Ash Wednesday Sermon

Ash Wednesday Sermon February 22, 2012

Pastor Lucy Waechter Webb

Psalm 22:22-31

22 I will declare your name to my brothers; in the congregation, I will praise you. 23 You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel! 24 For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. 25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you will I fulfill my vows.  26 The poor will eat and be satisfied; they who seek the LORD will praise him-- may your hearts live forever! 27 All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, 28 for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations. 29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;  all who go down to the dust will kneel before him-- those who cannot keep themselves alive. 30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. 31 They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn-- for he has done it.


Ash Wednesday is one of those darker days in the church calendar. It’s a day when we are called to remember our own mortality, to pay attention to death. It’s a reminder that we have been created out of meager dust, and that despite our beliefs about our own godliness we will again return to the dust one day.

We don’t readily talk about death with each other, or our experiences of it.

On Monday night, I led our Fireside group in a conversation, and we shared stories from their lives about death, and how those deaths have impacted and changed our own lives. And one person shared a story that night about having to attend an orientation for something right after a family member died. And she said, it was hard you know, because nobody wants to be the kid crying in the corner.

We assume no one else wants to hear it, we’d rather not remember, and it’s so much easier to talk about life. But death is there. It’s here. It’s real. It’s can be painful. It can be peaceful. But it is inevitable.

Ash Wednesday can also be one of the more embarrassing days for Christians, I think. It’s rare that we wear our faith in a visible way, except perhaps for an uplifting scripture on a t-shirt, or gold cross on neck. This day we put ash on our skin, and we walk out of this sanctuary into a world trying to always cheat death. A world trying desperately to move away from it. A world that tries not just to avoid it, but conquer it.

Face creams that make us look younger, we like to say pass on, rather than die. In fact someone who taught me pastoral care, challenged me to think about not using those euphemisms, but saying the word, die or death.

And so it can be embarrassing, right, I have been before, to walk out with this visible, dark, blotch on your face, proclaiming that you know one day you will die.

It’s a day when we get really honest in the church. Not just about the good news, but also about the bad news.

And so naturally most people associate this day with confession, repentance, penitence. And we will, together, confess our brokenness to God before we receive ashes tonight.

It is a spiritual practice for us, to confess,  not for God, for us.

To kneel in humility and extend our dark truths up to God in prayer.

But that is where we begin. Death is often the end of a story. But here, it is the starting place, for this season. And it begins with confession, a hard gesture for us to muster. Really all it ultimately is is naming the truth, the reality that we see right in front of us, that things are broken. We are broken.

It is the place we start tonight, and this day is one that marks the beginning of a season that then journeys toward the good news. The resurrecting truth that lifts us off our knees and into new life. This day shamelessly claims our broken identities, pushing us to recall that grace comes only after our need for it. Because in order to heal, we must first be honest about being sick, hurting, and in pain.

And we’re tired of only treating the symptoms. We’re tired of the band-aids and aspirin, of slapping smiles on our face and reading the latest self-help book, medicating with things that only make us feel temporarily good.

We want to make the hard decision that it is time for surgery.

But there’s never a good time to schedule surgery, right? It’s always hard to find the time to take off of work, miss a week or three of classes. The weather isn’t right for your rehabilitation, or the budget not there to pay for it. I’ll just keep on with the medication and my cortisone shots for now.

Friends, Ash Wednesday interrupts those excuses. Saying, it’s time. It is time to heal. And invites us into a season to do that, not just a day, but a whole season, recognizing that this just doesn’t happen quickly, healing takes time. And so we enter a season of repentance.

I want to pause here and talk for a moment about the difference between confession and repentance. You see we start with confession, we start by naming, admitting, the times we have not been well, not done right, not acted as God calls us to act.

And then we repent. Which sometimes we think also means to confess. The word in the English dictionary is linked to emotion, to “feel remorse, be sorry, to have shame”. But we have made the word too simple in English and lost the complexity that both the Hebrew and Greek words offer us. So stick with me here. In Hebrew, the word is “shoove” and can mean either to turn, or the return. Has anyone heard this before?

