Dust, Ashes, and God’s steadfast love: A Homily for Ash Wednesday, 2019

I have been surrounded by death the last few months. There was the death of my mother before Christmas, and two funerals at Grace in recent weeks. Yesterday morning, I visited someone in hospice care and we talked about death as I prayed and read Psalms with her. After that visit, I came to the church and burnt the dried palms from last year’s Palm Sunday and prepared the ashes that I will use to mark the sign of the cross on our foreheads and say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This is now my tenth Ash Wednesday at Grace and I’m increasingly conscious of those people whose foreheads I daubed with ash and said, “Remember that you are dust…” and who in the years since, I’ve said while committing their remains to their final resting place, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Of all the intimate and powerful acts I perform as a priest, there may be none so intimate or powerful as what I do today, for as I say, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return…” I am saying it as much to myself as to you.

In our culture, we do almost everything we can to avoid talking about, thinking about, or being near, death. We don’t even use the word—someone has passed, they don’t die. We go to extraordinary lengths to avoid looking old, spending billions on cosmetic surgery to look young. We are so averse to speaking about death that we’ve invented a word, “cremains” so we don’t have to confront the reality of ashes.

But then we come hear and have our foreheads smudged with ashes and hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

To face our mortality with honesty and admitting our vulnerability is no easy thing. But it is an important first step in the work we need to do. Lent is a season of repentance and spiritual discipline. But to ask God’s forgiveness, to receive God’s forgiveness requires that we first admit who we are, acknowledge our sin and brokenness, open our selves and our hearts to God’s redemptive and forgiving grace.

We see that in Psalm 51, which we will recite together later. It’s a psalm of repentance but as the psalmist acknowledges his sinfulness and prays to God for forgiveness, there’s a moment when the tone changes:

Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
that the body you have broken may rejoice.

 

It is only through such confession, and honesty about oneself, that one can fully experience the joy of God’s forgiveness.

There’s another image that haunts me each Ash Wednesday, a verse from the Joel reading, “Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.” My attention was first drawn to it years ago by Tom Davis, a priest who has himself now entered the larger life, as we were preparing for services at St. James, Greenville.

The image of priests weeping between the vestibule and altar, or as we might say, between the sacristy and the altar haunts me because it evokes a moment of intense repentance and it goes against the priestly decorum we display and that is expected of us. In the larger passage, the prophet Joel is talking about an imminent catastrophe, a natural disaster, a plague of locusts that has come upon the land and destroyed the crops. Interestingly, he does not attribute this natural disaster to punishment for the evil of the people. He offers no explanation for the coming destruction.

But he does offer hope: “Return to the Lord…”

The prophet continues:

Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.

As we confront our mortality this day, as we remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return, as we confess our sins, and acknowledge our brokenness, as we weep between the vestibule and the altar, may our broken bodies and spirits be filled with the joy of God’s forgiveness, and know the immeasurable power of God’s loving grace.

 

 

 

 

 

A Broken Nation, A Broken World, Our Broken Hearts: A Homily for Ash Wednesday, 2018

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.

Poetry for Ash Wednesday: “Lent” by George Herbert

Welcome dear feast of Lent: who loves not thee,
He loves not Temperance, or Authority,
But is composed of passion.
The Scriptures bid us fast; the Church says, now:
Give to your Mother, what you would allow
To every Corporation.

*  *  *

It ‘s true, we cannot reach Christ’s fortieth day;
Yet to go part of that religious way,
Is better than to rest:
We cannot reach our Savior’s purity;
Yet are bid, Be holy ev’n as he.
In both let ‘s do our best.

Who goes in the way which Christ has gone,
Is much more sure to meet with him, than one
Who travels the by-ways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn, and take me by the hand, and more
May strengthen my decays.

Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin and taking such repast
As may our faults control:
That ev’ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlor; banqueting the poor,
And among those his soul.

