Bethany Lutheran Church - Ishpeming Michigan
Ash Wednesday 03/01/2017
I read that there are 300,000 accidental child poisonings in this country every year. The child gets into the medicine cabinet and manages to open a container that many adults struggle to open and gulps down a bunch of pills that look like candy. Or, they get under the sink and find a bottle of colored liquid that doesn’t look a whole lot different than the fruit juice mom gives them and drinks some of it. What you envision then is a trip to the emergency room and the child having his or her stomach pumped. What I read though is that doesn’t happen so much anymore in cases like this or in other cases of poisoning, drug overdoses especially. Instead the more standard procedure in these cases is for the patient to be given a dose of activated charcoal.
Activated charcoal is made from burning coconut shells and hardwood at a very high temperature. The ashes that result are then injected with steam and acid which creates a fine absorbent powder. It’s useful in poisoning cases because it doesn’t break down in the digestive system and because the powder is so fine it can work into all the little folds and spaces in one’s entire system. The charcoal then binds to whatever poison is present and absorbs it from the affected tissue so that healing can begin. As a result, lives are saved by this black, burned powder.
Today, on Ash Wednesday, we deal with a different black, burned powder. The process isn’t quite so complicated as the one for activated charcoal, just a matter of burning some of the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday and then grinding them into a relatively fine powder. Often a little olive oil is mixed in to make the ashes a little stickier, and that’s it.
What happens on Ash Wednesday then, is we acknowledge the fact that, in effect, we have ingested poison, accidentally or otherwise. We confess that we have sinned by our fault, by our own grievous fault in thought, word and deed by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. In other words, we’ve opened some cabinets that should have stayed closed and gotten into some things we shouldn’t have gotten into. We have succumbed to temptation and adversely affected our spiritual health, damaging our relationship with God.
At the beginning of most Sunday services we confess our sins, but today, even more than on other days, we are called to honestly look in the mirror and recognize that things are not what they should be, that we are not who God calls us to be, that our relationship with God is not what it should be, that we have sinned in thought, word and deed.
With that, we confess and today, the words attributed to David in Psalm 51 become our words. You perhaps know how the tradition says that Psalm 51 is David’s prayer after having committed adultery with Bathsheba and after effectively having her husband Uriah executed by placing him in the front lines of battle where he would surely be killed and was killed, all in an effort by David to cover up and get away with his actions.
The Lord however, was displeased with David and through the prophet Nathan, David was made to recognize the grievous nature of what he had done. So he prays: “Have mercy on me O God, according to your loving kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses. For I know my offenses and my sin is ever before me. Against you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.”
It’s quite a confession, and tonight it’s ours. We’re not exactly like David in that we probably haven’t done anything quite as grievous as what he did but that’s not really the point because, on the other hand, we’re very much like him as we come up with strategies to try and hide our sin, often being successful in convincing, at least ourselves that we’ve gotten away with it, that everything’s OK. Tonight though, as we submit to having a cross of ashes traced on our forehead, we acknowledge the futility of our strategies of self-deception, and with David, we confess.
Note though, that David or whoever this psalmist is, is quite Lutheran in their confession, leading not with sin, but with grace. Knowledge of sin and guilt has revealed the need for God’s grace so the psalm and the confession begins with the words “Have mercy on me O God, according to your loving kindness.”
I think that’s noteworthy. It’s quite different from the Missouri Synod confession I remember growing up which did lead with sin beginning with, “I, a poor miserable sinner, confess unto thee all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended thee and justly deserve thy temporal and eternal punishment.” The psalmist gets to words that fully acknowledge poor, miserable sinfulness, but he or she, can’t do it without the reassurance of first leaning on the loving kindness, the steadfast love of the Lord. In Hebrew, the word is hesed, a word which recurs frequently, especially in the psalms and reflects God’s love and commitment to his people. The psalmist does come clean with a full confession but not before reminding himself and the Lord of that steadfast love.
That’s where we start, reminded of God’s steadfast love, without which our confession would lead us to that justly deserved, temporal and eternal punishment. Reassured of that grace though, we can confess honestly, but also with confidence in the saving love represented by the cross, today a cross traced in ashes accompanied by the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
Acknowledging the truth of those words is another part of our confession. In effect, it’s confession that God is God and we’re not, which means that we know that on our own we can’t be any more that what we are, poor, miserable sinners separated from God. We are dust, and to dust we will return. Our only hope is that in and through the incarnation and the death and resurrection of Christ, God can make our dusty bodies more than what they are, gracing them again with the image of God in which we were created, an image that has been tarnished but not destroyed by the sin that we confess here today.
Like activated charcoal ashes though, tonight’s palm ashes also begin a process of healing. Healing can’t begin until we recognize that we need it, and that’s what happens on Ash Wednesday. We confess our sin, we acknowledge our mortality not in order to wallow in despair, but so that these ashes too, in effect work their way into the very fiber of our being and begin to heal us as we confront the things that are poisoning our personal systems and keeping us from being who God would have us be…and, importantly, we acknowledge that we can’t do it alone.
Maybe the most familiar part of Psalm 51 is “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” We know it from the liturgy but one of the things I always remember about this verse, is that in Hebrew, the verb translated as “create” is a verb for which only God can be the subject. Only God can create the clean heart for which we pray.
By the grace of God, ashes and all, we are made clean. We are forgiven and our relationship with God is restored. From our side though, there is still a process of growing in the holiness of that relationship, and that too is what Lent reminds us of, that repentance is about turning away from that which draws us away from God. With that, we enter into the forty days and the discipline of Lent confident of God’s grace but, in thought, word and deed, striving to do that which is pleasing in God’s sight.
Rev. Warren Geier