Being Decent on Ash Wednesday
Sermon #294 St. Martin’s #52 2/22/23
We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,
"At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you."
See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see-- we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
May I ask, “What are you doing here?”
Of all the places to be this Wednesday: why here? Why now?
You very well haven’t come here today for a good ole pick me up. Ash Wednesday is not known for giving off a warm and fuzzy feeling—actually there’s nothing sentimental about it at all.
It’s quite stark if you think about it. There’s all this talk about sin and repentance; the collect we just prayed even said, “We, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness.” Somehow the Prayer Book has a way of even making “wretchedness” sound poetic.
But even so, we can’t get around the somber nature of this day with all the dust and ashes flying around. This is serious stuff we’re talking about.
And so, I really am curious, why are you here?
Longing for Reconciliation
I wonder, if part of the reason you have found yourself in a church today has to do with what Paul tells the Corinthians. “Be reconciled to God,” he says.
I think there is something deep within us that longs to right the wrongs in our life, to make amends, to find forgiveness that will ultimately lead to peace and wholeness within ourselves and the relationships we have.
We all have moments in our lives when we stop in our tracks and reflect on who we are and how we got to this point in our lives. We may even ask, “What is our legacy? How has our childhood dreams come to fruition in adulthood, or worse, how have they not?”
Some of us—most of us—may even be stuck in our failures—all the things we could’ve done or should’ve done. No matter how good our life has gone, there is still this small voice in the back of our head reminding us of where we have fallen short.
And in our most gut wrenching and honest moments with ourselves we long for the peace that can only be brought about through reconciliation with the people in our lives…and ultimately with God.
“We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
The 20th century Danish writer Johannes Jorgensen had this lingering feeling in his own life. In his biography he describes wanting to put his life in order, “to settle up with the past and make up the books” (86).
This nagging feeling led him one day into a quiet and cold, Catholic church. After a long conversation with the priest, he was set on making his confession in a few day’s time back at the church.
In the following days, he thought a lot about his past—even those parts he was ashamed to talk about in polite company. But this all came from his desire to make amends with God—he wanted to take a good, hard look at himself.
In one of the rooms of his home, he spread out letters and photographs from the last fourteen years of his life, so many memories came flooding back to his mind. He had lived an extraordinary life, filled with so many interesting people and places.
But as he looked a little closer, he realized this was the first, honest evaluation he had done on himself. He remarked about his past, “At that time I always thought I was right. Now I see how I was in the wrong, how hideous, how mean. How petty and exacting I was. To think that I was tolerated at all…My life has been childish—and shameful. The egoism of a boy” (86, 87).
A few days later he was chatting with an old friend who was curious about his newfound faith, but his friend was perplexed at all this talk about his sin as if he was some notorious criminal. Snap out of his, his friend told him, you really haven’t been any worse than the rest of us, and really, how bad have we been?
To this Jorgensen replied, “Perhaps not. Perhaps we were decent men—as decent men go, and as most decent men are. But how was it, oh decent man, that time in your wild youth, long before you became a bank director or co-partner in the firm…? Deep down in the past, far down amongst the dead years, is not something stirring there—like a pale worm” (87)?
With this rather sobering epiphany Jorgensen realized that his life was not enough for him, and that if it was weighed in the scales of existence, it would have been found wanting (89).
But he is not the only one who has felt that way.
There’s the story of another man who shares this similar feeling to Johannes Jorgensen. He’s another decent man as decent men go, but then he failed on a grand scale—one that was the talk of the town.
Many would’ve claimed that he had everything he ever wanted. He came from nothing and had risen to glory and fame and wealth like few in his time.
But he got cocky and comfortable, and as so many who get wrapped up in themselves do, he lost his way. He cheated on his wife, and from that one sin then multiplied a handful of others.
Finally, someone had the nerve to confront him, and made him look in the mirror. As this man looked back on his life, he like Jorgensen, wanted to make amends.
From somewhere deep in his soul he longed for reconciliation.
If you haven’t guess it, I’m talking about King David.
In a few moments, (we are going to say together/the choir will chant) Psalm 51. And this is the psalm David prayed after the Prophet Nathan called him out for committing adultery with Bathsheba and then sending her husband to the front lines to die.
Even a decent man and successful king was weight down by his sins.
It is clear, that David did not want to be defined by his past sin, and he longed to be restored and made whole by his Creator. And from that feeling, came this beautifully honest prayer to God:
“For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you only have I sinned.”
And what may be even more shocking than his desire for God’s forgiveness, is that David actually believed that God wanted him back. After all that, David trusted that God still desired to be with him, as much of a failure as he was.
He pleaded to God, “Cast me not away from your presence and take not your holy Spirit from me.” It’s absolutely remarkable.
Maybe you have come out of habit today, but for many of us, may I venture to say that there is something stirring deep within us that has brought us here, whether we are conscious of it or not.
Today is a wake-up call, an opportunity to be honest with ourselves, with God, and even those in the pews next to us—worship is a communal action, after all.
I believe this kind of honesty that we find with the likes of Danish writers and Jewish kings is an essential a part of the path of reconciliation with God and our neighbor.
Honesty is without a doubt the first step on this Lenten journey.
How the Church marks this honesty is with ashes—we are reminded what we are in the most elemental way possible—we are simply dust and ashes. We are feeble and frail because we are mortal, made of dust and clay.
In a few moments, we will come up to the altar rail to receive this humbling reminder, but notice that we do something strange in this service. We then invite you to come up a second time.
If the first time we’re reminded what we are, the second time reminds us whose we are and what we will become.
We are mere dust and ashes that have been given an eternal promise. We have been filled with the ruah, the breath of God in creation, and through the sacrament of baptism we have been made a new creation—buried with Christ and now we are heirs of his resurrection.
Because of this, we come to the altar a second time to receive a foretaste of the heavenly banquet through bread and wine.
But you have to come with open hands. It is impossible to receive if your hands are full—if you’re holding on to anger, greed, past failures, you name it—you’ve gotta let them go if you are going to receive this gift. Receive the reconciliation that God wants to offer.
What we could say about this liturgy is that you don’t just have the opportunity to experience reconciliation with God, but at this altar you can even taste it.
As St. Augustine once said, “Will these ashes one day take on the form of beauty, be restored to life, restored to light? The bodies of all of us will in a few years be ashes. Yet a few years ago we were not even ashes! If God was able to create what did not exist, will He not be able to remake what once existed?”
The answer is an emphatic yes. We will be restored.
And so, come my brothers and sisters of the earth, come ye children of dust and clay, come and be marked with a sign of your mortality, and then come again and taste the promise of immortality.
Ash Wednesday. Year A. 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10. Pilgrim Souls edited by Amy Mandelker & Elizabeth Powers (1999). Photo by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash.