Ash Wednesday (2012)
The following sermon was preached by Mark P. Bangert, John H. Tietjen Professor of Pastoral Ministry: Worship and Church Music, Emeritus, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Wednesday, February 22, 2012.
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Note to the reader: this sermon was coupled to the sounds of running water from the baptismal font in Augustana Chapel. The flow of the font increased incrementally, as directed by noted by the directions “Water 1,” “Water 2,” etc.
Writ large over this day, over this hour, are the words: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. This is an exhortation, together with all its implications—writes the prophet Joel—from which no one in the solemn assembly is exempt. Everyone needs to grapple with it: children, infants feeding at the breast, adrenalized bridegrooms, love bedazzled brides; no one is exempt, not even seniors waiting for assignments—an obligation not fully appreciated by some in charge.
Remember that you are dust. Remember. But how? How does one do such remembering? Some assist is provided in the final prayer of this liturgy where we plead “Renew us in the gift of baptism.” Oh. And how does one do that? How do we do it jointly (the prayer does say “us”), and how do we do it individually?
We can begin by returning to our own deep prayer from minutes ago, a prayer which was perhaps infused with the static of assignments and a host of other distractions. In the now classic words of Thomas Cranmer we prayed—not for forgiveness, not for strength to fulfill our various fasts, not even for a good confessional memory—but we did pray that God would create in us new and honest hearts. Honest hearts.
The prophet Joel called for the sound of a trumpet, an alarm to signal that the Day of the Lord is near with its darkness and gloom, the pending arrival of a great and powerful army, the likes of which not one had seen before. Sounds like Armageddon.
But, of course, if you read chapter one of Joel’s oracle, what you discover is that Joel was describing the arrival of an army of locusts. The descriptors are astonishing: Tell your children of this thing, Joel proclaims; cutting locusts, swarming locusts, hopping locusts, and destroying locusts, consuming the fields, laying waste the vines; the branches of the fig tree are turning white, joy withers among the people, animals groan because there is no pasture, for fire has destroyed the land and the watercourses are dried up. What’s left is a parched landscape.
The trickle of water is a pretty good indicator of the landscapes of our hearts. Those landscapes are likely less green, less fruitful than what we think.
Honestly, we are myopic. Turning up the volume may take us into watercourses we haven’t seen for a while, and they aren’t pretty.
Honest hearts get created when the volume is turned up. Trickle-down piety is not a fit companion for the words that form our confessions this day. Honest hearts emerge from single-minded intensity. Let’s help one another here.
We will shortly be invited to confront pride, envy, and hypocrisy. Hypocrisy, that tag-along partner which accompanies any kind of ecclesiastical leader. Self-indulgent appetites, for all sorts of things--but food and drink is a place to start. Negligence in prayer and worship. False judgements, uncharitable thoughts—it may well be that the sin of this age has nothing to do with sex, but all to do with gossip and falsehood, what with the kudzu of social media that smother us. Waste and pollution—if time is a resource, then it is perhaps the kairos, the opportune time, to power down the i-phone.
Honest hearts are those that know the parched landscapes in their own recesses. We have permitted, perhaps even invited the locusts to do their devastations within. Water flowing into old dried-up watercourses has taken us to our own lifeless places.
Turning up the volume is frightening. The rush of water over the head of an infant can kill, or float it out of the font to its death. The water can rush even faster—we know it—increased volume triggering images of destruction left behind by hurricanes and breached levees. Water can drown and destroy, even as it leads us to parched places within. There is the stubborn, hard reality of this day we can’t escape. Dust from the landscape marks our foreheads, announcing death. Even water bears the message of devastation. The water and the dust, as the prayer over the ashes reminds us, signal mortality.
But consider the dust; it comes in the shape of the cross. Turning up the volume, while frightening, is all the more a sign of cleansing—enough clean water there to clear away the dust of parched hearts. Whatever dust clings to us, there is enough water to wash it away. When you fast, Jesus said in the Gospel, don’t put on more dust, rather wash your face—in the baptismal waters we might now add. This day, these forty days, are for
turning up the volume, for hearing once again the cleansing waters.
That cross you see on another is the mirror of your own mortality, to be sure, but it is also the promise that in fact we live on this side of Christ’s paschal mystery-- his saving death and resurrection is ours in the overflowing waters of baptism.
In the water we hear two things: death and life, both being necessary for God to create new and honest hearts. Carried via once dried-up watercourses to our internal dusty places we confront our tendencies always to keep turning towards what is death, fascinated by stuff that moths have a good time consuming and embracing ways that resist all the good things God intends for us.
But there is always more in the water—the fullness of grace, the abundance of steadfast love, and the wooing call of our Lover who is trying to coax us back to all the good things we turned our backs on: the richness of the creation, its verdant colors, satisfied animals, fruits, figs, grapes, grain, and mostly the One who is gracious and merciful. The waters call us to turn again towards God, to repent, and to do that with such urgency that some might describe it as weeping and mourning.
Such would be the marker indicating that we have begun to turn towards the One Whom God intends for us, even the Lord Jesus Christ.
And then, who knows? Who knows whether this One who loves us to death, who knows whether this One will leave behind a grain offering, and a drink offering, given and shed for you? Who knows? We know, even as we know there is mixed with the ash soon to be marked a measure of oil, the oil of gladness for our heads, the sign, Jesus said, of a perfect fast.