Marked and Cleansed – Ash Wednesday Homily on Psalm 51.1-12

Psalm 51.1-12

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore me to the joy or your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

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How would someone know that you’re a Christian? I think this is a very important question for us to ask ourselves on a regular basis. During a normal day, how would anyone know that we affirm Jesus as Lord, that we pray to God the Father, that we believe the Spirit is with us in all things? Maybe you wear a cross around your neck, though even that symbol has become so innocuous to the general culture around us. Maybe you bring your bible with you to work or public places and you are not afraid to spend some time reading from the good book in front of other people. I personally like to wear my clerical collar when I’m out in town because it helps to show others who I am, and frankly it forces me to act like a Christian in public.

When I became a pastor I was so excited to wear my collar for the first time, to walk around Staunton, and let it speak for itself. I imagined the conversations that would begin at one of our local coffee shops: “Sir, would you please pray for my wife, she just received some tough medical news.” … “Do you mind if I pull up a chair and ask some questions? I’ve always wanted to ask a pastor about the miracles from the gospels.” … “I’m new in town, would you be able to help me find a church community?” However, after being here for some time, I can share that most of the time no one notices. I’ve gone to a local bar with the expectation that people would hide their beer bottles behind their backs, but they just keep talking like normal. I’ve been shopping at the grocery store and prepared myself for random questions, but people just keep scanning the aisles on their own. I’ve sat down at a coffee shop with my collar on, and bible open, and almost no one has made mention of my vocation.

That was the case until last week.

I was sitting at a table alone working on a sermon when two women came in, ordered coffee, and sat at the table next to me. I’m not ashamed to admit that I often eavesdrop on the conversations around me. It’s not that I intend to, or have a problem with it, but most of the time the place is quiet enough that its impossible not to hear what people are talking about. I went to grab my headphones, in order to drown out their conversation, but I heard something that peeked my interest: “Being a pastor must be the easiest job in the world

I decided then that the sermon could wait, this conversation was too good to miss.

One of them continued, “Seriously! They get paid to act like the rest of us. I mean, how hard is it to write a sermon every week and visit old people? Being a Christian is so much harder than being a pastor. It must be the easiest job in the world.

Without thinking about what I was doing, I stood up, walked over to their table, and said, “You’re absolutely right. Being a Christian is harder than being a pastor. The church has expectations about the way you are supposed to behave, and I get paid to behave appropriately, I am a professional Christian. The only difference is this, everyone knows I’m a Christian, what about you?” I then packed up my things and left.

Today, above all days, is an opportunity for us to be marked and cleansed. In a short while, each of us will be invited forward to have a cross of ashes placed on our foreheads, a sign for us to carry around for the rest of the day. Today, wherever you go, people will know who you really are. 

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Do you know where the ashes come from? We save some of the palm branches from Palm Sunday, and we burn them down into ashes. The same palms that some of us waved last spring to welcome Jesus in Jerusalem have been placed in the fire, and will now adorn our heads. This is done as a reminder that our shouts of “hosanna!” can quickly turn to “crucify!” I can go from being a well behaved Christian, minding my own business at a coffee shop, to walking over to strangers and letting my passive aggressive side get the better of me. We use these ashes to mark and cleanse ourselves for the coming season of lent.

All of us are sinners, the young and the old, the weak and the strong, we all fall short of God’s glory. This season of lent is an opportunity to turn back to God and reorient our perspectives about the way the world truly works. For the coming weeks our prayers should be for wisdom, for God to purge from us all wrong desires and failures. This is the time for us to be bold in our faithfulness as we enter the community around us. Lent is the time for God to create in us clean hearts, to put new and right spirits within us. We begin here with the ashes, remembering our finitude, so that God might restore us to the joy of salvation, and sustain us with a willing spirit to be faithful in the world.

How would someone know you’re a Christian? Today, everyone will know just by looking at your foreheads. But, the ashes will eventually fade away; the cross will disappear. The challenge for us is to act like it’s still there, to live full lives of discipleship so that everyone might know who we are, and whose we are. Amen.

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Clean Hearts – Homily for Ash Wednesday on Psalm 51.1-12

Psalm 51.1-12

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and lot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

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You are dust, and to dust you shall return.

For the last thousand years, these words have been traditionally used for this particular day. A priest or pastor will place a finger in the ashes, making the sign of the cross on a forehead, while whispering the words “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

These are frightening words. We have gathered today to be reminded of our own finitude, to mark the beginning of our forty day observance of Lent, to engage in a period of prayer and fasting. This is a solemn event in the life of our liturgical church, for today we are being asked to think about our own mortality.

When I was in seminary one of my professors told me that the hardest thing about being a pastor is that I have to remind people that they are dying when everything and everyone else tries to claim the contrary. I have been given the unenviable task of proclaiming the true and deep message of Ash Wednesday; we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

Most of us tempted to believe that we are invincible and that life will never catch up with us. We are tempted to believe that death isn’t real. Countless commercials and products are advertised with the sole purpose of prolonging our inevitable end. Even here in church, we spend so much time talking about the joy and hope of God in the resurrection from the dead, that we fail to spend adequate time reminding ourselves of our own finality.

Today, as we take our first steps into Lent with the ashes on our foreheads, we are like the psalmist who cried out, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love… wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” This is a time for us to deeply reflect on the ways that we can be better, the relationships to reconcile, and the new habits to cultivate. Lent is less about giving something up, and more about reorienting yourself back to God in order to use this life that has been given to you. Our desire is for God to create in us clean hearts and to put a new and right spirit within us. We have been given the greatest gift, the gift of life. The question we need to ask ourselves is this, “What are we doing with that great gift?”

In our narthex there is a plaque hanging on the wall in honor of Zig Volskis, a beloved former pastor of St. John’s. On the plaque you will find these words: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” (Psalm 90.12). Life is a fleeting and precious thing, one that we should not take for granted. Let us all learn to count our days, to reflect on our many blessings, rejoice in the gift of life and let our lives be fruitful for those around us.

Death is a frightening thing. Contemplating our finitude and celebrating it in worship is by far one of the strangest things we do as a church. But in the end, we do it so that we may gain wiser hearts, so that God might sustain us in the midst of our sinful lives, and above all so that we can appreciate the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the glory of the resurrection. Let God use this Lenten season to help create in us clean hearts.

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My friends, you are dust, and to dust you shall return. For the next forty days we will rest in the shadow of the cross, but remember this, the glory of the resurrection outshines everything, even death. 

Amen.