
God knows our heart and our deepest desires, fears, and doubts.
God knows what we need before we can ask.
And Jesus tells us that we can grow in our understand and love of God.
Jesus says that through giving and acts of love,
through talking and listening to God,
and through focusing on God by making a choice to abstain from distractions
we can be closer to God.
When we serve and give and fast and pray in secret –
and God’s hopes for us and for the world
become less of a secret to us.
God reveals Godself to us.
Secrets are powerful stuff.
And knowing secrets even more powerful.
Lucia, our daughter turned 7 last week and she got a lot of gifts,
some nicer or bigger in a way than the one she claimed was her favorite,
but without even being asked,
she volunteered that her favorite gift was a set of oil pastels
that she’ll use for coloring and drawing with.
She had me curious so I asked her why that was her favorite.
“Oh those are my favorite, because
I heard you talking to my Aunt Sarah on the phone about what I might like
and you tried to keep what she was getting me a secret, but I heard what you said.”
It is good to be in the know…to know and be known.
There are not secrets from God, who hears and knows what we need.
And Jesus reveals the depths of God’s love for us
and Jesus will give us stamina to go the way of the cross,
to follow with him, which is the way of self-sacrifice for the good of others.
Jesus Christ gives us the strength to stand,
the strength to endure,
the voice to speak
Through the 40 days, as long as it takes, for the length of the quarantine,
and God will lead us out to life.
God promises it will be so.
Live in that hope.