God remembers that we are dust, and that’s Good News! A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

As I was preparing for Ash Wednesday this year, I took the opportunity to reflect on my past observances of the day. That’s one of the wonderful things about the discipline of a blog. It’s something of a diary in which I reflect publicly on the liturgy, lectionary texts, and other matters, as well as posting all of my sermons. So I went back through the past few years since I’ve been at Grace, and even further. As I read, I remembered, not just the more recent Ash Wednesdays but all the way back to the very first service at which I presided as a lay person because the Rector of the parish had taken a new call and the Interim Rector was not yet in place.

Some of those years were memorable because of what was happening in the world around us. In 2003, it was the imminent invasion of Iraq. In 2011, as we knelt to say the litany of penitence during the 6:00 service, the square outside erupted in noise in response to the State Senate’s final passage of Governor Walker’s budget repair bill.

It may be quiet on the square today but still our hearts may be unquiet because of other concerns: the tense situation in the Ukraine, human suffering in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and elsewhere; and here at home deep, apparently insurmountable political conflict and worsening inequality. We also bring our own more intimate concerns: job loss, illness, loved ones, broken relationships, our doubts and fears. We’re distracted, too, by the fact that we’ve come here from work or school, from a day of errands. And some of us will go from here back to what we were doing, a desk full of work, or homework, or the myriad little details of daily.
In the midst of all of that busy-ness today, we’ve decided to pause for a few minutes, to hear and recite familiar, ancient words, to receive the sign of the cross marked with ash on our forehead, and to hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

That’s really what Lent is. Just as this service today marks an interruption in our daily routine, so too does Lent interrupt our daily lives and offers us an opportunity to take stock of ourselves, to remind us of who we are, and most importantly, to remind us of who God is.

Ash Wednesday lays us bare. The shock of a smudge of ash on our forehead and the ominous words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return,” cuts through all of our self-defenses, all of the images of ourselves that we project to the world and to ourselves, bringing us back to the fundamental reality, we are dust and ash.

It’s easy for us to focus on ourselves on Ash Wednesday—ashes, the litany of penitence, the prayers—all of it seems like an invitation to wallow in our sinfulness. Of course, it’s important to take a steely eyed, unemotional look at ourselves; but that’s not the end of the story. The liturgy, the prayers, the readings also remind us of God’s forgiveness, God’s grace, and God’s love.
But at the same time, for all that, Ash Wednesday reminds us of who God is and who we are in light of God. The collect of the day begins, “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent.” We are God’s beloved children, God’s creatures, even if we’ve been created from the dust of the earth.

The Psalm we just recited emphasizes God’s mercy:

For as the heavens are high above the earth, *
so is his mercy great upon those who fear him.
As far as the east is from the west, *
so far has he removed our sins from us.
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.

Just as we are told to remember that we are but dust, so the Psalmist says, God remembers that we are but dust. In our case, the reminder is so that we remember our mortality; that God remembers we are but dust is a sign of God’s care and mercy for us—extended to us because of our nature, our humanity, and our frailty, precisely because we are dust.

Therein lies the power of this day; the power of this smudge of ash on our foreheads. I know that many of us are uncomfortable with going through the rest of the day with ashes on our foreheads. We are uncomfortable with it because we hear Jesus’ words in today’s gospel, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…” He seems to be telling us not to make a display of our religious practice and faith. But I would point out first that his warning is not about practicing one’s faith but about doing it in order to be seen by others.

So, if you decide to wipe the ashes off your forehead as you leave the church, that’s OK; there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you decide to go through the rest of the day with those ashes on your forehead, that’s OK, too. You’ll likely forget about them until you get a quizzical look from the cashier while you’re standing in line at the grocery store, or a helpful colleague at work will tell you that you have something on your forehead. Ashes can be a witness, a sign of God’s grace.

For it’s not just a smudge on your forehead. It’s the sign of the cross, marked on your forehead just as when we baptize babies, trace the sign of the cross on their foreheads with the oil of chrism, and say, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever. We bear the sign of God’s powerful love carrying it into the world, offering it to everyone we meet.

