Below is my sermon from Ash Wednesday, February 14. If you came to the noon service, you might not recognize much of it. After the school shooting in Florida, I rewrote most of it.
I remain at a loss for words regarding these continuing tragedies, and our seeming acceptance of them as routine. But I come back to yesterday’s call to repentance. Repentance is not merely sorrow or remorse for the past. Repentance is a changed way of acting in the future. We are long past the point for needing sorrow and remorse over school shootings. Whether we are able as a society to repent–to let our sorrow change our actions–remains to be seen. Prayer is powerful, especially when our prayer leads to changed hearts.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Ash Wednesday is both a beautiful and a terrible day. It’s a day when I say the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” again and again and again. They are an echo of the words that we speak over caskets and urns being laid to rest: We commit their body to the ground. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
I saw a joke on Facebook this morning from a fellow pastor. What are your Valentine’s plans? It asked. Oh, I have to work and remind people of their inevitable death. It’s a little funny, because it’s Valentine’s Day, only it’s one of those jokes that hits a little too close to home to stay funny long.
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. I have said these words to older people, to cancer and hospice patients, knowing the next time I said them would likely be at the burial. I have said these words to young and healthy people, to babies and toddlers, to commuters whose stories I don’t know.
Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints, it takes and it takes and it takes. I didn’t come up with that, it’s from Hamilton, but it’s true. We will all die. As I sat, horrified this afternoon and watched images and video of yet another school shooting, one picture caught my eye. A mother, weeping outside the school, waiting to know whether her child had lived or died, with an ashen cross on her forehead.
Today it feels like we do not need to be reminded we are mortal. I do not need to be reminded today that the world is sinful and broken, that the world we live in, the world we have created, falls terribly short of God’s intention and hope for us. As our psalm declares, our sin is ever before us. We cannot avoid it.
Like the people Isaiah addresses in our first reading, we might wonder, where is God in all of this? These people were living in a time of confusion and uncertainty, and they were trying to figure out what God’s response was. What God required of them. They felt that God was absent.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?” They asked of the Lord. “Why do we humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” In other words: give us some kind of sign, God, because we don’t know what you want.
And God responds with condemnation of the people: You serve your own interest on your fast day, God says, and oppress all your workers. You fast only to quarrel and fight and to strike with a wicked fist. You call this a fast? says God.
God has not abandoned the people, but God desires fasts, God desires repentance that leads to justice and to peace. Is not this the fast that I choose, says the Lord: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?
The people who claimed to keep God’s fast did not practice justice and peace. These are the hypocrites that Jesus condemns. Those who make a show of their piety, of their religion, but do not keep the faith in their hearts and in their actions.
Ash Wednesday’s call to repentance means that we must admit that we are also those hypocrites. That what we say does not always match what we do. That though we pray for justice and peace, we do not always take actions to promote justice and peace. That though we mourn victims of school shootings, we do not always use our voice and our power to speak up and protect them before it happens.
Our sin is ever before us. We are broken. We are not living in the fullness of life that God intends for us, whether as individuals or as a community. There can be no denying that. There can be no escape from those hard truths.
This day is a reminder of our mortality and of our brokenness. This day is a call to repentance and to changed hearts and lives. A call to the fast for justice and peace. But it is also more. For those marked with the cross there is always more.
For, as the Apostle Paul writes in Second Corinthians, because of the cross of Christ, even though we are dying—see, we are alive. We are sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. For those marked with the cross there is always more. Death is inevitable, yes, but death gives way to nothing short of baptism’s promised life. The ashen cross on your foreheads will be traced over the cross marked on you at baptism. Ashes are not forever. Ashes are a reminder of life’s endings, but also a reminder of new beginnings in Christ.
Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints, it takes and it takes and it takes. And we keep living anyway, we rise and we fall and we break and we make our mistakes. We are all of us sinners, marked by our brokenness and mortality. But we are also all of us saints in Christ, marked by the life-giving cross which leads to new life and resurrection.
So come. Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation! Let us return to the mercy and love of God, confessing our sin, admitting the places where we yearn for renewal and healing, and calling upon God to create new and righteous hearts in us. Amen.