faith in action

Turning: An Ash Wednesday Sermon

Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe's 2021 Ash Wednesday reflection

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One of the most moving gestures of ministry is marking the foreheads of congregants with ashes on Ash Wednesday, beginning the season of Lent. “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return” are not easy words to utter. Dust making is not the aim of life. This + marking seems contrary to Christian life.

But the Christian community prepares for Easter by entering into this holy season of Lent with these words and this mark. We begin the season by remembering our need for reflection and repentance (turning) in order that Lent may be a time of renewal and transformation.

In a year of a world-wide pandemic when 2.4 million people have died and unfathomable sorrow and immeasurable disparities have been uncovered, we come to this Lenten season of self-examination, prayer and fasting and turning (repentance). And this year it seems particularly exhausting because already we have had much self-examination, prayer, and reflection. In this year may this self-examination and reflection not further exhaust us but rather enrich our lives and faith.

The words of the Ash Wednesday service:

I invite you in the name of Christ, to observe a holy Lent by self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting, self -denial, and giving to those in need, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.

Lent is a time of self-examination–of having our hearts converted and opened for more spacious love. We ponder our habits, fears, anxieties, and actions (inaction) which distance us from the community of faith, our families, our loves, from those yearning for connection, from those lost and wandering. Self-examination leads us into the way of making room to love more fully, more deeply, more honestly. Even in this pandemic season - self-examination helps us turn - toward love.

A couple of years ago, I encountered a woman who had witnessed the killing and brutal mutilation of her father in a conflict. She and her siblings left their home not able to bear the pain of returning. Years later, after lamenting the horrors of the violence and a long season of mourning, she wanted to return to her home. “I finally returned to my home because I have forgiven those that killed my father.” Opening our hearts so that we are able to more spaciously love takes time, examination and turning around. Self- examination does not mean to be harsh and self- critical but is a willingness to understand our own woundedness.

Attending to our practices of prayer, fasting and self-denial- turning eyes and hearts from our self- absorption and casting our gaze toward others- is at the heart of the Lenten journey. These practices occur in the life of the community even when scattered and are transformative for moving from tragedy to hope. These practices can transform the wounds into transformative freedom in Jesus Christ. On the Lenten journey we are invited to pause to attend to our brokenness and our wounds. Sharing the prayers, fasting and self-denial - turn our eyes toward others -lead to understanding, healing and forgiveness which help us be prepared for Easter.

Generosity is what saved and continues to save the world. God’s generosity is the gift of Jesus Christ. It is God’s giving to us what saves us. Gratitude and justice for all in need - is the invitation of Ash Wednesday. How will we be generous in this Lenten season? How will we extend generosity to those in spiritual, social, economic need? With whom will we walk? With whom will we pray?

Finally, meditating on the word of God helps us contemplate the meaning of God’s generous love, in its many expressions. Through worship, prayer, meditation in our communities, in listening to our neighbors, in working for justice, in standing with those persons who are migrating from one place to another, being companions with those living in the hard conditions of poverty moves us into the joy of resurrection.

At last, as we ponder the goodness of life we can turn from pain and sorrow into joy and laughter. This small Pastor’s Pocket edition of the Book of Worship is one of my most precious possessions. I have special Bibles, Hymnals, stoles but only one Pastor’s Pocket Book of Worship. I keep it close and always carry it with me when I travel just in case my bags are lost.

Contained in it are:
the liturgies and prayers of the church
weddings, funerals,
prayers – morning and evening, for those suffering with AIDS,
for those who are dying

Penciled in are names of babies baptized, dozens of couples married, church members who were gravely ill, names for those who lost a child, prayers for special occasions, names of those for whom I have cared who were dying and sticky notes with more names (because I did not want to erase any names). This pocket Book of Worship contains and sustains the most important moments of life.

Ash Wednesday contains and sustains the most important moments of life. It reminds us of creation, the earth and the fragility and joy of life. So even when we say – “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” it is an affirmation of God’s generosity and the transformative journey from tragedy and death to justice and freedom.

Let us pray…

Eternal God, you give us life.
We belong to you.
You have given us to each other to make us what we are,
And our lives grow together and our life in love will never end.
In this year we offer ourselves into your arms,
Comfort us in our loneliness,
Strengthen us in our weakness
And give us courage to face the future unafraid.
Draw us in this life closer to one another, make us faithful to serve one another, and give to us peace and joy which is eternal life.