The ashen cross is not just a sign of our mortality and need for penitence. It is also a sign of God’s grace and love, a sign of God’s forgiveness. To mark our foreheads with ashes is to remind ourselves and the world of God’s redemptive and gracious love, to remind us that God brings life out death, that God brings life out of dust. God remembers that we are dust and God’s mercy extends even to us.
Thanks be to God!

Lent, 2014: Resources

The liturgical calendar offers different ways to experience and worship through the seasons of the year. Christmas and Epiphany are seasons of celebration; the months after Pentecost, referred to by Roman Catholics as “Ordinary Time,” provide an opportunity to explore what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ in the humdrum of ordinary life. By contrast, Lent is a season of repentance and spiritual discipline. It calls us to take God seriously for a few weeks. Lent asks us to see ourselves in our vulnerable humanity as the words of Ash Wednesday challenge us, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

I hope that members of Grace (and readers of the blog) will endeavor this Lent to reflect and deepen our spiritual lives. There are many ways of doing this–by reading some work of spiritual significance, adopting spiritual practices like prayer and fasting, or following one or more of the many Lenten resources on the web.

At Grace, we’ll have a bible study on Wednesday evenings (March 12-April 9) focusing on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). You can find out more about it here, including some opportunities for following along on-line. If you can’t join us on Wednesday nights and would like to use the Sermon on the Mount for your own spiritual focus during Lent, I encourage you to get a copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship.

Maggie Dawn offers 40 ideas for observing Lent

Nadia Bolz-Weber and the Church of All Sinners and Saints offers 40 Ideas for Keeping a Holy Lent

Lenten Devotionals:

And, of course, in a category of its own: Lent Madness!

Lenten Study: The Big Class: Making Sense of the Cross with David Lose:

Description: Whatever we say about the cross, we are also saying about God. So what does the cross mean? What can it tell us about God? How can it help us approach, understand, and know God better? In Part One of this three-part series, David Lose invites us to consider that the best way to understand the cross is through experience.

Walking the Stations of the Cross with her 7-year old son

Miranda Hassett, Rector of St. Dunstan’s in Madison has a lovely, thoughtful post on her son’s participation in a recent Stations of the Cross. It’s here.

What did G do, while we were going around and reading the Stations? He stood with us -sometimes relatively still, sometimes hopping from foot to foot. Sometimes reading along in his booklet, sometimes flopping his booklet back and forth, sometimes holding his booklet over his face with just his eyes peering over. He wandered off and sat down on a chair, a rocker, the floor. He drew a cross in red marker on one page of the booklet. He gazed at the art. He breathed on the glass of the windows and drew crosses in the water vapor with his finger. He fell over, once. He peered into the faces of the two adults in the room, to try to figure out what we were thinking and feeling. Sometimes he read the responses with us; sometimes he missed them.

And – I know this because I’m his mom, and because at least half my attention was on him the whole time – he was tuned in, listening, taking it in and thinking about it, the whole time. He was wiggly and distracting and all over the place, but he was, in his 7-going-on-8 way, fully present. And, as I started to read Station 7, he said, “I’ll read the next one.” He read Station 8 and Station 10. He declined to read again, but the other adult encouraged him to read the last one, and he did. He read most of it from a seated position astride our (heavy, stone) altar rail.

She goes on to reflect on the inclusion of kids in worship. Read it.

Next Monday (the 25th), there will be a Stations of the Cross as a Witness against Violence (part of a nation-wide effort of the Episcopal Church) at St. Dunstan’s at 6:00 pm. More info here.