A White Lent

1. Now quit your care
And anxious fear and worry;
For schemes are vain
And fretting brings no gain.
To prayer, to prayer!
Bells call and clash and hurry,
In Lent the bells do cry
‘Come buy, come buy,
Come buy with love the love most high!’

2. Lent comes in the spring,
And spring is pied with brightness;
The sweetest flowers,
Keen winds, and sun, and showers,
Their health do bring
To make Lent’s chastened whiteness;
For life to men brings light
And might, and might,
And might to those whose hearts are right.

3. To bow the head
In sackcloth and in ashes,
Or rend the soul,
Such grief is not Lent’s goal;
But to be led
To where God’s glory flashes,
His beauty to come nigh,
To fly, to fly,
To fly where truth and light do lie.

4. For is not this
The fast that I have chosen? –
The prophet spoke –
To shatter every yoke,
Of wickedness
The grievous bands to loosen,
Oppression put to flight,
To fight, to fight,
To fight till every wrong’s set right.

5. For righteousness
And peace will show their faces
To those who feed
The hungry in their need,
And wrongs redress,
Who build the old waste places,
And in the darkness shine.
Divine, divine,
Divine it is when all combine!

6. Then shall your light
Break forth as doth the morning;
Your health shall spring,
The friends you make shall bring
God’s glory bright,
Your way through life adorning
And love shall be the prize.
Arise, arise,
Arise! and make a paradise!

A Lenten carol written by Percy Dearmer. I’m grateful to Thinking Anglicans for drawing my attention to it. It’s lovely because of its quite joyful evocation of the beauty of springtime. And it is powerful in shifting the focus of Lent away from personal piety toward works of justice. I’ve borrowed the text from A Clerk of Oxford

 

Just Mercy: A Homily for Ash Wednesday, 2016

 

“The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness” Psalm 51: 9

I’ve been reflecting on mercy these past few days as I’ve made my preparations for Ash Wednesday and Lent. On Thursday evening a week ago, I sat in this nave with more than a hundred people, state senators and reps, as well as legislative staff, clergy, family members, advocates, men and women who had been incarcerated, as we listened to stories and statistics about the broken prison system in our state. Teenagers sentenced to life imprisonment; men who had spent decades in solitary confinement, those eligible for parole who had been denied it again and again, it’s a horrible litany of injustice.

We are a merciless people, a merciless nation. It’s not just that we confine millions to prison with no possibility or hope of restoration to society or their human flourishing; it is that we condemn millions who live among us to lives of hardship and need. We worship success, the almighty dollar, celebrity, and all those who fall short of those impossible ideals are barely noticed. And we seek and revel in the downfall of our celebrities. Continue reading

The oddness of ashes: A Homily for Ash Wednesday, 2015

Yesterday, as I burned last year’s leftover palms from Palm Sunday and ground them into ashes, I reflected on the strangeness of my actions and the strangeness of Ash Wednesday. I thought about ashes.

There was a time in human history and culture when ashes were ubiquitous. Indeed, from the very beginning of human civilization, ashes have been present. Ever since humans discovered how to make fire, our lives, our homes, our culture, has been surrounded by ashes. There are many places in the world where that is still the case, but not in twenty-first century America. Ever since the arrival of electricity and central heating, ashes have increasingly vanished from our ordinary experience. Think about it. How often have you encountered, touched, ashes in the last year? If you have a woodburning fireplace or wood stove, if you use a charcoal grill, if you go camping and build a campfire, you have to deal with ashes. But otherwise, they simply don’t enter into our daily lives and consciousness.

How different that is from what lives must have been like 150 years ago, or still are, in less-developed countries. For nineteenth century American housewives, ashes were probably one of the great enemies, threatening chaos and dirt throughout the house and yard. London used to have the nickname “The Smoke” because of the blanket of soot and ash that covered the city. Ashes were everywhere.

