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 6, 2008.
Psalm 51 and the Confession of Sins from the AW Rite
For anyone trying to tap the rhythms of the church's year, the last ten days yield cacophony at best, too many tempo changes, too suddenly. Just a week and a half ago we were pushed to take giant steps from Christmas/Epiphany events to the calling of the disciples. That alone taxed our resources. Less than a week later came Feb. 2 (Saturday last), a Lesser Festival of the white hue, the Presentation of Jesus, a day otherwise known as Candlemass because of Simeon's words from the Gospel about Jesus as the light for the nations. That suggested the blessing of lights and candles.
Candle mass traditionally marked the middle of Epiphany season. It is a day set aside to focus on God's mission to all people. Not a bad idea. Didn't even have time to think about that, however, for a day later Transfiguration came along, the concluding Sunday of Epiphany-Moses, Elijah, tents and misunderstandings about the Messiah who really wants to take us all down to the plain, there to enact the light business and tent among the needy and poor-God's plan for God's reign.
Then, via pancakes and the traditional Mardi gras outrageous behavior we come to this day, the first of Lent, the day of the ash.
Concentrated church year in a can, as it were. Thick, heavy, indigestible and if not a little off-putting, then a motivation for seeking something a little easier on our ecclesiastical taste buds.
In short, we are disorientated-crib to ashes happened way too fast; our pieties wander about; we are out of our groove. Were it only that, we might fix ourselves with a quick spiritual retreat. Groovelessness over the church year signals a deeper, more sinister problem, however. It is a symptom of something far more...well, the word used later is "grievous." It is a word I have to say to you and to myself. Grievous as in onerous, relating to sorrow, God's sorrow, in this case because we, out of our groove in very profound ways, are asked to see ourselves as inadvertent and advertent frustrators of god's mission through the Prince of Peace.
Just to blur further, we have, as it were, listened to only the first part of Jesus' transfiguration request, that is "Tell no one the vision..." We are rebels whose words and deeds are clouding the clear bright Morning Star in this world.
Here is the reason for clearing the springs, for regaining Baptismal vigor, for gaining our voice again-or, to speak the words of the very prayer from Psalm 51 (which, by the way, is the text for today): Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. . . . Let me teach your ways to offenders and rebels. . . . O Lord, open my lips.
Politics meets piety. Talk about the need for change!
In spite of all that I have said, Ash Wednesday, and all of Lent for that matter, is not about feeling guilty, even for Lutherans, though it is of the essence that we look at our individual and corporate predilections to derail God's mission, to reckon with just how far we are out of the groove.
In that respect, this very service is a disservice, for it tends to rush us through an opportunity to look in the mirror, leading us through heavily-weighted words made light by the speed with which we move through them. They are not meant to solicit guilt, we need not fear; in fact, the Psalmist, rather than wishing to drive us to our knees, instead wants us to "know" our offenses, precisely that recreating can go on. KNOWING is mental work, a deep probing of those behaviors and attitudes, the software that mediate our daily lives.
So, for God's sake, and ours, come with me to the Confession that will be on our lips in minutes; let us visit the words with more than passing notice. Here's one: "We have shut our ears to our call to serve as Christ," -ah, yes, metaphorically, we, like I-podders who block out sonic worlds, we I-podders have blocked out the calls of the hungry and needy in whom Jesus lives; Shut our ears. 2. "We have not been true to the mind of Christ," perhaps not knowing, or not caring about, the mind of Christ. The mind of Christ. 3. "Our apathy that infects our lives"-passionless, without passion, even though the passioned-one loves us to the end. 4. "Our exploitation of other people" that to others makes us look little different from anyone else. Exploitation. 5. "Our false judgments toward our neighbors," so that, even here we blur God's mission for and to one another. False judgments.
There are five, five that announce: we have lost the groove, the harmonious channel to which the body of Christ is called. Of course, there are more. This is the season to KNOW how we frustrate God's mission.
It is said that the origin of the phrase "Have mercy" lies outside of the Judeo-Christian heritage. Egypt, as I recall, is the land of its inception. There as the people of old lined the way on which their monarchs returned from campaigns yielding riches of every sort, the people cried out "Have mercy," meaning: share the riches with your loyal subjects.
The psalmist knows that she is a beggar and therefore the cry is all the more earnest. Have mercy on me, the cry rings out: share the riches. This is the season for the cry of those who are beggars. And our monarch is up to it, not by offering first to us the passion but rather compassion, a word meant to describe the love of a mother for her baby.
Have compassion, God, and she does. Hide your face not from me but from rebellions and offenses, and God says this is my beloved Son-Look at him. Beggars see more clearly. And what they see is that God is not about to give up on a mission the cost of which comes not in the currency of gold and silver. If we have lost our groove, we can find it again-even its passion, though we, unlike Stella, need not travel to Jamaica to find it.
We can find our groove again, no better: God will lead us back to the groove again, and that will take some time, forty days and forty nights.
The first stop is to receive the cross. Ash to the head by which you KNOW waywardness and its consequences. But remember that the ash is mixed with oil, the oil that seals you with the Spirit. Wearing that cross helps you find the groove. Wearing that cross is God's way of restoring the mission. Ashes are necessary to God's reign. Ashes are the stuff from which a new creation emerges. Create a new heart, the Psalmist pleaded, renew, restore, and sustain.
But even as ashes are necessary for the new creation so is water. Concentrated church year in a can becomes useful-if not delicious, when water is added. It takes a little time, maybe six weeks, for the mixture to reach its desired state, but the nourishment will come it will taste good, and it will last. After a while you will notice that with the church year the water will begin to look like wine, even with ash residue, and it will dawn on you that the ashes of this day, like the confession of the Psalmist, lead to the great Sabbath, when our Lord Christ, together with the Father, and the Spirit will open your lips to sing the long awaited.... And there the ashes bid us stop, for it is necessary that we concentrate now, at first, at the beginning, on the ashen cross.