Ash Wednesday, Year B, 2012

Every Ash Wednesday, we read Psalm 51 together.  This Psalm perfectly outlines the heart of why we gather together every year and marks the beginning of Lent the way we do.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; In your great compassion blot out my offenses.

All of us have many fine qualities.  We are loving, giving people.  But all of us also have not-so-great qualities.  All of us—dare I say it—sin.  None of us live the Christian virtues perfectly, no matter how mature we are.  While we may strive to live lives of love, patience, faithfulness, joy, goodness, gentleness, self-control and kindness the human condition is such that we just can’t.

Wash me through and through from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sin.

And while we may run around like crazy trying to deny that about ourselves 364 days a year, today, Ash Wednesday we can name these things about ourselves in this space, before God.

For I know my transgression, and my sin is ever before me. For behold, you look for truth deep within me, and will make me understand wisdom secretly.

How freeing to be able to be honest about ourselves!  I’ve mentioned before about how dinner parties in Princeton can sometimes feel like a competitive recitation of CVs and awards accoladed.  What a treat to get to say, “Guess what, world!  I’m not perfect!  My house is a mess and I’m sometimes impatient with my coworkers and I don’t always find children cute!  I like a good piece of gossip and most of the time I’d rather watch TV than pray and I haven’t brushed my dog’s teeth in six months!”

Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother’s womb.

The trick, of course, is that Ash Wednesday is not just about confession.  We aren’t meant to just offload and then walk out the door unchanged.  No, Ash Wednesday is about repentance.  One of the commentaries I read to prepare for today put it this way.

Imagine you have a dog and a cat.  You are making steak for dinner, so you lay it out to get to room temperature and when you get back to the kitchen you see the dog and cat eating up the last little bits of your delicious dinner.  Now the dog knows he is in trouble, so he comes up to you with his big eyes and his tail between his legs and begs you to please, please still love him.  The cat on the other hand looks at you as if he’s thinking, “Is there a problem here?”  But neither the dog nor the cat have repented in any way!  If you left the steak out the very next day, the outcome would be exactly the same![1]

We do the same thing with God and with each other.  Sometimes we sin and we feel TERRIBLE about it, but we do not do anything to change our behavior.  That is not repentance. Repenting means we are going to change the behavior, not just feel badly about it.

On the other hand, we may need God’s help to actually feel bad about our behavior.  We may be more like the cat in our story. We may be so self-important that we do not think we are capable of sin.  If we believe we are good people, then the things we do are good, right?  Wrong!

Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; wash me and I shall be clean indeed.

Our time on this earth is short.  We’ll be reminded today that we have come from dust and we will return to dust.  We don’t have time to fool around with any false illusions about who we are.  We must examine ourselves honestly and bring that account before God.

Deliver me from death, O God, and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness, O God of my salvation.

The good news is that the God before which we present ourselves is the same God who chose to so identify with our broken selves that he sent his Son to become fully human.  And that son loved us, empathized with us, and healed us.  He also defeated death, by experiencing death and then rising again, so we might have an eternity of life with God.

Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.

This Ash Wednesday, God invites you to come before him, and bring him your whole heart, as twisted and dusty as it might be.

The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.


[1] Hoare, Geoffrey M. St. J. “Psalm 51:1-17 Pastoral Perspective”, Feasting on the Word:  Year B, Vol 2, 2008, p. 8.


Ash Wednesday, Year C, 2007

Today we observe one of the most solemn days of the church year:  Ash Wednesday.  On this day we remember our mortality and begin 40 days of Lent, during which we prepare ourselves for Christ’s death and resurrection.

Last week at Children’s worship, Jane Lynch spoke to the kids about how Lent is a time to prepare for Christ’s death and resurrection.  When one little boy got back to his mother, he tugged at her anxiously and said, “They killed Baby Jesus!”  Because this was new information to this almost-three year old, he was able to experience the deep shock and pain of Christ’s death.  Just wait until he hears that Christ comes to life again!  He’s going to be blown away.

As adult believers, it is difficult to keep the sorrow over Christ’s death and the joy over the resurrection fresh.  We have heard the story over and over again, but the meaning of the story begins to recede as time passes.  We go about our days getting more and more caught up in the details:  what to make for dinner, what needs to be crossed off our to-do lists, where the kids need to be when.  We don’t have a lot of time to think about theological issues.

Ash Wednesday pulls the rug out from under us.  As we have ashes imposed on our foreheads, as we hear the words, ‘From dust you came and to dust you shall return,” we remember that no matter how many errands we run, how many meals we cook, how many days we go into the office, all that will stop one day, and we will die. 

Suddenly Christ’s death and resurrection take on a great deal of significance.  For, through this miraculous event, our deaths are no longer meaningless and terrifying.  Because of Christ’s resurrection, we know we have a hope and a future. 

So, now that we have been stopped short from our crazy lives, how can we live the next 40 days in such a way that will ready us to hear the good news of God’s salvation?