Mother Hens and Smoking Fire-Pots: A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, 2013

One of the interesting aspects of the season of Lent for me is that my earliest and in some deepest encounters with Lent came not through the liturgical cycle of contemporary Christianity, Episcopal or otherwise, but rather because I was trained as a historian of Christianity. Lent’s roots grow deep in the Christian tradition, dating back to the practices of early Christianity. In the fourth century, and perhaps earlier, it was common practice for baptism to occur primarily at the great Vigil of Easter, the wonderful celebration of Christ’s resurrection that begins in darkness on Saturday night, and traditionally ended at the first light of Easter Day. In preparation for baptism, those who had committed themselves to undertake initiation prepared by a season of fasting and learning. Continue reading

A word of forgiveness in Lent

I had one of those encounters yesterday that brought me up short. A homeless guy was hanging around the church after the early service and said he wanted to talk with me. There was something concrete I could help him with, but then he began telling me his story, telling me what burdened him. Many years ago, he had done something terrible to another human being and for all that time, his actions and what resulted from them preyed on him. He told me that he had asked God for forgiveness many times over the years, but that he couldn’t be sure he had been forgiven. We talked and prayed, and at the end of our meeting, I said the words of absolution while laying my hands on him:

Almighty God, have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, keep you in eternal life. Amen.

As I said them, I prayed that he might hear those words as words of consolation and forgiveness, words of assurance of God’s love for him. I hoped they could be words of comfort in the midst of a difficult life and at the end of a long road. As I said them, I thought of the Great Litany that we had recited earlier that morning. I thought too of Ash Wednesday with its litany of penitence. Ash Wednesday and Lent are times when we are encouraged to reflect on ourselves, our sins and shortcomings, repent of them, and seek God’s forgiveness. All of that can be hard work. It’s difficult to be honest with oneself, to admit one’s humanity, weaknesses, and faults. It’s difficult to repent of them—to say, yes, I’m sorry I’m that way, or that I’ve done those things. I’m sorry I continue to do them. It’s hard to lay oneself bare before oneself or before God.

But it’s also hard to ask for and accept God’s forgiveness. Sometimes that word of forgiveness is lost in the midst of our own pain and self-loathing. Sometimes the grace of forgiveness seems overwhelmed by our own suffering and the suffering we have inflicted on others. Sometimes, God’s forgiveness seems impossible. Sometimes we resist the amazing grace offered by God. Do the words of absolution, the offer of God’s forgiveness come as words of good news and grace in the midst of our lives? When we resist them, how can we open ourselves to the possibility that through God’s grace and love, we might experience new life in Christ?

The message of Ash Wednesday and Lent can be hard indeed, but harder still for us to hear and receive may be the message of God’s forgiveness. Lent should also be a time when our goal should be to experience that message fully. It should be a time when we open ourselves to the joy of God’s grace.

Ashes in the Public Square: What do they mean?

There’s a lively debate in Episco-land about the appropriateness of “Ashes to Go” an effort that began several years ago to bring the liturgy of Ash Wednesday into the streets. Here’s a press report from USA Today (last year).

Here are views from several priests. From Scott Gunn:

The world is more full of seekers and wanderers than it is of disciples. Our task, as Christians, is to share the Good News and preach a gospel of hope in a world without much real hope. If we limit ourselves to those who would cross our thresholds first, we will be limited indeed. The imposition of ashes is not a sacrament. One need not be baptized to receive them. And, it seems to me, the act of receiving an ashen cross and a reminder of one’s mortality is as good an invitation to repent as many will ever receive. That gray cross is a powerful sign, even when that’s all there is.

From Susan Brown Snook (she wants to take Easter to the streets, not Ash Wednesday):

But Ash Wednesday?  Surely there are more enlightening ways to touch people with God’s grace.  Leaving aside the facts Everett points out – that this quick “ashing” comes without repentance, and directly countermands what Jesus tells us to do in the Ash Wednesday gospel – that is, don’t wear your piety on your forehead for all to see and congratulate, but practice it quietly – there are other problems.  After all, what is the most immediate experience of getting “ashed”?  It is a reminder of our mortality:  Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

In past years, I’ve written about my own experiences sharing ashes on the sidewalk as well as my ambivalence about doing so.

As I’ve continued to reflect on it as well as on the arguments pro and contra, I’ve come to think about another aspect of the rite, the imposition of ashes, and of carrying around that sign of the cross on one’s forehead all day.

