Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 6:3-10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21; Psalm 51

Two of my friends from seminary got married, and they now serve together at a couple of Episcopal churches down in McComb and Magnolia, MS. They have a little girl who’s almost five, and like most preacher’s kids, including my own, she spends a lot of time at church. A lot. These kids go to church armed with notebooks for drawing and books to read and the occasional Hotwheels car or Webkinz cat – anything to help pass the hours they spend sitting in church listening to their parents preach.

So my friends’ daughter was two years old and was at church…again…for Ash Wednesday. She went up with everyone else to receive her ashes – and what a sobering thing it is to smudge ashes across a child’s forehead and tell her, Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return – she went up with everyone else to receive her ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And in that particularly quiet and prayerful and somber moment, the whole church heard her exclaim, “Hooray! I love my ashes!”

How unlike most people who, once the ashen cross is drawn upon their foreheads, whisper a humble “amen” and bear on their faces a most sober expression, full of feeling sorry for whatever things they have done or left undone that might be called sins. It’s true, of course, that we all do things intentionally and unintentionally that hurt ourselves or others, and it is appropriate to reflect on those things from time to time and choose, if we are able, to make amends, to make things right. Every faith tradition has a season or an annual observance during which believers reflect on their sins and through prayer and action return to a right relationship with God and with others.

For us, for the Church, that season is Lent, forty days of prayer and action aimed at making things right. At the end of these forty days is Easter, when we believe God made things right by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, the resurrection made such amends that now nothing separates us from the love of God – not even death. For much of the church’s history, the season of Lent has been a sort of wilderness time, a challenging season of exploring the ways in which we have allowed things to get between us and God. Our Ash Wednesday liturgy is full of words like wrong-doing and sinfulness and mistakes and fault. It’s pretty serious stuff. Hooray?…I love my ashes…???

But there are also words like forgiveness and reconciliation and mercy and grace. In the wilderness of Lent we are invited to leave behind all those things that have gotten between us and God. Create in me a clean heart, O God, we will soon read together from Psalm 51. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right Spirit within me.

A clean heart. A right Spirit. How do we do that? We could start by rubbing these ashes off, right? If we’re trying make clean all those things that get between us and God, why would we smear our foreheads with soot? God’s heart and Spirit are clean, aren’t they? I mean, you never hear anyone saying to God, “Um, you’ve got a little something there, on your forehead, just there, looks like dirt…”

But then again... From the very beginning, when in the biblical story of creation God kneels down in the rich, dark soil and lovingly forms and shapes by hand a human figure and breathes the breath of life into it and calls it adamah, which is Hebrew for “dust”…adamah, Adam… From the very beginning God, the maker of heaven and earth, has had dirt and dust and ashes and soot not only on the forehead but under the nails and between the toes. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, and into the Christian testament, the story of God and adamah, God and dust, God and us, has been a story of being in relationship – not the long distance kind, but the sandbox kind, where we’re down in the dirt together forming and shaping our lives. Do you love your ashes yet?

Ash Wednesday is about remembering who we are – we are people made of dust and the breath of God, we are people made in the image of God, whose greatest love is getting down in the dirt and making something wonderful out of it. That’s why the prophet Isaiah tells us that making things right between us and God is not as much about how we pray as it is about how we live in this wonderful, dusty old world. Remove the chains of oppression, God says through Isaiah tonight. Work for justice and freedom. Share your food with the hungry. Open your homes to the poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear, and do not refuse to help your sisters and brothers, which is to say, all people.

As we journey through the season of Lent – as we journey through all the seasons of our lives – we are called not to wipe the dust off but rather to follow God’s example, to let mercy make a mess of things in a world that prefers those who are spotless. In everything we do, Paul writes, in everything we do we are to be working for God, getting dirt under our nails as we build real relationships with others in the sandbox and in doing so build a real relationship with God.

Remember that we are dust, we will hear as ashes are traced across the place where the sign of our baptism, our new creation, is…Remember that we are dust, adamah, and so, this Lent, to dust let us return – to the way God made us to be, let us return. Hooray! God loves our ashes! God loves our dust, loves us for all of who we are, smudges and all. Amen.

Artwork: Cross of ashes unknown; "Creation", by Linda Trinkle

1 comment:

Erica said...


Hey! Wow, great sermon! I just found your blog via your facebook page. I will definitely be coming back for some more inspiration. Thanks for the gift of your words. Hope to see you soon.