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Ash Wednesday - A Wake-up Call


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Ash Wednesday - A Wake-up Call
by The Rev. Margaret W. Jones

Gospel:Matthew 6:1-6

Harvard 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.

Ash 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.

On 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.

I 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.

This 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.

'That 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 St. Louis.

I 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.

“The 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.

The 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 did.

“What 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.

Ash 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.

Thanks be to God for this forceful, sobering day.

May God grant us:

the wisdom to know ourselves;
the courage to admit our sins;
and the grace to receive God’s never-failing mercy and forgiveness.


Copyright 2004 Calvary Episcopal Church.
Preached at
Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, Tennessee, February 25, 2004, Ash Wednesday.

Gospel: Matthew 6:1-6
"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



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