The liturgy itself focuses on our individual piety: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” But immediately upon departing the church, especially if we receive the ashes in the morning or in the middle of the day, that smudge on the forehead becomes a very public display. The gospel of the day cautions us against displaying our piety in public but unless we immediately remove it, the ashes will linger as a reminder to all of what we have done this day. It is a public act and whatever its meaning for us, people who encounter us throughout the day will also attach meaning to it.

This is where it gets interesting, especially in our current American context. With the public face of Christianity so often shaped by people who preach messages of hate, exclusion, and who claim to know what is true and right both for themselves and for the world, people who engage in culture wars over things like “Merry Christmas,” what does it mean to enter the public square with an ashen cross on one’s forehead? That sign of humility and repentance, borne in silence, can offer a powerful counter testimony to the loud and shrill voices of conservative Christianity. What might it convey to passers-by who struggle to make sense of their lives and are struggling to make ends meet? How might the sign of the cross help us bear our public Christian witness with humility, and grace, and repentance?

Even more, while the liturgy of Ash Wednesday, and certainly popular understanding of it, may tend to focus on individual acts of repentance, there is also in the liturgy a powerful communal aspect. The lesson from Joel emphasizes communal repentance: “Call a solemn assembly, gather the people.” My understanding of Ash Wednesday has been re-shaped by my experience observing it in the midst of Wisconsin’s protests two years ago.

There was a time when American civil religion involved public repentance–presidents, governors, legislatures would proclaim a day of prayer and fasting. No longer. If they do it today, they are likely ridiculed. As a society, we have lost the ability to repent. We lack appropriate rituals, even language for it. Public repentance is left to politicians or celebrities who have been caught doing something wrong, and for which they will publicly state, “I take full responsibility.,” and go about their merry way. The sinful acts we commit as a society, as a human race, go un-noticed and unconfessed. The very public act of bringing ashes out on to the street can be a prophetic act–a reminder to all those who pass by as they go about their daily business that there is a higher calling, a higher claim to our allegiance than the gods of money and power. It can be a call to our cities and our nation to repent of the sin and violence that occur in our midst and that we commit.

I think there may be no better message that we could proclaim in the public square, in 2013, than an invitation to a holy Lent, a call to repentance, and a reminder that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.”



Lenten Resources 2013

Lent is a week away. As observed in contemporary Christianity, it is a time for renewed focus on one’s spiritual life, an opportunity to explore more deeply Christian faith and to enter more deeply into one’s relationship with Jesus Christ. Many people adopt spiritual disciplines during the period of Lent, fasting or “giving something up.” Others take on spiritual disciplines–reading, a more regular prayer life, or making a retreat. The internet offers many innovative ways of observing Lent. Here are some I’ve found (I’ll continue to update this post in the coming week or so as I learn of new sites).

Lent Madness (Here’s a description of it; and here’s coverage of it from USA Today)

From Episcopal Relief and Development

The Huffington Post collected wonderful materials related to Lent last year. You can visit that site here. We hope they will do the same in 2013.

The Daily Office for your computer; and for your smartphone: St. Bede’s Breviary

Busted Halo’s online Lenten Calendar for 2013

Daily videos from the Society of St. John the Evangelist

And a plan for daily readings from the Church Fathers for the 40 days of Lent

From Nadia Bolz Weber: House of All Sinners and Saints’ 40 Ideas for Keeping a Holy Lent

From Episcopal Charities and Community Services (Diocese of Chicago): A Lenten Devotional Calendar

Symbols: Living and Dead–lectionary reflections for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

This week’s readings

Next Sunday’s gospel includes what is probably the most famous verse in all of scripture John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have everlasting life.”

I wonder whether Episcopalians, indeed anyone who isn’t an Evangelical Christian, can hear in those words the transforming and life-giving power of the gospel. Their ubiquity in contemporary culture (the placard with John 3:16) a fixture at sporting events since the early 1980s has numbed us to their power, and perhaps turned us off. During the Eucharist, when the moment comes for the “comfortable words,” I find myself avoiding John 3:16 and reading a different verse.