Ok, in Greek, the word is metanoia, which sounds like familiar word to us….(used often to talk about a caterpillar turning into a butterfly). Which means to transform, or more literally to think differently after, to change, to think or be different after

We’ll get there after Easter when we talk more about what it means to be a resurrection people.

So repentance, to turn, to change, be transformed, to think differently after…confession? The Psalm today says… “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord.”

The season of Lent is about turning. Repentance. It begins with confession, yes, but then after (metanoia, right?) we turn. Turn toward God, toward transformation, toward life, toward fullness, toward wholeness.

If you turn….that means we’re also probably turning away from something too. It’s like that saying, “Every time one door closes another opens.” So while we turn toward God, toward life, Lent may mean turning away from something for each of us.

Often we “give up things”. Chocolate, TV, facebook, alcohol, eating out, sugar, pop, meat, shopping, swearing – people have found countless things to sacrifice during the season of Lent. In Hebrew scriptures, people sacrificed, gave up, burnt offerings to please God. To confess and repent their wrongdoing. What is interesting is that their sacrifices were things they needed for life. They gave up a fully fatted calf! A huge source of nutrition for the community. They gave up what they needed most because they trusted that God was actually the source of life. It was an display of trust in God. Reorienting themselves toward what or who actually gives life. A refocusing on the divine.

It wasn’t about deprivation for the sake of suffering. It was not punishment for sin. Because God is about giving us life, do you believe that? We just get mixed up about what that means sometimes.

So perhaps as you walk into this season, you will ask yourself the question, “What will give me life? What will help me to heal? And as you begin to answer those questions, you may discover that in order to do those things, you have to give up something else that doesn’t bring as much fullness into your life.

Our staff shared stories yesterday about how we have thought about Lent in our lives, and for some of us we gave up something like chocolate, speeding, meat, for some we added something into our lives, the practice of writing, reading scripture, walking with a friend, and for others it meant asking how I share what they already have with others. So that as they are giving up, sharing my own resources, but they are also gaining faithfulness, relationship, communion with others as I do that.

Don’t worry about timing. If this is the first moment you’re considering how you might practice Lent in your own life, that is spectacular. You don’t have to make a rash decision tonight and set yourself up for failure when you don’t follow through. Maybe this season of Lent is one where you simply consider these questions every day – and at Easter you make a new commitment. Maybe you find half way through, that there is something you can walk away from, something you can bring into your life, a practice you might consider. Start there, it may be tonight, or two weeks from now, four, or the day before Easter. The point is, to turn. Or to return.

Before I close let me share one story from my own life about a turn. It’s connected to the season of Lent, because it’s about what I have traditionally given up most in the past, some kind of food. I have give up refined sugar, just chocolate, pop, fatty foods, and all in the name of spiritual discipline, and all really because it was good excuse to diet.

I was unsatisfied with my body, and if I couldn’t motivate myself to change it, perhaps God, or Lent would.. And you can guess, that most of those seasons were not particularly beneficial for me physically or spiritually.

And then, about two years ago, I read a book that changed my perspective entirely on how I understand body and how it’s connected to my spirit. And it was the end of deprivation, the end of sacrificing good food in the name of vanity, and it was the end of gluttony, or the use of food to attempt healing. I began to pay attention, to listen to my body, often first through prayer, and feed and care for it when I needed it, and feed and care for my spirit, when it needed me. And my whole self turned at that point. It turned away from an unhealthy notion of beauty, of healthy body, of shallow pleasure in the greasy plate when my heart needed the attention instead. And as a result my spirit got healthier, my body healthier, and my whole self was more involved, paying attention to God, more involved in prayer, and more whole.

It was a turn, I’m not complete yet, right? Our theme this month is closer to complete, not being complete. But I did turn…closer.

So as we close this service with the imposition of ashes, a seemingly dark and morbid gesture, remember that yes, we will all return to God’s beloved dust. But God chose to  breathe glorious life not into the diamonds, gold or beautiful minerals of creation, but into the dust of the earth. So too, can God breath life into the darkest places of our lives. And when it happens, we turn. And return. To face our creator, to face each other, to live more fully, more faithfully as God’s beloved.