Sermon for Ash Wednesday - March 1 2017

The Sermon for Ash Wednesday, Year A
March 1, 2017
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103:8-14; 1 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Soon we will be receiving ashes on our foreheads, and be reminded that “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Why do we do this every year? What is the significance of ashes?

In many cultures of the ancient Near East, including the one in which Jesus grew up, people would perform a number of rituals in times of grief and sorrow – cutting beards, tearing clothing, and pouring ashes on their heads.  These rituals are a way to embody grief, although in ways we in our own day might find rather embarrassing and overblown.  Giving free rein to our emotional depths is something our society tends to disdain.

But back in the day, emotional turmoil was much more public.  Just this morning I read a short meditation – the one for tomorrow - in the Lenten Meditations booklet 0 and you can pick up a copy from the back of the church if you haven’t already done so.

The author, Rachel Carnegie, writes of a woman who was dying from AIDS, and grooming her son to take care of the family after her death, but an accident happened, and he died before she did.  Ms Carnegie writes: “We say under the eaves of her thatched hut sheltering from the rain. We cried and prayed together.  In the midst of praying, we both had a sudden sense of our hearts burning within us – a feeling of the Spirit’s presence.  Other women in the community joined us in prayer.  Anna [the dying woman] still grieved, but she also felt a comfort in knowing that others would care for her orphans. She was not alone.  Our deep anxiety lifted.  We all had a sense that together, bound by love and mutual care, we could recover hope.”[1]

I don’t know whether in Uganda it is a custom to “heap ashes on one’s head,” as the expression is, but the very public nature of grieving is certainly an aspect of community life.

And ashes are a public ritual expression of our sorrow, grief, pain, and suffering.

Today, with these ashes, we acknowledge the distance between ourselves and God – ourselves individually and ourselves as a community.  In particular, we acknowledge the ways we create that distance: with our choices, with our ignorance, with our anger and resentment toward God and others, with our divisions and judgments – with and of others – or of our own selves.

The distance is not just from God – it is also from one another, from family, friend, neighbor, stranger, … and enemy.

On this day we acknowledge the ways we have desecrated what God has created and calls good.

On this day we acknowledge the ways that we have forgotten that Creation was made in love, for love, to love, and for care, fur us to care for and be cared for by.

On this day we acknowledge our death – of body, of spirit – and all the ways we harm ourselves and others.

On this day we acknowledge our privilege – a difficult thing to define or accept or understand because, for us, it is “the way of things.”

On this day we acknowledge our involvement in the oppression of others, in how we define and label, in how we paws over the need to consider how the ways we live, the choices we make, our silence, and our voices affect others.

On this day we acknowledge our own self-destructive tendencies, and our failure to care for our bodies, and our souls, and our spirits.

On this day we acknowledge all the things we wage constant battle against and have no power in ourselves to vanquish.

On this day we acknowledge the burdens we carry and can’t put down of our own means.

We acknowledge all these and more in the prayer of penitence, in our confession, and in the receiving of ashes, which are an outward and visible sing of our mortality, of our weakness, and of our need for God’s grace and forgiveness.

It’s quite uncomfortable acknowledging the burden of things done and undone, of things we’ve let be.  The burden may, at times, feel intolerable.  The words of absolution may, at times, seem faint, and hollow.

But I want to assure you, they are anything but.

Even at his death, the Lord Jesus Christ forgave.

God wills – always – to heal the divide, to mend the divisions, to cross the wide chasm between us, to bridge the rivers that separate us from God and from each other.

God wills – always – to restore and renew a sense of wonder and joy and hope.

God wills – always – to reassure us that in our insecurities, sorrows, guilt or pain, and that the Spirit joins our prayers in sighs too deep for words.

God wills – always – to reassure us that the Spirit’s power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

God wills – always – to tell us not that we are good so we shouldn't worry, but rather, that we have been given grace enough to stand with the oppressed, the outcast, the prisoner, the alien, the orphan, the sick, and the dying, in love and in hope and in joy.

So today, tonight, this week, this year … when failure or despair or guilt or fear or anger or resentment or division weighs upon your heart, and obscures the awareness of God’s love there is something you can do to open the door to God’s grace and mercy.

All may, none must, some should…

You have the option of making a private confession to your priest, or, as the Prayer Book calls it, engage in an act of reconciliation, and to lay down your burden, gaze across the chasm, and open your heart to receive God’s love for the restoration of your soul and your peace, to be secure in the unimaginable love of God for you, right now, right here, in this moment.

The Lord offers mercy; the church offers a path, the priest offers an opportunity, the Spirit offers grace, and the Father offers forgiveness.  Should you desire it.

Know that I am always available by appointment to walk this path with you.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Lenten Meditations 2017, Episcopal Relief and Development, Thursday, March 2, 2017

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