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

And so we begin. Ash Wednesday is our embarkation day, as we begin our Lenten journey with Jesus to Jerusalem. Like any trip, it’s important at the beginning to reflect on those things that are essential to take with us and some of the things that are probably better left at home. Immediately following this homily, we will receive an invitation to keep a holy Lent, one that is marked by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word, the Scriptures. As you can tell from those essentials, we’re not heading out on a luxury cruise. And yet this journey promises to be life-giving and transformative in a way that no cruise, no matter how luxurious, could ever achieve. The essentials for this journey are reflected in the scriptures appointed for this day. In the passage from the prophet Joel, he issues a rather loud and noisy wake-up call to the people of God because danger is at hand—darkness is descending upon the people of God.

That passage pivots on one word: yet. Yet even now. . . if you return to the Lord, your God, with fasting and prayer and lamentation, rending your hearts and not your clothing, maybe, just maybe, God will relent. Joel goes on to lift up the characteristics of God that we know to be true: that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. You see, the essence of our Lenten journey is returning to God—looking forward—leaving behind those things that seek to separate us from God and from one another. The word for return in Hebrew is shub, and it literally means a 180, heading back toward God, the one who is life-giving. It means opening up our hearts—rending our hearts and our spirits—to once again renew the very spirit of God that abides in each one of us.

Now, one of the blessings of this cathedral community is that you don’t make this journey solo. We journey with you, and we provide resources to accompany you. You will find in your leaflets and online a way to sign up for short daily morning prayer services and written Lenten meditations to help us ground ourselves in prayer and the Word as we face the day ahead. For those of you who may be looking for the link, you’ll find it at Our congregation is offering courses to Take On Lent together. You’ll find them on our website as well. For those of you who worship with us online, there is a virtual book study to join.

When we think of fasting, so often I think that people presume it means abstaining from desserts or alcohol or whatever. Please know this is not intended to be a diet plan. But one thing that I would encourage you to consider in terms of fasting is how you spend your time. Statistics show that for working age Americans, we spend on average two and a half hours on social media each day. Two and a half hours! Just imagine if you abstained during some of that time and made it part of your fast. Maybe, just maybe, you would follow up on your impulse to pick up the phone and talk to a family member or a friend or a neighbor in need. Maybe, just maybe, you would have more time to be in service to others. This congregation and your own communities of faith offer myriad ways in which to be of service to our neighbors in need. In this congregation, whether it’s Creation Care or Sanctuary Ministry, or feeding the hungry, we don’t have to look too far to know that there are those among us who need our support in very tangible ways.

Sometimes it just involves helping those who are on the front lines doing the work. I was reminded of this in reading one of the essays in Ann Patchett’s book, These Precious Days. She was asked to write about a saint, and rather than turning toward someone who was dead, she decided to go with a living saint right in her community—a man by the name of Charlie Strobel, a Roman Catholic priest who had a very difficult childhood. Somewhere along the way, God touched his heart and made clear to him his ministry, his call, his vocation: to be of service among the broken and the disenfranchised in his midst. Charlie Strobel has put together the most extraordinary ministry for the homeless and people who are broken and disenfranchised in Nashville, Tennessee.

One day, Ann Patchett got in the car with him to ride around and to see firsthand what he was doing and how he was ministering. She was so moved by his incredible heart and the desperate straits of so many people he called friends. She asked, how do you do it every day, day in, day out? He told her, “All you have to do is give a little bit of understanding to the possibility that life might not have been fair.” Reflecting on her time with Charlie, Patchett writes, “It is our responsibility to care for one another, to create fairness in the face of unfairness and find equality where none may have existed in the past. . . .The trick is in the decision to wake up every morning and meet the world again with love.”

With love. God is the source of the love that surpasses all of our understanding. Part of this Lenten journey is to reclaim that love in our lives. One of the things I cherish about Lent is that we get a checklist with the Litany of Penitence that we will pray together tonight. It reminds me a little bit of when we go for an annual physical and our doctor ticks off how we’re doing in certain metrics related to our physical wellbeing. How’s your blood pressure? How’s your cholesterol? How’s your weight? Mine spends too much time on that, but I digress. I invite you this evening to be attentive as we pray the Litany of Penitence: what’s working well in your life and what spiritually may need some attention? Part of the baggage that we hope to leave behind and is lifted up in the Litany of Penitence is envy, pride, hypocrisy, unforgiveness, uncharitable thoughts. Be attentive to what’s working well in your life and what you may want to work on for the next forty days. God will bring these things to your attention. And together we will pray and journey our way back to God—the source of life and light and love in what seems to be too often a pretty dark world.

God is the source. God is our hope. I want to leave you with words from a reflection by Elizabeth Achtemeier on that passage you heard from Joel. “Joel reveals how long-suffering and patient our God is with the covenant people. But [Yet] even now—in the situation in which you and I stand, in the circumstances in which we find ourselves—the offer of return to fellowship with our God is held out to us. It is that “but” [“yet”] that makes all the difference—God’s refusal to have [be] done with us; God’s constant, loving, suffering yearning to give us life instead of death; God’s great “nevertheless”; the Lord’s refusal to accept the situation as it is, and God’s determination to forgive us and to welcome us back, no matter what we have done. There lies all our hope.”

I wish you a fruitful and blessed Lenten journey, and may the Lord indeed create in us clean hearts and renew a right spirit within us. Amen.

1 Ann Patchett, “Worthless Servant,” These Precious Days (New York: Harper, 2021), 52.
2 Ibid., 52 and 57.
3 Elizabeth Achtemeier, “Joel,” The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes (Nashville: Abington Press, 1996), 319.


The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope