Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Sermon: "Sensing the Sacred: A Clean Slate", Psalm 51:1-17/2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 (February 26, 2020--Ash Wednesday)


Lent is such a rich liturgical season, but it’s one that we often struggle to embrace. Most of us know the overarching themes—penitence, solemnity, self-discipline, sacrifice—but our understanding often doesn’t go much deeper than a superficial awareness of those buzzwords. This is the result of historical Protestant suspicion of all things Catholic: mid-week observances and liturgical seasons reeked of popery, so generations of Protestants have rejected anything associated with Lent or its rituals beyond normal Sunday worship. Although the pendulum has begun to swing back the other way and we’ve begun to reclaim these ancient traditions, we’ve lost a lot of the understanding that comes with consistency. As a result, we’ve inherited a pre-Easter that’s heavy on asceticism but light on pretty much anything else.

This is a real tragedy. Due to the knee-jerk reaction of our spiritual forebears, too many Christians are left with an outright aversion to Lent. Many of us associate this season with a miserable month-and-a-half without chocolate, soda, caffeine, TV—all of the finer things in life. When asked, most people explain this tradition as a way to experience Christ’s temptation in the wilderness and pain on the cross. Jesus suffered, so we, too, must suffer.

And I mean…sort of yes, but mostly no. Yes, the tradition of giving something up for Lent began as a way to make us mindful of Christ’s sacrifices. But the point of Lent isn’t suffering for suffering’s sake. There’s so much more to it than that. Lent isn’t about demonstrating solidarity with Jesus; God has no need of our well-intentioned empathy. Instead, Lent is, like all liturgical seasons, actually a gift and an invitation from God.

Yes, Lent is a time to reflect on our sins and the things which separate us from God, but not for the purposes of self-flagellation or performative piety. It’s an opportunity that God has given us through the Church to examine our relationship with the divine and work to make it better. And that process starts today, with Ash Wednesday.

Now, as misunderstood as Lent is in general, many people are downright perplexed by Ash Wednesday. Throughout the rest of Lent, we know we’re supposed to dutifully follow the gospel account of Jesus’ ministry. Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday: all of these offer a corresponding Biblical story to direct our focus. But what does Ash Wednesday give us? A psalm and a messy forehead. There’s no clear narrative to follow. It’s not a part of the oh-so-familiar story. No wonder we get confused.

But think about what Psalm 51 says. “Blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity. Cleanse me from my sin. Create in me a clean heart.” This is telling us exactly why we need Ash Wednesday. We need Ash Wednesday because we need the opportunity to start from a place of honesty. We need the chance to really, truly, own up to our sins and our mortality, because as long as we deny either of those things, we can’t hope to have a real relationship with God. We can’t truly know who we are with respect to the divine unless we confront the ways we’re most unlike God. So, we smudge ashes on our foreheads. An explicit, dirty, conspicuous mark that represents our sin and our mortality. When we accept the mark, we admit our own total depravity, and offer ourselves wholly to God. Once we do that, once we’re spiritually naked and vulnerable before the Lord, we can begin our journey back towards atonement.

Recognizing our depravity with ashes is the first step in Lenten repentance. Our sin clings to us in thick, grimy layers, like centuries’ worth of old wallpaper beginning to flake off of a wall. It’s been there for so long that sometimes, we barely even notice it. But it’s ugly and rotting and slowly destroying us. Confronting our sin seems an overwhelming, impossible task. So every year at this time, we set aside a season to ask for help. We need to. We can’t possibly hope to encounter the risen Christ unless we peel everything away, layer by layer, until all that’s left is a humble, mortal soul standing before its creator God, asking to be forgiven. We need to start with a clean slate, and God is the only one who can grant it to us.

Our Lenten theme over the next six weeks is “Sensing the Sacred”. The hope is for us to explore the ways that we experience God in the entirety of our being—through taste, sight, thirst, touch, smell, and hearing. But just as you can’t fully appreciate a fine wine or a good meal without first dispelling the residual flavors in your mouth, neither can we hope to fully experience God without first removing the layers of worldly sin that envelop us. So, think of Ash Wednesday as a sort of Lenten palate cleanser. We come before God today in humility, knowing that we are broken, knowing that we are lost, and knowing that only God can redeem us. Allow God to strip you down to your essence, so that bit by bit, you can rediscover what it means to be completely connected to the divine, without your sin standing in the way. It’s uncomfortable, it’s difficult…but it’s worth it. Amen.

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