Teach us to number our days

Sermon preached Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Peace Church UCC, Duluth, MN

Jackie Falk, M.Div.

Isaiah 58:1-12

Matthew 6:1-21


“ Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

                                                                                    - Psalm 90:12


Grace to you and peace, in the name of God’s Beloved.


            Words from Buddhist wisdom advise: Because death is certain, but the moment is not; we must remain awake to the now. Follow the breath.

            The prophet Mohammed, I have heard it said, that as he lay dying, he gave two companions to his followers, the Koran to be at one side and death to be at the other. Then when Mohammed was no longer there to lead them, his followers could count on these two guides for direction and so not lose their way in life.

            And our own, the Hebrew Psalmist sings to us. Sings to us these ancient words with a seesaw rhythm, rocking us, “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Humming it like a lullaby in our ear so it seeps deeply into our being: “Count your days that you may gain a heart of wisdom.”

            “So teach us to count our days,” to remember that our lives rose from ashes, and cherished and unique as we may be as individuals, will return to ashes, into the democracy of death where power and privilege mean nothing.[i] “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

            But for me, and perhaps many others of us, on this Ash Wednesday, my heart does not feel wise. My heart feels bruised, a bit battered, and crying to the Lord out of its depths, like a small child to a loving parent, “Help me.”

            “Help me with these losses and griefs – they are too much for me.” We come weighted down not with just griefs and losses, but also regrets that cloud our vision and our spirits. We come tonight to number them and to name them on small slips of purple paper. We will make our confessions. And having made our confessions we will gather them, into a purple bundle, and drop them into this vessel. Release them into the transforming fire, the fire of the ever-burning bush that is God’s constant mercy and love. Our griefs, and losses, our mistakes and regrets, our missteps and our misdeeds will all be taken up and remade in the flames of forgiveness. They will be transformed into ashes, precious, precious ashes that will be gathered up, and blessed, and applied to mark us. – From ashes you came and to ashes you will return….

            Hear just how wondrous, how holy these ashes of ours are. Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopalian theologian, writes about the relief workers in the ruins of the World Trade Center. “[they] were sifting through the powdered debris on the ground, carrying just two handfuls at a time over to a tarp where they searched through it for anything recognizably human. [they did so with] utter reverence for what they carried in their hands. ‘It’s nothing but ashes, and yet you should see how they touch it.’”[ii]

            Taylor observes, “it is about the holiness of ashes, which are worthy of all reverence. It was God who decided to breathe on them, after all, God who chose to bring them to life. We are certainly dust and to dust we shall return, but in the meantime our bodies are sources of deep revelation for us. They are how we come to know both great pain and great pleasure. They help us to recognize ourselves in one another. They are how God gets to us, at the most intimate and universal level of all.”[iii]

            “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

            We are certainly dust and to dust we shall return. And so teach us to count our days…teach us to make our days count, so that in this meantime of counted days, our bodies become those sacred and holy sources of deep revelation and we gain hearts of wisdom.

            Matthew’s Jesus is teaching us. Here from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks of three of the most important Jewish faith practices of his day; of any day; of our day. Alms giving – the sharing of wealth. Praying – the turning of our face away from power and towards God. And Fasting, not the mere going without food, but fasting as Isaiah defines it…to relinquish our societally- conferred privileges:  


           Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6)

            You heard our text from Matthew tonight refer to the three practices collectively as righteousness/piety. The Greek word is more rightly translated as justice; they are acts of justice that engage and challenge societal structures and systems of oppression.[iv] Beware of practicing your righteousness/piety – your acts of Justice – your alms giving, your praying, and your fasting - before others in order to be seen by them - in order to be seen by them. (Matthew 6:1)

            Jesus is not challenging the practices, alms giving, prayer, and fasting; Jesus is calling forth from us unflinching honesty, a confession of our deepest heart-felt desires. If those desires are that we be seen, approved, and affirmed by people nearby, then those desires will be satisfied and that will be our only reward. But it is a fickle reward; it will leave us dependent on the whim and will of others to determine our worth and validity.[v] We will not be gaining a heart of wisdom.

            Hearts of wisdom desire to give alms, to pray, and to fast  “in secret” in the private domain of heart and soul sheltered from public view and safe from distortion by public opinion. Here “in secret” our hearts desiring to be wise are rewarded with God’s faithful and eternal life-giving gaze and in-dwelling presence. Seen, Affirmed, Enlivened, attention from the Divine calls forth the image of God in which we are each made.

            Mary Luti, UCC author and theologian, reminds us that the medieval Christian Monastics, like St. Francis of Assisi, were known to keep skulls at hand to contemplate and to teach them to count their days. Rather than being morbid, the practice readied their hearts to offer less resistance to the Holy Spirit’s leadings and so to gain wisdom. “[The Monastics] believed Jesus asked them to live in such a way that when death came, very little was left for death to take. They did not find this thought grim, rather they might find a culture like ours very grim indeed. A culture that considers the accumulation and protection of wealth to be so important that it merits the efforts of a lifetime.[vi]

            Listen again to Isaiah’s words… Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? A heart of wisdom will know what merits the efforts of a lifetime; what is required of us each day as mortals to make that day count. These words of St. Francis will remind us to be straight forward about the nature of life and of death. St. Francis says, “Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take nothing that you have received…but only what you have given: a full heart, a heart of wisdom, enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice and courage.” [vii]

            Ashes are blessed and blessing. They proclaim God’s undying love of the dust we came from, the dust we are, and the dust to which we will return.


In all moments the love of the Lord endures forever.

You are a Beloved child of God, Companioned by Christ,

Sheltered and filled with the Holy Spirit,

Forgiven and free to live in love.

May it be so.



[i] J. Mary Luti, February 10, 2016, Memento Mori,  https://sicutlocutusest.com/category/lent-and-holy-week/

[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, March 27, 2002, Dust to Dust: the holiness of ashes, file:///Users/jfalk/Desktop/Ash%20Wed./Dust%20to%20dust:%20The%20holiness%20of%20ashes%20%7C%20The%20Christian%20Century.webarchive

[iii] Taylor, Ibid.

[iv] Warren Carter, March 1, 2017, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3173

[v] David Lose, March 9, 2011, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=901

[vi] Luti, Ibid.

[vii] Attributed to St. Francis of Assisi by tradition.  

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