Calvary Episcopal Church
Memphis, Tennessee
February 13, 2002
Ash Wednesday

Dust and Ashes
The Rev. Marianne Williams

Psalm 51

Dust and ashes and the 51st Psalm seem to be, at least for me, what Ash Wednesday is all about.

I hear the psalmist cry "Against you only have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight." Confession, apology, remorse, repentance are powerful words--sometimes frightening words. Ash Wednesday is the day in the church year, when more than any other day, we are called to come to terms with ourselves before God.

Psalm 51, the Psalm of ALL Ash Wednesday's, is a masterpiece of self-knowledge. " I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother's womb…I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me."

He doesn't make a defensive statement, nor does he place blame on others-- as Adam and Eve did when they said, "The devil made me do it;" or as some do when they lay the blame on their parents. Maybe the devil was involved, maybe we are all born of imperfect parents or living in our garden with an imperfect spouse--whatever the transgression or the sin, we come on this Ash Wednesday to acknowledge that WE have missed the mark and WE are here to ask for God's mercy.

"Against you (God) only have I sinned." It's an odd verse. Doesn't sin hurt everybody? I believe that the psalmist is saying here that the recognition of sin comes only when we are confronted with the reality of God--the holiness of God. Sin is not just an ethical issue, but a thought or an action against, or separation from the author of all goodness--the One who calls us to repentance when we are out of relationship.

Jesus calls us to repent not as a threat, but as a call to pardon. The threat comes when we refuse to believe that we are forgiven and live out our lives as "miserable sinners" and unforgivable, rather than to accept His forgiveness and live our lives as God's beloved.

Our concept of God is too small. It is only when we can see that our offense is against God that we can begin to understand that it is only by His goodness that our sin is lifted away. It is in these moments that we see God as the one who is ready to extend mercy, as St. Paul tells us in Romans, "even while we are yet sinners." This Psalm is the prayer of one who knows there is hope and mercy from a God Who loves extravagantly--one who is full of compassion. This person, like us, seems to know of God's grace and it is this knowledge that precedes his confession.

This is Ash Wednesday, a day designated and set apart for self inventory before God. We do not need to hide or surround ourselves with defenses and barricades or live out exhausting pretenses. If instead, we allow the liturgical season of Lent to carry us, we may discover that the season ushers us into a movement that is not so clearly ordered. We may see that it is not a leisurely walk to an appointed goal, rather it's to a kind of disequilibrium--a kind of dying that is essential to the formation of new life.

For sure Lent is about change: of heart, of perspective, of focus and of the death that precedes new life. We hear the sound of the trumpet on Ash Wednesday and we receive the imposition of ashes. Not an obligatory service, but a service that is habitually filled. The sign of the cross is made with ashes on our foreheads to remind us that we are human: "Remember you are human…From dust you came and to dust you will return."

Let's bear in mind that the repentance to which we are called to is not all about grief and gloom. While it is a day when we confess that we "have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts," it's also about looking toward the joy of transformation. If we consider the phrase in Eucharistic Prayer C: "Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace alone, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal," then we can better understand and express our own hope as we pray the words of the psalmist, "Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit in me."


Copyright 2002 Calvary Episcopal Church

Psalm 51
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 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. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar. NRSV

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