There may be no day quite like today. It is a day on which the church observes one of its most solemn days, certainly its most penitential days as we mark our foreheads with ashes and begin the season of Lent. All the while, around us in the secular world, and in our own lives, many of us will go about the business of Valentine’s Day, celebrating love and relationships, enjoying romantic dinners, and above all, chocolate.
And while our minds may be elsewhere, thinking of Valentine’s hearts, in a few minutes we will read together the words of Psalm 51:
“The sacrifice of God is a broken spirit,
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
There’s nothing wrong with that juxtaposition. There’s nothing wrong with coming here on this day, reciting the powerful words of the litany of repentance and Psalm 51, hearing the words that I will say, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” and returning to your daily lives and relationships. We live complicated and conflicted lives and even as we seek to grow spiritually, we also have jobs, and families, and relationships, and other matters that demand our attention and time.
I began writing this homily yesterday and continued working on it this morning, thinking about the challenges of understanding ourselves as we stand before God on this day. We are called to remember who we are, that we are dust and to dust we shall return, that we are created by God, in God’s image, yet that we experience ourselves as fundamentally broken, far short of the human beings God intends us to be, needing not only to confess our sins and repent, but to experience God’s never failing grace and mercy, and God’s power to remake us, recreate us, in God’s image. To use the language of Psalm 51 that we will recite in a few minutes:
Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure,
Wash me, and I shall be clean indeed;
Blot out all my iniquities,
Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me.
I was writing these words, pondering the meaning of this day as I heard reports of yet another mass shooting at a school in Florida. According to the Gun Violence Archive, this is the thirtieth mass shooting in the US this year, the 9th mass shooting at a high school.
And as I reflected on this horror, on our willingness to stand by as we watch the carnage, I turned from the penitential psalm 51, to the more ominous words of Joel. We are, as a nation, a culture, a people, at, or even beyond, a turning point. With the violence and hatred in our midst, the racism, the attacks on immigrants, the sexual assault allegations that have struck at Hollywood, Corporate America, the Church, and yes, the White House, we are witnessing the collapse not only of our institutions, but of our moral fiber, our civil society. We have never been in more need of the message of Ash Wednesday, never more in need to be honest with ourselves as individuals and as a nation, that there is evil at our very heart, evil we need to repent and turn away from.
There are in these two readings two very powerful verses that move me deeply—the first is from Joel,
“Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.”
There have been times over the years that I have been nearly in tears as I approached the altar—times of personal crisis, tragedy in our congregation or in my own family. But more often I have been near tears because of events in our community, nation, or world. Sometimes, the tears were tears of grief or mourning, often, especially recently, they have been tears of anger and frustration. Such tears can be a sacred response to events in our lives and world—the tradition of lament, of calling out to God in times of distress, and giving voice to our doubts, fear, and anger is one of the most familiar forms of the Psalms. We see some of that language here in Psalm 51.
But the other powerful verse that has deeply moved me over the years, perhaps entered into the marrow of my faith, my understanding and experience of God, is from Psalm 51:
Make me hear of joy and gladness, that the body you have broken may rejoice.
For me, this verse speaks not only of suffering and lament, of the consequences of sin, and the effects of punishment, but that in the crucible of this experience of sin, repentance, and forgiveness, we come, at the end to a place of joy and gladness, having experienced the miracle of God’s forgiveness, grace, and steadfast love.
We lament a nation that will not protect its children from the gun violence and hatred. We mourn the senseless and meaningless of so many; grieve the trauma of those who survived shootings and will be forever marked deep in their souls by the horror. There is so much in our world and nation that we regret, and mourn, and lament.
Sometimes, our faith falters, we wonder whether God still hears our prayers or acts in our world. Sometimes, our words seem empty, our gestures meaningless, the knees we bend in supplication futile attempts to invoke God’s mercy and action. Sometimes, perhaps most of all today, we identify with those hypocrites whom Jesus criticizes for making a show of our fasting, for drawing attention to our almsgiving, for praying publicly and loudly.
This day, of all days, calls us to remember—who we are, where we came from, whose we are. Today is a day to remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Today is a day to lament, and weep, and mourn, a day to grieve for the dead and injured, to pray for those whose lives have been shattered by gunfire.
Today is also a day to repent, to ask God’s forgiveness and to experience God’s love, grace, and mercy. I hope that this evening as we remember that we are dust, and ask God’s forgiveness for our sins, that we experiencing the transforming power of God to remake us in God’s image that our broken bodies may rejoice.
May this day, may this Lent be a time when we experience anew God’s power to transform and change us, and being changed, may we help God bring change to this broken and sinful world.