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Ash Wednesday
13 February 2013

A Sermon Preached by Philip H. Towner, Ph.D., Diocesan Intern


Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Isaiah 58:1-12
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Psalm 103

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.


We have been here before; and if all goes well, when we reach this point next year, we won’t be quite the same.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  This sobering phrase, if we follow its echoes, takes us back to Genesis 3 and the sentencing of Adam.  In that sacred story of our origins, it is a death sentence, even with its distant gleam of light, and the instruction to remember Adam is an instruction to own our solidarity with him.  It is not the whole story, but it is a part that we reenter this day.  However, in that instruction, “remembering” produces another echo that leads us to a line in the Psalm that the Book of Common Prayer appoints for this day, Ps 103.  There we read: “As a father has compassion for his children, so the LORD has compassion for those who fear him. 14 For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.” 

He remembers that we are dust.  But do we remember that we are dust?  Today we begin what Fr. Blume described just a few days ago as a journey, the Lenten journey, from today to the dawning of Easter and resurrection.  But this journey forward requires first looking back, returning to a point forgotten.  Given our place in the story of God’s redemption, we quite rightly take our bearings for this journey from the Gospel accounts of Jesus.  Last Sunday, we observed that Transfiguration glimpse of glory received with astonishment and fear, mysteriously bounded on either side by Jesus’ predictions of death and resurrection; glory fading to gray; and coming down from that mount Jesus turned decisively towards Jerusalem and the cross.  Along that way, there are opportunities for us to see Jesus through the lens of that Psalm or of Genesis 3, and his humanity and frailty emerge in stark relief.  His Gethsemane “dark night of the soul,” his naked vulnerability on the cross, reveal a Jesus who has completely embraced this fragile human condition.  We are dust, and on Ash Wednesday we embark on the Lenten journey designed to jog or jolt our sleepy memories into a fresh recollection of the stubborn reality of our Christian human existence.  God remembers we are dust; but can we remember this truth into some useful shape for the days between now and Easter?

I ask this on this evening for all of our sakes.  While most of us in our more sober moments might agree with the Psalmist, I suspect we spend most of our time in denial of the memory of our frailty and finitude.  We’re programmed to do this, to survive and thrive: our culture is forward-looking, a culture of promise, progress and resistance to weakness; a culture of smoke and mirrors.  A Walgreens’ commercial, full of pretty faces, bright colors, puppies and laughing babies, informs us that we can find its stores “at the corner of Happiness and Health.”  And as Lent proceeds we may be more prone to fix our gaze on the endgame, the glorious resurrection moment, than on the ditches and gutters that lie between our present moment and that promise ahead.  But this is where remembrance slows down our pace and forces both of our feet down onto the messy ground.  Remembering that we are dust—an earth-y description of our present Christian condition—draws us back fully into our earth-ly lives, to face the uncomfortable details which, despite our faith, remain a part of our existence—weakness, temptation, sin, weariness, broken relationships, sorrow.  Like a bog or swamp that we cannot avoid passing through if reaching the other side is our goal. When you and I come to Ash Wednesday, we cannot simply journey vicariously or virtually through the Jesus-story.  We can’t simply watch; we must do.  We must step out onto that road ourselves.  And however we do that, whatever we choose to dwell upon for the next 40 days, or what our circumstances force us to face, we do this in real time, with our own hearts and minds engaged in the journey.  It is OUR Lenten journey; our perilous march to the cross; our fresh confrontation with the fragile and temporary gift of human life and with our own selves.  He remembers we are dust; what do we remember?

Both Isaiah and Jesus address situations where the routine and the mundane had produced a kind of spiritual amnesia.  The people in exile were zealous for fasting, habitual and fervent, but they forgot what covenant righteousness meant.  Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, has this OT text in mind as he describes the amnesia of “the hypocrites,” those Jewish religious leaders who flaunted their spiritual zeal to attract the attention of people, and did not by fasting remember that they are but dust.  But God delights in the fasting that looses the bonds of wickedness, frees the oppressed, brings bread to the hungry, shelters the poor, and clothes the naked.  This is fasting, or for that matter, the self-examination, prayer, fasting, and self-denial; reading and meditating on God’s holy Word, as the Book of Common Prayer advises, that coaxes us first into the honesty and humility of remembrance, to be able to see ourselves as we really are in the presence of God and each other, and then leads us on to change. 

I wish I could do even a fraction of the things I say from this pulpit.  But I will say this, I can think of times of weakness—I mean the sort of weakness and helplessness I feel when someone close to me hurts, that I can’t escape by fixing it or by retreating into my own fantasy world—it has been in these moments when God has come so close and when words I’ve read casually so many times seem to be spoken to me in my heart with a clarity of meaning I’d never known: “we are children of God, and if children also heirs with Christ.”  These kinds of moments I would wish for everyone.  But self-denial, the decision to, as it were, put myself in harm’s way for the Lenten journey, this is not an easy thing for me.  Not easy; but, I suspect, well worth the cost. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This recollection is the beginning, “a right beginning of repentance.”  The exercises of Lent are meant to sharpen our recollection and keep it before us.

And so remembering our mortality, today we begin a journey, but not a journey we undertake on our own.  God is there and God has been there before us.  Paul invokes the ancient voice of God in his own cry to the Corinthians, drawing into his present and the Corinthians’ (as we read it also into our own) the formative experience of the covenant people: “For God says, ‘At the acceptable time, I listened to you; on the day of salvation, I helped you.’” This was originally spoken at a time when Israel was dispersed, in exile, under oppression, and, even more importantly, at a time when they believed the God of the covenant had forgotten them.  What does God say to this?  “Even if a nursing woman could forget her child, I will never forget you!  Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hand!”  “Now,” Paul cries, “Now is the time of salvation.”  And that truth also describes our Christian condition and defines our journey through Lent, when we remember our frailty and embrace it as our reality, yet we do not surrender to it.  But the “now,” Paul’s and ours, is incomplete and the symptoms of incompleteness are evident: affliction, distress, hardship, beatings, imprisonment, hostile opposition, hard work, sleeplessness, hunger; let us add poverty, sickness, sorrow, disability and death; and if we in our circumstances do not experience such things regularly, we need only look around at our sisters and brothers and our neighbors to see how real these things are.  Yet in our illness can also be seen the signs of our saving recovery: endurance, patience, kindness, holiness, love, knowledge and truth, and all of this through the Holy Spirit who empowers the weak to continue the journey, through the God who feeds us with the spiritual food of Christ’s body and blood.  In the darkness of this present salvation, when we remember we are dust, we remember too that God has inscribed US on the palms of his hands.  And our walk to the cross is our walk with the God whose palms would be pierced by the cruel nails—pierced for us—for our sakes, God made him to be sin who knew no sin; he who reigned in glory, himself became dust, that we might with him inherit the eternal kingdom of God. 

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  In entering Lent we tangle with this truth, and in doing so embrace the very nature and condition of Jesus the Messiah.  We steel ourselves to contemplate our weakness and mortality, so that at the end of this and each Lenten journey we may be more like him; so that at the end of all our journeys, we may be transformed by his resurrection power.


© 2013 Dr. Philip H. Towner