I preached the 6 PM service for Ash Wednesday today. I honestly wasn’t that happy about the sermon — it just didn’t seem to click for me, either in preparation or in delivery — but afterward, a couple of people came up and said that it was good and something they really needed to hear, so I guess you never know how it’ll be received. At any rate, for my own records, here it is.
A blessed Lent to all who celebrate it.
Ash Wednesday is an important day for me.
This was the first Christian liturgical holy day that I ever celebrated,
back when I was in college.
I still remember the overwhelming feeling inside me,
while I walked home afterwards.
I could feel the ashes on my forehead:
marking me for God,
and reminding me of my own need for repentance.
That day taught me the importance of embodied worship,
in a powerful and personal way.
It taught me the significance of letting our own bodies proclaim Christ.
So it’s in the context of that experience
that today’s Gospel reading seems a bit ironic.
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites,
for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. . . .
But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face,
so that your fasting may be seen not by others
but by your Father who is in secret.”
So we just heard that passage together,
and most of us are about to receive the imposition of ashes.
And a smudged black cross on your forehead
is pretty hard to keep a secret.
So this is one of the challenges of Ash Wednesday:
harmonizing this historic practice of the church
with the exhortation of scripture.
And today, the approach I would like to take is the question of community.
We’re used to many elements of the liturgy being communal.
We recite the Nicene creed as a community:
“We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty.”
We make our confessions as a community:
“We confess that we have sinned against You, God.”
But in the litany of sins that we’re about to recite,
that “we” might begin to feel a little uncomfortable.
Suddenly our sins aren’t just the generic “thought, word, and deed.”
They’re painfully specific.
We’ll confess our “prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us.”
We’ll repent from “our dishonesty in daily life and work.”
And I’ll be honest with you:
while I do try to be rigorous with my Ash Wednesday self-examination,
there have been parts when I’ve thought,
“Nope. I really haven’t done that particular one.”
Have you ever felt that way, too?
It’s easy to acknowledge the trivial sins we’ve committed,
like saying something rude to another driver,
when meanwhile we rest comfortably in the knowledge
that at least we haven’t committed the really bad ones.
That kind of attitude is why Jesus called those public penitents “hypocrites.”
They pretended to repent for sins,
without ever thinking that they’d done anything that bad.
But if you think that this Ash Wednesday service is harsh,
try listening to Yom Kippur,
the Jewish Day of Atonement.
In one of the key parts of the liturgy,
Jews attending the service pound their heart with their fist.
They confess to a host of sins, together.
[pound heart] Ashamnu — we have been guilty.
[pound heart] Bagadnu — we have betrayed.
[pound heart] Gazalnu — we have stolen.
[pound heart] Dibarnu Dofi — we have spoken slander.
On and on and on.
You say the confession —
“we have done this” —
whether or not you’ve stolen, or betrayed, or committed any of the other sins.
In this way, it’s like our Christian service.
The point isn’t just to think about how we messed up individually;
it’s to confess the wrongdoing of the entire people of God.
If any one of us is guilty,
then all of us are guilty as a community.
And in that light, I want to think about the ashes
that are about to be placed on our foreheads.
Those ashes are the burned remnants of last year’s Palm Sunday branches.
And that fact is a reminder to us.
On Palm Sunday,
the people of Jerusalem united as a community to welcome Jesus.
But just a few days later,
they would unite as a community to condemn him to death,
No one person was singlehandedly responsible for that death,
but it happened because of all their choices together.
we will wear the reminder of those choices.
We wear a reminder that because we, humanity, killed Christ,
each of us shares responsibility for that death.
See, our culture is oriented toward individualism:
we like to think that we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,
that we alone control our world.
But responsibility is not always individual,
and some of the most terrible crimes in history can’t be pinpointed on one person.
They can be crimes as dramatic as genocide and war,
or as quiet as someone dying alone and unloved in a nursing home.
We pray about these wrongs sometimes,
asking God to help the homeless and the hungry,
but praying is easier than thinking about our own responsibility.
If any one of us is suffering unjustly,
then all of us are guilty as a community.
And it’s tempting, sometimes, to think that these issues are secular concerns.
It can be tempting to label them as problems of modern society,
far from the faith life that we think that church should address.
But that’s not the Biblical view.
The alternate Lectionary reading for Ash Wednesday comes from Isaiah 58.
You didn’t hear it read earlier,
but I’m going to read a few verses from it now.
Isaiah starts off like the gospel reading:
“You serve your own interest on your fast day,”
“Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.”
And what follows is so relevant to us
that I don’t need to translate it at all for the “modern audience.”
“Isn’t the fast I choose:
To break the chains of wickedness,
to untie the ropes of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free,
and to tear off every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
to bring the poor and homeless into your house,
to clothe the naked when you see them,
and to not ignore your own flesh and blood?”
The issues that Isaiah raises are still true today.
Systematic corruption and oppression of the weak.
Children going hungry while others eat to excess.
Bitterness that splits families apart.
They’re the big problems of our world,
and Isaiah calls for us to wrestle with them.
No one of us can change them singlehandedly,
but when all of us tackle them —
young and old, women and men, just like the book of Joel says —
then our fasting and repentance can really be meaningful.
So where does that lead us?
My purpose today isn’t just to give you a big guilt trip.
I don’t want you to go home,
feel miserable for a few hours,
and go on with your life.
Repentance isn’t just about low self-esteem.
Joel makes it clear that the fundamental core of repentance
is the return.
“Yet even now, says the LORD,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.”
All the fasting and weeping and mourning are just the surface layer.
They’re outward evidence of our hearts being broken with regret.
The really important thing is the return.
What Jesus didn’t see in those hypocrites —
and what Jesus wants to see in us —
is the return.
So as we enter into this season of Lent,
and as we enter into this litany of penitence,
I want to invite you to read these words from a different perspective.
Not just “how have I exploited others”,
but “whom do we, as a community, allow to be exploited.”
Not just “how have I showed a lack of concern for those who come after me,”
but “when have we, as a community,
ignored the future repercussions of our behavior.”
Not just “how have I been been prejudiced against those who are different,”
but “how have we, as a community,
reinforced the divisions that label some people as less valuable than others.”
And then —
knowing the full magnitude of our own sins,
the sins of individuals and of a community —
I invite you to listen.
How is God calling you to repent from those sins and rebuild what was broken?
How is God calling us to repent and rebuild,
and what place do you have in that movement of the body of Christ?
I invite you to approach this painful, difficult, and dangerous task
with a spirit of hope.
Because the Easter hope that sustains us
is that God pairs every challenge with a promise.
The failed challenge of the old law
paved the way for Jesus’s promise of undeserved redemption.
And the Lenten challenge of reflection, repentance, return, and rebuilding
paves the way for a promise as well.
The promise is that when we do return in repentance for our sins,
then we can once again join God in building the Kingdom of Heaven.
And then, Isaiah says,
“our light will shine in the darkness,
and our night will be like noonday.
We will rebuild the ancient ruins;
we will restore the foundations laid long ago;
we will be called the repairers of broken walls,
the restorers of streets where people live.”
There are many broken walls in our community.
There are many streets where people are afraid to live.
So in humility, let us come before God in penitence,
asking to be shown the way to restoration.
Let us pray.
Oh Lord, the God Who Sees,
we ask that you see and hear our prayers of repentance today.
Grant that the ashes on our forehead would be a sign of penitence,
not of pride.
Give us eyes to see those wrong actions we have committed,
and as a community.
We come before you knowing the seriousness of our sins,
but trusting in the hope of your forgiveness.
In Christ’s name,