Please pray with me. Create in us clean hearts, O God, and renew a right spirit within us. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ash Wednesday begins our journey in Lent—a journey when we are called to follow Jesus to Jerusalem, to Calvary and the cross, and ultimately to the empty tomb and the joy of the Resurrection at Easter. But it’s a journey that we can’t rush or race through. There’s a reason it’s 40 days because that gives us the time to do our work along the way: work that calls us to remember, to repent, and to renew. We know where we’re headed, but we all have some work to do. Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland wrote that “If you don’t know where you are going, any road can get you there.” We know where we’re headed and this service and Ash Wednesday get us on our way in the proper frame of mind.
So this afternoon I’d like to reflect with you briefly on remembering, repenting and renewing. Immediately following my homily you and we will all receive an invitation to keep an observant and Holy Lent. Part of that is done by fasting and reflecting on our lives, meditating on God’s Holy Word, and then for those who choose, there will be an imposition of ashes reminding us that we are dust and to dust, we shall return. And then we enter into what I consider a good roadmap for the journey. Amazingly enough, the centerfold in your worship leaflet today is that portion of Psalm 51 which we will pray together and the Litany of Penitence. My discipline that I intend to take on, in addition to some other things, is to daily pray over that roadmap of Psalm 51 and the Litany of Penitence because those two things point out for me the things that I need to remember and to reflect upon.
If you don’t find attributes of your own current life that call something to mind that perhaps needs some work and repentance, I encourage you to ask a spouse or partner or someone who loves you. They can help point out the ways in which you have become separated from God and one another. Psalm 51 is one of seven penitential psalms in the 150 in the Bible and the Prayer Book. One third of the psalms are lament psalms. I think that’s for a reason. They follow a particular pattern; and laments give us the words and the language to voice what so often is difficult for us to give voice to. It is a roadmap. Psalm 51 begins with Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness. From the very beginning, the psalmist cries out to the one who loves us, guides us, directs us, and can, in fact, renew us and bring us back into right relationship, not only with God, but with one another.
When the psalmist lifts up God’s loving-kindness, what the psalmist is saying is what’s known in Hebrew as hesed, that God is the source of love and compassion and that we bring our petitions, we bring our brokenness, we bring our need for redemption and renewal to the very source of our life. And that is God. Throughout the psalm, the psalmist is lifting up petitions and acknowledging the psalmist‘s sinfulness and the ways that the psalmist has become separated from God and one another. And there are active verbs: cleanse, wash, blot, purge. They’re very active verbs calling out to God to help me, I need you. I need you more than I could adequately say. And then right in the middle of the psalm, I think is the key verse, which is, Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
Whenever a psalmist or the Old Testament refers to heart, they’re not referencing a physical organ that we know as a heart. It was understood in ancient times that our hearts were the very core of our mind, our will, our intellect. When the psalmist asks God to create a new heart, what the psalmist is saying is give me a new will, a pure heart that’s focused on you. To renew a right spirit within me means God’s own spirit that abides in each one of us; God’s Holy Spirit that gives us the strength to turn in a new and different direction, remembering where we have become separated from God and one another. Repentance is more than saying, I’m sorry. That’s important to acknowledge and to ask for forgiveness. But redemption and repentance go deeper. We’re called to actually turn. The Hebrew word is shub and it means literally turn, leaving behind the brokenness and the ways that we are not in right relationship with God and one another, to turn and go into a new way to follow Jesus on the road to Jerusalem and redemption and renewal.
The psalmist is clear that the source of our renewal and our new life is in God and Christ. That’s our Lenten journey. And as I was reflecting on our Lenten journey and these themes of remembering and repenting and renewal, I was reminded of a beautiful novel written about 15 years ago by Marilynne Robinson, Gilead. Some of you may have read it. It’s a great book, by the way, to have a companion along the way during Lent. The story is set in 1956 and the narrator is a retired Congregational minister by the name of John Ames. He’s 76 years old and he lives in a little town called Gilead, Iowa. Late in his life he met a woman, he fell in love and, through God’s great blessing, they have a son, a son in this man’s older age. But at 76, John Ames learns that he has a condition that means that death may be imminent.
So he sets out to write a letter to his son, knowing that he won’t be around to help him grow up and to grow into manhood, if you will. So he writes this letter about his life: his forebears, his father, his grandfather, the good times, the bad times, remembering and repenting when that was appropriate; but also renewing, looking ahead for the signs of hope, even in the midst of brokenness. There’s one story that seems particularly apt for Ash Wednesday. He tells the story of when he was a little boy and living in a little town, there’d been a terrible storm and lightning struck one of the churches and burned it to the ground. The only thing still standing in tact was the pulpit and one day all of the community came together because there were partial walls still standing that were dangerous and needed to be torn down and burned.
On that day it was raining. The women had prepared the food for the community. The littler children were set aside in a safe place for the day and the men and the older boys set about the work of tearing down what needed to be torn down, separating the bibles and hymnals that hadn’t been burned from the ones that were and needed to be reverently buried. He talks about, in the midst of all that ash and destruction and rain, that slowly but surely, streams of ash started circling around the site and the men became caked with ash and soot from the crown of their heads to the soles of their feet. Late in the day, when people were hungry, his father came to him, his hands and his arms full of soot and ash and he knelt before him and offered him a biscuit, where the ash had bled onto the biscuit. Remembering this time, years later, he tells his son that he knew as surely as anything that that was communion. The bread of life offered, smeared with ash. And he writes, “strange the uses that can come from adversity.”
My brothers and sisters, isn’t that why we gather today, around God’s table? That we bring the brokenness in our life and perhaps walls that we’ve erected that need to be torn down for us to experience new life and renewal. God’s table is always open for the life-giving body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. We offer up to God that which is broken in our lives and invite God in to renew us, restore us, and resurrect us so that we may more wholly and fully follow wherever Jesus would lead us.
On this Lenten journey, may the words on our lips be: Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Let it be so for you and for me.