Our Gospel passage today, guides us, through telling us what Jesus does not want.  What Jesus does not want is for us to beat our chests in public, shouting “woe is me!” so that everyone knows how fabulously penitent we are this Lent.

Like most of our faith, Lent is about relationship. 

When we sacrifice something we enjoy, we open space in our lives for God to enter.  Each time we reach for that cookie, or the remote, or whatever it is we have decided to sacrifice, we are reminded of God’s presence.  Think of that object of sacrifice as a little post-it-note reminding you to say hello to God, reminding you to meditate on Christ’s suffering and glory.  Sacrificing is difficult, but it turns us toward our maker, the One who gives us strength when we are weak and forgiveness when we are even weaker. 

Lent is not about how much you can punish yourself.  Lent is about finding a way to open yourself to the One who created you and who sacrifices his own identity for you.   Lent is about drawing near to God’s presence.  Sacrifice reveals to us our own weaknesses and the strength of our desires for things that are not essential, maybe even not good for us.  When we are reminded of our own weakness, we turn to God, for help and for mercy.

This last week, Chuck and I have been spending a lot of time with a young couple whose twins were born nearly three months early.  We’ve also spent a lot of time with families planning their matriarchs and patriarch’s funerals.  In both these cases-at the fragile beginning of life and the quiet end-these families were turned to God, seeking comfort, healing, and understanding. 

For these families, sacrifice is not an abstract concept, but a very concrete one.  They know that when their security is taken from them, turning to God can bring meaning and comfort. 

In a similar, but much smaller way, our sacrifices help us to cling to God.  For as our psalmist reminds us today:

As a father cares for his children, *
so does the LORD care for those who fear him.
For he himself knows whereof we are made; *
he remembers that we are but dust.
Our days are like the grass; *
we flourish like a flower of the field;
When the wind goes over it, it is gone, *
and its place shall know it no more.
But the merciful goodness of the LORD endures for ever on those who fear him, *
and his righteousness on children’s children.

God loves us and desires relationship with us.  This Lent we are invited to enter more deeply into that relationship.







Ash Wednesday, Year B, 2006

From our Psalm today:  “He redeems your life from the grave, and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness”

Today we gather to observe Ash Wednesday.  We gather to remember our mortality, to repent of our sins, and to prepare ourselves for Lent.  This service is a painful one-full of images of our brokenness and our sin, but it is not a service that is without hope. 

Ash Wednesday and Lent provide the space for us to contemplate the darker areas of our lives.  We spend so much of our time fulfilling responsibilities that need to be filled, we tend not to have a lot of time to think and pray about the larger issues that may haunt us-grief over a loved ones’ death or the end of a relationship, fear about our own deaths, concern about our separation from God.  Unlike the sometimes forced cheerfulness of Christmas or Easter, Lent gives us permission to be more contemplative, less happy. 

For me, Lent is a time to remember my mother’s death.  She died six years ago this week.  Each Lent that has followed has felt a little different.  The first Lent I was still too stunned to feel much of anything.  The second Lent I was angry and felt piercing sadness. By the third Lent, I had found some level of peace and resignation.  In preparation for this Ash Wednesday, this Lent, I have been thinking about these words we will use in a few minutes:  Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return. 

At the end of the day, at the end of our lives, we are but flesh.  My mother was dead two days before anyone found her, and the image of her abandoned, lifeless body has stayed with me as an image of the organic finality of death.  The last few years, we have been overwhelmed by images of death:  the victims of the Tsumani, of the war in Iraq, of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  The image of an unclaimed body is a lonely one, and thousands of bodies remain unclaimed, unidentified from these disasters.  What are we, in the end, but dust?  A pile of molecules tentatively held together by water and energy.  Or are we?

The words “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return” contain more than this barren image of death. Humans do not only end as dust, we began as dust as well. 

Remember you are dust. . . evokes the image of the Creator God breathing into dust to create human life.  When we say Remember you are dust and to dust you will return. . .we remind ourselves that the very ground of our being both created us and will be with us when we die.  We are reminded that our deaths are not a mere organic event, but are a transition-all within the scope of God’s loving care.  There is no place we can run to escape the love of God. Even our deaths do not separate us from Him. 

My mother was not really alone at the time of her death, and none of us will be, either.  We are not alone in our grief, in our depression, in our anger, even in our loneliness.  The same God who breathed life into the first man, and tenderly created the first woman, made each of us, and we rest in his loving hands throughout our entire lives.  Death is not powerful enough to separate us from our Creator and Redeemer.  Nothing is. 

This Lent, we are invited to draw near to this God who created us with such care and affection.  We repent of our sins and give up small pleasures during Lent, not because God wants to judge us, but because God wants us to draw near to him, to need him in a way we don’t often allow ourselves. 

God wants to breathe life into you just as he breathed life into Adam. 

 He redeems your life from the grave, and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;