Ash Wednesday Sermon

Ash Wednesday Sermon

The Rev. Thomas W. Traylor

All Saints’ Episcopal Church, 13 February 2013

Ash Wednesday is a day of contrasts.  There is no service of the church year over which light and shadow play more strongly than Ash Wednesday.  The stark beauty of our Ash Wednesday liturgy throws into sharp relief the linked realities of sin and forgiveness, intention and action, abundance and need, mortality and hope.  Our liturgy tonight brings us face to face with who we are within ourselves, who we are meant to be for each other, and who God is for all of us.

We began our worship with a prayer of frank acknowledgement:  We are sinners in need of God’s forgiveness.  I trust that this does not come as a complete surprise to any of you.  I’ll admit the word “sin” has an ominously “old-time religion” ring to it.  And too many preachers in too many times and places have used the language of sin as a cudgel to beat people down or keep them in line.  So it is little wonder that you hardly hear it in some progressive religious circles.  Even some of the big evangelical Christian enterprises scarcely mention sin.  Some fifty years ago the famed American psychiatrist Karl Menninger observed that the language of sin was disappearing from common parlance.  Menninger entitled his book about this cultural shift, Whatever Became of Sin? He observed that our culture has increasingly psychologized away the concept of sin.  He voiced concern about the erosion of the sense of personal and collective responsibility for our actions and what this erosion could mean for the spiritual and moral health of our society.

Tonight in our liturgy we acknowledge from the top that we are sinners.  We acknowledge that time and again we fall short. We fall short in love for God. We fall short in love for our neighbors.  We fall short of living in the fullness of life that God created us to enjoy.  We fall short.  Perhaps not in obvious ways, not in what the Prayer Book in one place refers to as “notoriously evil” lives.  But we fall short.  In a few minutes we will pray together the Litany of Penitence.  It is one of the finest prayers in the Prayer Book and one of the most searching in its understanding of the ways in which you and I have fallen short.  I hope that you will listen to it carefully and pray it seriously.  It is not an easy prayer to pray; but like all the prayers by which we acknowledge our sin and our need for God, it leads on to the assurance of God’s unfailing pardon.

Many years ago I heard of a priest who began to omit the Confession of Sin from the regular Sunday services. His rationale was that people already came in the door of the church feeling bad about themselves and he saw no need to make them feel worse.  Finally, one parishioner approached him to say, “If I’m not able to confess my sins, I don’t get to hear the word of forgiveness.”  The Confession and absolution came back into the liturgy.  Sunday by Sunday, and especially on Ash Wednesday, we confess our sins so that we may go on to experience God’s grace.  We may begin our worship on Ash Wednesday by acknowledging our sins.  But the last word of Ash Wednesday is not about sin, but forgiveness.

As we move forward through our liturgy we hear Jesus’ words about the link between inward intention and outward action.  Throughout his ministry Jesus had a lot to say about this and what he said got him into terrible trouble with his critics.  Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”  This is the same Jesus who said, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”  So what gives here?

From earliest times fasting was believed to be a means of opening oneself to receive communications from God.  Prayer was the discipline by which relationship with God was built and nurtured.  Almsgiving was understood not as an act of individual charity which set the giver apart from the recipient: to give alms was to affirm that the one who gives and the one who receives are members of a common family.  Jesus had no quarrel with prayer or fasting or giving alms.  They were deeply rooted in his religious tradition and he plainly expected that his own followers would observe them.  What matters, Jesus said, is not the act but the motive.

Unlike in our own time, when it seems almost no one wants to appear overtly religious, Jesus lived in a day when some people’s religiosity was on abundant and often ostentatious display.  Their public prayers were loud and long, fasting was highlighted with dramatic cosmetology, and alms were given with the flourish of trumpets. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” Jesus said.   What did those who acted in order to be seen want others to see?  I think that they wanted those who watched their pious displays to see that they were not like “ordinary” people, that they were a cut above.  What did the pious Pharisee in the Temple pray in that story Jesus told?  “I thank Thee, God, that I am not like other men.”  Jesus condemned religious acts whose intent is to set one apart, to separate rather than to unite, to highlight differences of rank and station rather than to affirm common bonds.  To act from this motive, Jesus said, brings the reward of smug self-satisfaction.  But it closes doors, between us and God, between us and each other.

Our Ash Wednesday liturgy calls us to the observance of a holy Lent.  I’m happy to say that as a parish, we are way beyond thinking that Lent is merely a matter of giving up chocolate!  I know that many of you think seriously and prayerfully about how you will shape your spiritual life and practice during this season. I hope that all of us will.  For some it may mean fasting, for others, a more deliberate prayer life, for others, a deeper generosity with time and treasure.  Whatever pattern of life we adopt this Lent, if our intention is to enter into deeper communion with God and if our actions create more solidarity with each other and with the human family, our Lenten observance will be a holy one.

There is a particular poignancy in Jesus’ words about prayer and fasting and giving alms and a note of irony in his admonition not to lay up treasures on earth.  Wealth and want are tied together in Jesus’ words. Those whom Jesus criticized for their pious hypocrisy had money enough for finery and trumpets and public displays of generosity.  But the great majority who heard Jesus speak these words were very poor.  First-century Palestine was a subsistence culture. Most people barely scraped by.  Long hours of work left little time for prayer.  Most people earned hardly enough to keep food on the table and had even less to give away.  The poor who heard Jesus would have had no means to lay up treasures on earth if they had wanted to.  Yet to them Jesus said, “When you pray . . . when you fast . . . when you give alms.”   What might Jesus be saying about finding a deeper connection with God and each other in and through the scarcities in our lives?

Our society values strength, not weakness. Our culture teaches us to engage the world out of what we have in abundance, not out of what we lack.  During this season of Lent, might Jesus be inviting us as people of faith to be willing to meet God not where we are strongest, but where our own need is greatest?    Might Jesus be inviting us to draw from whatever scarcities mark our lives a greater compassion for others and a greater commitment to doing what is right?  Might there be a holiness which comes through acknowledging our mortality and our need?

This brings us in our liturgy to the linked realities of mortality and hope—and to the ashes which symbolize both.  From ancient times ashes have symbolized repentance and return to God.  Ashes were also used to acknowledge loss and as a sign of mourning, so that others who saw the ashes could share the grief and help carry the mourner’s load.  Ashes remind us of our mortality, the dust from which we come and to which we shall return.

I remember my first Ash Wednesday here at All Saints’ as a priest vividly.  When it came time to impose ashes, a woman came to the rail with a very young child in her arms.  I cannot remember now who they were.  I marked the mother’s brow with ashes then looked from mother to child then back again.  The mother nodded her assent.  It was a sobering moment to mark that very young life cradled in his mother’s arms and to speak the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  But seeing that young child in his mother’s arms was a reminder that his life and all our lives are God’s creation, that from dust God has made us, who will always be held in God’s embrace.

In her poem, “Blessing the Dust,” Jan Richardson said:

All those day

you felt like dust,

like dirt,

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 is made,

and the stars that blaze

in our bones,

and in the galaxies that spiral

inside the smudge

we bear.

In a moment our liturgy will bring us the invitation to come to receive ashes.  As you come, receive them as an acknowledgement of our sin and God’s forgiveness.  Receive them as a mark of our intention to live lives of inward holiness and outward service.  Receive them as a sign of our poverty and God’s gracious abundance.  Receive them as a reminder that we are dust.  But receive them, as well, to remember what God can do with dust.  Amen.

This entry was posted in Sermon. Bookmark the permalink.