As a priest, in addition to preparing ashes for Ash Wednesday and making the sign of the cross on your forehead in ash, there is one other way in which I encounter and experience ashes. That is when I place the ashes of a deceased person in an urn before placing it in our columbarium, or when I pour someone’s ashes directly into the ground. For me there is no more intimate, no more holy, no more priestly act than that. And it probably explains why I took the time last week to drive down to Chicago to inter the ashes of one of our members in a Chicago cemetery.

As we placed her urn in the ground, I said,

Thou only art immortal, the creator and maker of manknd; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and unto earth shall we return. For so thou didst ordain when thou created me, saying, “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

When I attend to the ashes of a dead person, I am caring for her as Christians have cared for the dead for two thousand years. I am ministering to the body of someone who lived, loved, had all of the emotions and experiences humans do, suffered and struggled, wept and rejoiced. I am preparing her body for the next stage of her journey, a stage that will end when she is raised from the dead, body and soul reunited, and she becomes a new creation, a new being fully alive in the presence of God.

I know, too, how powerful the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” I had a chance conversation with a parishioner yesterday who told me about the first Ash Wednesday service he attended, when he was in boot camp and the Catholic Chaplain, aided by an enlisted assistant, imposed ashes on the recruits. I remember as a layperson, hearing those words and receiving the ashes on my forehead. I remember the power of the words, as well as the awkwardness of that smudge of ash.

I know, too, how powerful and intimate it is to put my thumb on your foreheads, brushing aside your hair, and saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

I know the temptation to make Ash Wednesday all about us, about our humanity and mortality, about our sin. There is something powerfully individualistic about it all, something that turns us in on ourselves, to focus on our sin, our venality, our failures, our brokenness; to think about God’s judgment on us. There’s a temptation even to wallow in it, to beat our breasts.

What makes it worse is that our lessons, especially the reading from Isaiah and the gospel, call into question our motives and actions today. “Beware of practicing your piety before others, to be seen by them…” We’re told to fast and pray in private, not to let our left hand know what our right hand is doing, then we come forward, have ashes smeared on our foreheads and go from this place about our daily business. What’s more ostentatious, more obviously pious than to walk around all day with a smudge of ashes on our foreheads? Isn’t that sort of behavior just what Jesus seems to be criticizing here?

Some of us might want to wipe the ashes off of our foreheads as soon as we leave the church; some of us might struggle with our motives for receiving and wearing ashes. How you respond to these issues has a great deal to do with how this day and this rite have affected you in the past, how comfortable you are with odd stares from passers-by, and whether you imagine that wearing an ashen cross is more about you than it is about God.

For all the self-reflection and self-examination of this day and the season of Lent, for all the focus on our sins and shortcomings, however appropriate such things might be, appropriate, and necessary. Ash Wednesday and Lent are not just about us; they are also, and primarily, about God.

I don’t know if you noticed the verses in the psalm we just read that gets at this point and puts everything we do today in proper perspective:

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.

He himself knows whereof we are made; he remembers we are dust. What comforting, what gracious words! They take us back to the very act of creation. We are told in Genesis 2 that God fashioned us from the dust of the ground. God knows what we are and who we are. God knows us more intimately and more completely than we know ourselves. And what’s most remarkable, the fact that God knows this is evidence of God’s love and care for us. The ashes are a sign to us and to the world of God’s care and love for us and for all human beings.

For it’s not just a smudge of ash on our foreheads. I mark your foreheads with my thumb, using the very same gesture I use when I make the sign of the cross with oil during baptism. Then I say, “You are sealed with the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”

You carry that sign of the cross on your forehead every day of your life, even if it is invisible. For one day a year, perhaps only for a few minutes, you have on your forehead a visible sign of the cross, marked in ash. It’s a reminder of our humanity and morality. It’s also a reminder of our origins, in God’s creative love. It’s a reminder to us, of God’s love for us and for the world and an opportunity to share the knowledge of that love with everyone we meet. Thanks be to God!

 

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!