Transcribed from the audio

Please pray with me. Create in us a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within us. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Remember that you were dust and to dust you shall return. On this day that we know as Ash Wednesday that begins our Lenten journey, at its core is a call to remember. Yes, to remember the ways in which we have fallen short of what God intends for us, our faults and our failings, but also to remember that we are marked as Christ’s own forever and that the love of God that surpasses all understanding redeems, restores, renews. The service that we’re participating in today is rich in remembrance and ritual, and in reality. We start this journey with clear eyes wide open.

Walter Brueggemann says that churches should be the place in town that’s the most honest, not necessarily the place that’s the happiest. Today is a day to be honest, to look at where we are, who we are, and whose we are and where we want to be at the end of this journey to reflect upon those things in our life that cause us to be separated from God and one another. We want to put a hard word on it that we don’t often say in the Episcopal Church, we look at our sin and that’s okay. That’s what we’re called to do and we look at those things that seem to prevent us from being the beloved children of God that God created us to be in the very beginning, in God’s own, image calling us “very good.”

What are those things that get in the way that we stumble on and trip over? In his book, Jesus, A Pilgrimage, Jesuit James Martin tells the story, and reflects upon it, of a time when Simon Peter had to take a hard look at his sin. You know the story. It’s when they’ve gone out fishing and they’ve spent all night attempting to catch fish and they come up short and they go to shore and Jesus has been standing on the shore and he asked Simon Peter to let him go in the boat and to go out deep. And Jesus says, “Throw your nets on the other side.” Simon Peter, sort of humors him, reminds him, you know, we were out all night and caught nothing, but if you say so, master, we’ll give it a try. And of course they catch so many fish that the nets begin to break and the boats begin to sink. In response to the awesomeness of this miracle Simon Peter falls on his knees and looks at Jesus and says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man. Go away from me.”

Why do we push God away? Martin posits four possibilities, for Simon Peter and for you and me. The first being a sense that we’re unworthy. Shame is part of that unworthiness and don’t we all experience that from time to time? How could we possibly be worthy of this relationship with God, with Jesus whose love surpasses all understanding? And we know that that’s a common human condition. Just a few weeks ago, Dr, Brené Brown stood in this pulpit. She’s a social researcher who studies issues of shame and vulnerability and courage in the midst of it. This cathedral was packed with people who’d never set foot in this church, in this cathedral. And since she preached, over 30,000 people have watched her sermon on YouTube. Her first TED talk had over 30 million viewers. Shame seems not to be an isolated condition for Simon Peter alone. But our own experiences in scriptures tell us that we are not only worthy, but we are beloved, created in God’s own image and pronounced as very good.

The second thing that Martin offers is that age-old issue of fear, pure unadulterated fear. The absolute awe and power of the divine can drive any one of us to our knees in its presence, in its power. What does it mean to be in the presence of God: the awesomeness, the fear of that? God knows that. Jesus knows that. Jesus’ response to Simon Peter after saying, go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man—Jesus doesn’t rebuke him. He looks at him and he says, “Do not be afraid for I will make you a fisher of people.” The expression of “do not be afraid” or “fear not” appears in the Bible over 100 times. It seems to me that God’s fully in touch with the fact that we are a fearful sort. “Yea though I walk through the Valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me, thy Rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” God is with us even in the frightening times.

The third possibility that Martin offers is a fear of change. When was the last time that you stepped up and raised your hand to be a leader and eager for change? I think we get very comfortable with where we are, even if it’s not in a very good situation. One of our Chapter members, our governing body members, one time quipped, “The last person I knew who was eager for change was a baby with a wet diaper.” The paralytic at the side of the Pool of Bethsaida had to be coaxed into the water. Jesus had to ask him, “Do you want to be healed?” Change can be hard because it’s the unknown, but it is only through change that we can be reconciled, redeemed, renewed. The status quo won’t do it.

The fourth thing that Martin offers is a fear of intimacy. What does it mean to totally open ourselves to the gift of divine love and light and life? Who would we be if we totally bare ourselves and break ourselves open to that possibility? That too means change. But God promised to never leave us or forsake us, that Jesus came not only to offer life but more abundant and transformative life.

On this Ash Wednesday, I’d like to offer a fifth possibility for your consideration, which is part of what makes us push God away and to get separated from God and one another is,” all of the above,” and the sense of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the ways that we know that we falter and fail. If we’re not careful, we can gorge on a feast of failure as we go through the recitation of the ways in which we miss the mark and that’s not what today or this season of Lent is about.

In a few minutes after the Imposition of Ashes, we will join together in praying Psalm 51 and then we will join together in a Litany of Penitence. There are 10 petitions that we go through that cite ways in which we might have missed the mark: whether it’s not loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and spirit and our neighbor as ourselves, the ways in which pride or hypocrisy or privilege or desecrating this great planet of ours that God created.

There are opportunities for us to find ourselves in all of those, but what I invite you to do is be attentive to where God quickens your spirit as you go through that prayer. Don’t get stuck and overwhelmed by: “Yep, that explains me.” “Ooh, that’s an issue for me, too.” Listen to God and what God puts on your heart as a possibility for this Lenten journey. And I invite you in the roughly six weeks ahead to take them in small bites, maybe one petition to pray about and meditate on and look for ways in which you can get closer and reconciled to God and to one another, one a week or one in the season. God will plant on your heart the work that is yours to do. Don’t get stuck. Don’t push God away. This is a time to get closer, closer to God, closer to one another, closer to the beloved child of God that God created you to be.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Create in us a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within us. Amen.