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Ash Wednesday February 14, 2018 - The Rev. Janet Campbell
Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10;
          Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Christ Episcopal Church
Tacoma, Washington
Wednesday, February 14, 2018
The Rev. Janet Campbell
It’s not a pro forma thing
we do today,
this day of penitence and ashes,
not something we do
for the sake of appearance . . .
in order to be seen or praised by others.
If we do it to be seen or praised by others,
our reward will be . . .
being seen . . .  and, maybe, praised . . .
          or in this secular age,
          maybe viewed with puzzlement
                   or scorn.
what we do today
is a much needed,
enacted truth-telling
about ourselves
and about God.
Now is the acceptable time!
Now is the day of salvation!
Now is the time to get real.
To lament our sins
and acknowledge our wretchedness,
          as we prayed at the beginning
          of the liturgy.
A tough word, wretchedness,
but on this day,
it tells us something true
about ourselves,
          as persons,
          as a people . . .
not the whole truth
          by any means,
but a piece of the truth . . .
that piece that says
          I just can’t do this any longer,
          we just can’t do this any longer,
          and we can’t fix it by ourselves.

This particular Ash Wednesday,
we come together
in the shadow of tragedy unfolding
in Parkland, Florida,
another, yet another, school shooting
this afternoon,
this time at a high school,
with at least 17 people killed
          by what is known now –
and how many in the anguish
          of horror and grief.
If we are to get real today,
to tell the truth,
to lament our sins
and acknowledge our wretchedness,
Let us begin
with repentance
for this terrible evil . . .
          for our blindness,
          lack of resolve,
          failure of courage,
                   as persons,
                    as a people,
                    as a society,
                    as a nation,
for our failure
to stop this carnage.

Let us keep silence
in prayer
for the dead and dying,
the wounded,
the shocked and grieving.
O blessed Ash Wednesday,
O holy Lent . . .
how we need you.
Strip away our pretensions,
our excuses,
You dare us
to “take our hearts
and look them in the face,
however difficult it may be,” 
as British theologian and author
          Dorothy Sayers once said.               
“. . . take our hearts
and look them in the face,
however difficult it may be.”

This is the day of truth-seeing
and truth-telling,
of calling a sin a sin
          and owning that sin,
of getting right-sized,
          remembering our very small
          and temporary place
                   in the vastness of creation . . .
This is the day 
we turn away from our fruitless wanderings
and false imaginings
          and back toward our God . . .
The day we open ourselves anew
to God’s redeeming love.
Drink in God’s mercy,
dine on God’s forgiveness.
This is the day of looking each other
          in the ash-marked face
and saying, “I know you.”
“You are the beloved disciple,
you struggle with sin as I do,
you catch your breath
          at the thought of death . . . as I do . . .

You know the anguish
          of seeing the world’s hurts
and feeling powerless
          before them . . . as I do.
In our belovedness
and in our brokenness
we walk this path together,
following God’s Beloved One,
following Jesus -
stumbling and falling,
          and helping each other up,
stumbling and falling,
          and helping each other up . . .
The paradox of this day:
in facing
the un-loveliness of our sin,
we rediscover
          our loveliness in God’s eyes.
By telling the truth,
we let down the barriers
we have built
between ourselves and God
          who is all Truth . . .

And the truth is
that God created us to be lovely,
and desires nothing more
than to restore us in loveliness . . .
that our light may break forth like the dawn,
that we may be like a watered garden,
          like a spring of water,
                   whose waters never fail,
          refreshing the earth.
For God not only forgives our sin,
but creates in us clean hearts,
renews a right Spirit within us . . .
frees us from the cycle of striving and despair
in which we are seemingly trapped . . .
that we may not come around
to the next Ash Wednesday
in the same place we are now.
Oh, we will, no doubt,
have more sins to acknowledge then . . .

but with the awareness
in our struggle with sin,
we have been helped,
not abandoned,
by God,
not rejected,
by God,
and that
we are,
slowly but surely
growing into maturity in Christ.
In our willingness
to see ourselves clearly,
to name and take responsibility for our sin,
to cooperate with God’s transforming power,
          we are being made new every day.

Ash Wednesday
teaches us the practice
of honesty and repentance and willingness
          and complete reliance on God,
a daily practice
of lifelong growth
          into the goodness of Christ.
Ash Wednesday
 invites us every year,
“whether we need it or not.”
And let’s face it, we need it,
need to be restored
          in that practice:
of honesty and repentance and willingness
          and complete reliance on God.
restored in that practice
that we may participate in God’s restoration
          of God’s beloved human community.
And it begins with the Litany of Penitence
we will pray tonight . . .

I’m always leery of that thing . . .
afraid I might see myself
in the mirror of those petitions . . .
and I always do,
          in every one of them . . .
petition after petition,
          telling the truth.
We pray it together . . .
because we are all in it together:
in the Litany of Penitence,
and in the Mystery of God’s love for us,
a love that never gives up on us,
a love wounded in Jesus
          for our healing,
a love dying in Jesus
          for our new birthing,
a love risen in Jesus
          for our rising.

Last night we
gathered in the courtyard
in the beautiful clear, cold, dark night
to make a fire . . .
a fire that reminded us of another fire
we will make some 40 days from now . . .
the new fire of the Easter Vigil,
fire of resurrection,
fire of new life,
fire of the old life burned away.
In last night’s Shrove Tuesday fire
we burned the old dried-out palms
we received fresh and green last year
on Palm Sunday,
          when we began our
          Holy Week walk toward resurrection
                   and new life.
And today, Ash Wednesday,
we come together,
old and dried out ourselves,
burdened by the year behind us,
burdened by the events of today,
burdened by
          our individual sin
          our corporate sin
                    as church, society, nation . . .

We come together
to give that terrible weight
of the past year’s failures
and our part in them to God
and begin Lent’s journey
          toward the baptismal waters
                   of cleansing and renewal.
Those old palms,
co-mingled and burned,
are today’s ashes,
to be marked on our foreheads
          in the sign of the cross,
sign of our repentance,
sign of our mortality,
sign of our dying to self.
At God’s table,
we will drink in God’s mercy,
dine on God’s forgiveness,
so that our emptiness
might be filled with Christ
we might live no longer for ourselves alone
          but for Christ
          and for one another
                    and for all God’s creation.

It is not a pro forma thing we do today,
this enacted truth-telling,
this litany of every possible sin we can think of,
this acknowledgment of wretchedness
          in the face of the power of evil,
this humble asking for God’s forgiveness
          and heartfelt desire to begin again,
this eating and drinking
the very life of Christ.
And it is not for us alone.
It is for the righting of our lives,
that we may
be used by God
for the righting of the world.
Then, truly, I tell you,
we will have received our reward.