A sermon for Ash Wednesday

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 1606 – 1669 The Return of the Prodigal Son (1642) - from Wikimedia Commons

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 1606 – 1669 The Return of the Prodigal Son (1642) - from Wikimedia Commons

Ash Wednesday

March 6, 2019

St. Paul’s, Bellingham

In this service we will recite together Psalm 51, in which we’ll read these words:

16     Open my lips, O Lord, *

        and my mouth shall proclaim your praise. 

When we pray Morning Prayer we’ll recognize these words as those which open Morning Prayer: “Lord, open our lips, and our mouth shall proclaim your praise.”

Psalm 51 is a powerful expression of confession and repentance that begins with, and is made possible by, God’s mercy: “Have mercy upon me O God, according to your lovingkindness.”

We are all under the mercy today, regarded with lovingkindness.

For the Psalmist, this awareness of mercy and lovingkindness enables an honest self-evaluation and admission of responsibility for evil.  The Psalmist admits fault, not projecting those faults onto others.  And in the process the Psalmist is freed of a burden, and in that new freedom gives praise to God for mercy and grace.  The mercy of God opens our lips.  The mercy of God opens our mouths to offer thanks and praise to God.  The mercy of God is the occasion for joy.

13     Give me the joy of your saving help again *

        and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit. 

I want to address one verse of Psalm 51 in particular.  It’s the verse that reads:

6       Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *

        a sinner from my mother's womb. 

Some of you may be aware that this verse has put to use to support the idea that the physical act of procreation itself transmits sin.  This is unfortunate, because it denigrates a process which God created, and which is in itself beautiful and wondrous.  God created sex and procreation, and we have no reason to accept those gifts as anything other than good.

What I would say is that this verse of the Psalm does reflect a reality, however, and that is that there are none of us who are born into a situation free from sin.

Our Prayer Book Catechism gives us a concise and useful definition of sin, which is that “sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.”

There are none of us who aren’t born into a situation where that self-seeking isn’t going on, where that distortion is not present in some form or fashion.  We learn those patterns.  They hurt us.  With those patterns we hurt others.

Lent is a time to focus on unlearning those patterns.  I encourage you to think: “who in my life can help me unlearn those patterns?”   “Who in my life will benefit from me unlearning those patterns and finding a new pattern of thinking and behavior?

We come to this day from different places.  Maybe some of you come from a background in which you never felt good enough, never felt worthy enough.  There was no deep assurance of the gift of love and grace that God has to give you. I call that “punishing moralism,” the kind of thing that leads to a weariness of soul.   Jesus warned religious leaders of his time about placing upon people burdens which they were not themselves willing to bear.
To you, in the name of Christ and of Christ’s Church, I proclaim that God’s love for you is free and without condition, that God looks upon you with great affection, and is pleased by your desire to be in relationship, and will accept at any time with grace and mercy the attempts you make toward repentance and amendment of life.

Maybe some of you come from a background in which you came late to a sense of personal responsibility for your behavior; you feel a bit stung, humbled, perhaps embarrassed, shamed.

To you, in the name of Christ and of Christ’s Church,  I proclaim that God’s love for you is free and without condition, that God looks upon you with great affection, and is pleased by your desire to be in relationship, and will accept at any time with grace and mercy the attempts you make toward repentance and amendment of life.

Today’s liturgy will help all of us in our Lent, in that the Litany of Penitence from this service is a useful means for self-examination.  It is a diagnostic tool with which we can evaluate the ways in which we’ve sought our own will rather than God’s will, and found ourselves in a distorted relationship with God and others.

Through this penitential season of Lent, may God’s mercy open our lips, that our mouths may proclaim God’s praise, and may we be given the grace to lead others to the place of grace and mercy as well.
Amen.