Scripture Passage: Psalm 51: 1-3, 7-13 (Ash Wednesday Psalter)
1Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me .Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 9Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 10Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. 11Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 12Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. 13Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
So, how quickly did you wash them off? Or were you saved from getting ashes by a Zoom Ash Wednesday Service. It doesn’t matter. We know. We know that yesterday was our day of repentance. Yesterday was our day of acknowledging that yes, indeed, we are sinful beings. Goodness, Lent has barely begun and we’re already talking about sin? We have begun the journey again. It is a journey of giving up and giving in, of wandering in the wilderness, of stopping or at least slowing down enough to let God’s Spirit begin once again to seep into our being. So why do we have to talk about sin?
But sin? Who wants to talk about sin? I mean, I’m Methodist. We are “grace” people, after all! We are forgiven people. Isn’t that what we’re told? God’s mercy is infinite. Jesus took care of all that, right? Really? So, you have no part in this? You just want to go on your merry way? The truth is, what relationship with God would we have if we truly thought we were either sinless or our sins were just hosed off of us without us even knowing what had happened? I mean, what in the world is forgiveness if there’s nothing to forgive? But the fact that God loves me not just in spite of me but BECAUSE of me is a much deeper understanding of God. This is a God who is not waiting for me to clean my act up so I can get on the yellow brick road toward a grace-filled life. This is a God who walks with me down this rocky, sometimes steep and treacherous trail through a wilderness I do not understand and showers me with grace even when I am muddied and worn by sin. This is a God who doesn’t just wait for me to return but takes me by the hand and leads me home no matter what I’ve done or who I’ve been.
There I said it—sin, Sin, SIN! Hmmm! Steeple didn’t fall off, stained glass windows still there, me, still standing. I think even the Zoom connection is still working. In this season of wilderness wanderings, it is our time to acknowledge that yes, we mess up; that yes, we make the wrong choices (I’m hoping God doesn’t yet regret that whole free will decision way back when!); that, yes, we sin. But the point is that we also choose—we CHOOSE to follow God on this journey. Now, at the risk of speaking for the Great I AM, I would much rather have a relationship with one who CHOSE to follow rather than one who knew nothing else. Choosing God and being innocent are not the same. In fact, it is from our sin, from the dust of our lives, that we choose God.
Do you remember the so-called “Second Creation account”? It says that God created humans from the dust of the ground, from the dirty, yucky dust that blew uncontrollably across the land. The dust moved freely from one place to another carrying the beginnings of life whether or not we knew it. And then God breathed life into it and it became something new, a New Creation made in the very image of God. Dust…dirty, yucky, dust…the leftovers, that which remains, that which stays behind clinging to that on which it lands. We try to wash it away or wipe it down or Febreze it to give it a fresh, clean scent or just sweep it under the rug (you know, with the other dust). But, no matter what, it ALWAYS returns. And yet, this season begins by calling us to return to it. And then we pray to God that we might somehow get a clean heart, a fresh start, a new beginning.
So, once again, we acknowledge that we are both in need of God and that God loves us more than we will ever fathom. Now, you would think those two scenarios would fit together rather well. But somewhere along the way, we have somehow replaced our need for God with our need to be perfect. Albert Outler called it “overreaching”, getting in God’s business. See, God doesn’t need us to be perfect, or sinless, or innocent. God desires us to choose to follow. God desires us to be who God calls us to be.
And so, the pathway looms ahead. It’s not always familiar territory. And, in fact, we usually have to leave part of what we carry and hold so tightly behind. We usually tend to travel too weighted down to notice where we need to go. So, give up what you need to give up or take on what you need to take on. And remember when you felt the ashes on your skin to remind you who you are and also whose you are. Let them be a blessing and a beginning. And know that God calls you away from the self that you have imagined. And begin to walk. It is a journey that is hard and difficult and takes you through darkness. But it is a journey that leads to life, that leads to beginning again.
And so this day, we return. We return to our beginnings. Rather than expecting God to “wipe us clean”, this day calls us to expect God to create us yet again. We return to dust so that God can take us, breathe life into us once again, creating in us a clean heart and a new and right Spirit. Today we become dust once again, moving freely and then clinging to God yet again.
Meanwhile, sin is our only hope, because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again. (Barbara Brown Taylor, in “Speaking of Sin”)
Grace and Peace,