A sermon for Ash Wednesday, 2019, at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio
Repentance is not an end in itself. Repentance is a right turn toward reconciliation. It is a re-turning toward the source of our life and our salvation, Almighty God, who is revealed to us in the eternal life, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Lent is a time to remember our need for penitence, for lament, for the rending of hearts and the tending of wounds. And it is a time to remember God’s mercy, which is ever-present and unfailing. In Lent, we bury
alleluia [the word of ululating praise] beneath our tongues, yet even in dust and ashes it is our song, tuning in to Christ’s love, our hope, the truth of God’s undying mercy.
We recognize in the dust and ashes of this Wednesday, struggling toward spring, the end of all mortal things, the futility of our little battles, our wasted breath, dust and ashes. We recognize Lent as a season of dust and ashes, of self-examination, confession, and penitence. We tend to remember less Lent’s roots in renewal, restoration, reconciliation.
But as we are invited to come forward to receive ashes as signs of our repentance and our need for God’s rescue, we are reminded that from the early days of the Church:
This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism [the Sacrament of a new life in Christ]. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. (Book of Common Prayer, 265)
It was a time of preparation not for death, but for newness of life, for restoration and reconciliation. Even in Lent, we serve a Resurrected Christ; our hope lies not in the tomb, where mortality crumbles, but in the promise of a life with God that cannot be contradicted even by death.
“Be reconciled to God,” Paul urges (2 Corinthians 5:20). “Return to the Lord your God, who is gracious and merciful,” Joel encourages, even in the midst of trouble, and prophecies of trouble to come (Joel 2:13). “Your Father sees you in secret,” Jesus tells us (Matthew 6:4,6,18).
God knows the secrets of our hearts, our bones, our lives, our closets, our hunger, our hypocrisy. God knows the secret of our basest fear: that the dust from which we were made will one day consume us. God knows not only the sins that we have committed but the sin that surrounds us and suffocates us, and the sins committed against us. God knows the dust that we carry on our feet, the dust that we are afraid to kick up, to disturb. God knows the secrets of our broken and bruised hearts, and of the hearts we have broken and abused. God knows.
We are dust, and to dust we shall return; but who made us out of dust and breathed life into us, and who counts the very particles of creation?
When Jesus encourages us to go into a closed and quiet room to pray, Jesus knows that we have memories that we find hard to reconcile to our image of ourselves, of our lives, of how the world should be; memories of our own making and memories of our own breaking.
Lent is an invitation to risk being honest with God, with ourselves, and with one another as a means to reconciliation.
In the Book of Common Prayer’s service of the Reconciliation of a Penitent (Form 2), the priest first prays for the one approaching the arms of God’s mercy, saying,
May God in [God’s] love enlighten your heart, that you may remember in truth all your sins and [God’s] unfailing mercy. (Book of Common Prayer, 449)
For one of a certain age in the world, the words “truth” and “reconciliation” in close proximity cannot fail to bring to mind the work of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, formed by President Nelson Mandela to find a way forward after the end of the rule of apartheid in South Africa. In his book, No Future Without Forgiveness, Archbishop Tutu described the Commission’s hard and heart-rending work of telling and hearing the true stories of the most abject sinners and the most appallingly sinned against. Remembering in truth the sins of those times was essential if there was to be a chance of reconciliation, a new life for that nation.
The legacy of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is not a sealed stack of stories. The work of reconciliation is not done. Telling the truth is an essential step towards repentance and reconciliation. Confession is good for the soul, but repentance is the work of a lifetime; a lifetime of working out how to live together, with ourselves, with one another, with God, in new and sustainable, honest and reconciling ways; working out how to do the daily work of mercy, love, and justice.
Archbishop Tutu wrote,
Reconciliation is liable to be a long-drawn-out-process with ups and downs, not something accomplished overnight… (No Future Without Forgiveness, 274)
Nor, maybe, in forty days. But let us begin this Lent on the work of truth-telling, about ourselves, about our sin and our sorrow, our woundedness and our wrongdoing, opening our hearts to the reconciling work of God already begun in us and among us, through the saving grace of God with us, Jesus Christ our Saviour, trusting always in the power of God to bring new life out of hopeless cases, resurrection where we least deserve or expect it.
Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (Image Books, 1999)