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Ash Wednesday Sermon

Sermon text: Psalm 51: 1-17

This year, once again, I don’t feel like I need Ash Wednesday as a holy reminder of my own mortality.  I think we’ve all had our fair share of humankind’s frailty and mortality these past few years.  That’s why it is refreshing to see our statistics dip lower and to watch the trendlines and to feel some sense of relief.

Unfortunately, Covid wasn’t the in-your-face mortality reminder that assaulted me this week.  Instead, it was an incident that happened to friends of mine, who on Friday joyously announced that they were expecting their second child, and who on Tuesday were leaving the emergency room, bearing all the anguish of a miscarriage.  Nothing will quite remind you of mortality than death before life.  Hopes and expectations replaced by sorrow and ashes.  Nothing left in its wake but unanswered questions and heartache.

Of course, the continuing situation in Ukraine also shows us evidence of our mortality, with images and reports of explosions and gunfire.  We read of innocent people who are added to the terrible statistics of those killed and wounded.  This unprovoked war has been a gigantic tragedy, and it feels like it has only just begun.  On top of it all is the renewed talk of nuclear weapons, and as a person who did not grow up doing preparedness drills under my school desk, I find that a bit unnerving.

At the same time, if we need any evidence of our fallen humanity’s tendency toward greed, selfishness, covetedness, lying, and murder, then we need look no further than this invasion of Ukraine.  The devil’s greatest hits are playing on repeat as these violent atrocities rage on.  It’s terrible.  Absolutely terrible.

But of course, we all have those inclinations in our own hearts as well.  Putin’s brazen actions are certainly shocking, but he’s no trailblazer when it comes to human depravity.  Every one of us is capable of the same crimes.  We might not act on it, but the inclinations are all there.  We all share those things in common.

Why else would the Psalmist’s words feel so poignant every time we pray them thousands of years later?

1Have mercy on me, O God, according to your | steadfast love;
  in your great compassion blot out | my offenses.
2Wash me through and through | from my wickedness,
  and cleanse me | from my sin.
3For I know | my offenses,
  and my sin is ev- | er before me.
4Against you only have I sinned and done what is evil | in your sight;
  so you are justified when you speak and right | in your judgment. R
5Indeed, I was born | steeped in wickedness,
  a sinner from my | mother’s womb.

Today, on Ash Wednesday, we actually dare to hold the mirror to our faces and acknowledge the evidence of both these conditions: our mortality and our fallen nature.  That is why, during Lent, we get a weekly remembering and relearning of what it is to live as a baptized person.  We turn away from the devil and all his empty promises and instead turn toward the crucified and risen Christ, the light of the world, who will illume all of creation in the Easter dawn.

In Lent we are invited to turn away from the lies and false promises and idols of our world and toward the one who keeps us grounded, even in the midst of heartache and catastrophe.  In this season we remember how God keeps showing us love and forgiveness when we have fallen short.  We are comforted with the knowledge that God desires to be in a good relationship with us.  A right relationship with us.

Again, the words of the Psalmist still ring true:

Let me hear | joy and gladness;
  that the body you have broken | may rejoice. 
9Hide your face | from my sins,
  and blot out | all my wickedness.
10Create in me a clean | heart, O God,
  and renew a right spir- | it within me.
11Cast me not away | from your presence,
  and take not your Holy Spir- | it from me.
12Restore to me the joy of | your salvation
  and sustain me with your boun- | tiful Spirit.

Grief, mortality, sinfulness—it might seem too much to bear if God wasn’t accompanying us through it all.  But God is.  And that is how we cling to the promise of life even when we are covered over by the ashes.  AMEN

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