University Chaplain Peter Gomes writes in his book Strength
for the Journey that in Greek Orthodox baptisms, just before
the priest administers the sacrament, he takes his large pectoral
cross and hits the baby - hard - on the chest. You can imagine
the reaction, which may be why we don’t do that in the
Episcopal Church! Gomes says this is to remind everyone that
the cross hurts and that there is a price to be paid in taking
it up. The Orthodox baptism, he says, wakes people up to the
realities of Christian life.
Wednesday is a wake-up call. Ash Wednesday hits us squarely
between the eyes, forcing us to face mortality and sinfulness. We
hear Scripture readings that are urgent and vivid. We have black
ashes rubbed into our foreheads. We recite a Litany of Penitence
that takes our breath away, or should. It is a tough day, but
take heart! This is one religious day that won’t fall into
the clutches of retailers. There aren’t any Hallmark cards
celebrating sin and death; no shop windows are decked out with
sackcloth and ashes.
Ash Wednesday we come to church to kneel, to pray, and to ask
God’s forgiveness, surrounded by other sinners. Human sin
is universal; we all do it, not only Christians. But our church
tradition sets aside Ash Wednesday as a particular day to address
sin and death. We do this mindful that "God hates nothing
God has made and forgives the sins of all who are penitent." We
are ALL sinners, no better and no worse than our brothers and
sisters. This is not a day to compete (‘my sins are worse
than yours are’), but to confess.
have not talked about sin this much in the entire 10 years that
I have been preaching! Like many clergy, I have fallen into the
trap of talking about love and forgiveness a lot more than about
sin and repentance. It’s a cop out. For one thing, sin
exists. For another, naming sin wakes us up to the need
to change, and that’s good! That’s when we can start
to be who God created us to be.
past weekend I reread a book by Barbara Brown Taylor called Speaking
of Sin, The Lost Language of Salvation. I urge you to read
it this Lent. It is brilliant and profound. Taylor believes that
sin is not a list of specifics; it is different for everyone.
The trick is to identify sin for yourself, to really know yourself.
To do this, she says, look for the experience that makes part
of you die.
makes part of you die’. When I read that, I remembered
a time years ago when I was in a very bad patch. A number of
things had happened to me all at once. I had received all sorts
of sympathy and support, but nothing seemed to help me get on
with life as it was going to be. Finally, a good friend took
me to a weekend retreat sponsored by Roman Catholic nuns from
was the only Protestant there, and before I could receive Communion,
I had to go to the priest and ask permission. We talked for a
while, he asked me some questions. To my great surprise, instead
of support and sympathy, he said he was going to give me absolution.
Absolution: forgiveness. I was shocked. Until then, I had thought
of myself as a victim; the priest’s absolution woke me
up to the fact that I had participated in my own situation, even
unwittingly. And then I was forgiven. I could get on with life. Part
of me had died, but a whole new life opened up, and I was
able to enter into it, ever so much the wiser.
experience that makes part of you die.” Back
in the 1980’s, sixty to seventy homeless people came
to my church, Calvary Episcopal, every afternoon seeking help.
At first we volunteers were thrilled at the response to this
new ministry. But one woman, Pat Morgan, recognized that we
were only putting band aids on wounds that needed much deeper
attention. “Ask people about the root cause of their
problem,” she urged. So we did. We found, as she thought
we would, that for almost all the people the problem was not
lack of housing but something much more personal. Like us,
each person needed to name the experience that made part of
him or her die.
key was to take time to listen to people, and that’s what
we did. There were no beds, no clothing, no food; we were not
a shelter, a clothes closet, or a food pantry. We were just sinners
asking other sinners, “What is the root cause of your problem?” When
we asked, and listened, what we heard were stories of addiction,
abuse, or mental illness that had gone untreated. Once the person
named the root cause, life could begin to change – and
is the root cause?” That question changed the
whole ministry and, I believe, is the reason it continues to
grow and thrive. What is the root cause? What makes part of
me die? Those are good questions, perhaps the best questions
to ask ourselves on Ash Wednesday.
Wednesday is the gateway to Lent. We have forty precious days
to open ourselves up most particularly to God, to examine ourselves
in the presence of one who created us, knows us, and loves us.
We have forty days to face ourselves and learn to not be afraid
of our sinfulness. We ARE dust, and to dust we shall return,
but with God’s grace we can learn to live this life more
fully, embracing our sinfulness, allowing God to transform us.
be to God for this forceful, sobering day.
God grant us:
wisdom to know ourselves;
the courage to admit our sins;
and the grace to receive God’s never-failing mercy and forgiveness.
2004 Calvary Episcopal Church.
Preached at Calvary
Episcopal Church, Memphis,
Tennessee, February 25, 2004, Ash
"Beware of practicing your piety before others in order
to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father
in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before
you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets,
so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have
received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your
left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms
may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will
reward you. And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites;
for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street
corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you,
they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into
your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret;
and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." NRSV