Words and images have power. Often that power comes not from what they refer or point to directly, but rather to associations we make with them. In the case of John 3:16, what comes to mind for me when I see that combination of word and number, is all of the ways Christianity succeeds in alienating people. After all, who, besides a Christian, would know the words to which John 3:16 points? To those who understand, the words may be life-giving, but to those not in on the language, they are meaningless. To the rest of us, John 3:16 is a dead symbol.

There’s a case before the European Court that tests the English government’s decision to ban the wearing of crosses by Christians. It’s a silly decision, on one level, for a cross on a chain is more a fashion statement than a faith statement, which is what the Archbishop of Canterbury seemed to be getting at. You can read about the controversy here.

So there’s John 3:16, a symbol of something, that is interpreted differently by different people. There’s another symbol in this week’s texts, that of the bronze serpent, which is lifegiving and life-preserving for the Israelites, and is used in the gospel of John as a symbol of Jesus Christ: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so too must the Son of Man be lifted up.” That bronze serpent became a symbol of something else over time, so that when King Hezekiah cleansed the temple in the 8th century BCE, he destroyed the bronze serpent which had become an object of devotion (II Kings 18:4).

Symbols are powerful and they are often powerful, or become powerful in ways that we who use them can’t imagine or expect. It’s easy in Lent, and especially as we move closer to Holy Week, to focus our attention on the cross. It is a symbol of our faith, a symbol of Jesus’ Christ’s suffering, but it can often allow us to ignore other aspects of our faith, other possible symbols, or the ways in which a symbol like the cross, can become embedded in a whole culture or web of meanings that we don’t intend. It sometimes seems like Lent and especially Holy Week, become a time when we worship the cross. I thought of that this afternoon as I began planning our Good Friday service, which includes the veneration of the cross.

The cross is not just about my (our sins), Jesus’ suffering, and the doctrine of the atonement. It is also about Roman power, and God’s love, or in the words of the collect:

You stretched out your arms in love on the hard wood of the cross, that everyone might come within reach of your saving embrace

The Sign of Jonah, Biblical Archaeology, and Lent

I came across an article broadcasting the latest “amazing find” in biblical archaeology–a report of the discovery of an ossuary with an image of a whale spewing something out, and an inscription suggesting something about revelation. The story of the discovery is actually quite interesting, involving a tomb that was first excavated in 1981, then sealed up because of a building constructed on top of it. Using a high definition camera, archaeologists were able in recent years to explore the tomb and make pictures of its contents. Images of the tomb are available here. I’m not qualified to comment on either the archaeology or the inscriptions, but if you want to know how scholars are reacting, the blog at the American Society of Oriental Research is the place to explore. Needless to say, they’re skeptical. And frankly, to me the image doesn’t much look like a whale or fish.

I’m more interested in the coincidence. Yesterday was Wednesday in the First Week of Lent and the daily eucharistic readings focused on the “Sign of Jonah.” We heard Jonah 3:1-10, the story of Jonah’s proclamation and Nineveh’s repentance, and Luke 12:29-32, Luke’s version of Jesus saying concerning the “sign of Jonah.”

For Luke, the sign of Jonah has nothing to do with his survival for three days in the belly of a whale, which was how Matthew used it and explains why Jonah became a popular iconographic image in early Christianity. Instead, what Luke cares about is the power of Jonah’s proclamation, and the response of Nineveh, both human and beast. Jesus contrasts that response with the response to his own preaching.

Lent invites us into repentance, but I’m not sure how comfortable we are with that idea in the twenty-first century. But if we think about it in somewhat other terms, as an opportunity or invitation to experience God’s power to change our lives (change your mind is the Greek root of “Repent”), we might be more receptive. What burdens do we carry with us? What habits, attitudes, past experiences and actions continue to weigh us down and prevent our full experience of the love of Christ?

Jesus used the “sign of Jonah” to point out the amazing power of the good news. Can we see in that message good news that can change our lives just as powerfully?