Preaching Ash Wednesday

February 14th, 2022

Ash Wednesday preaching. It’s quiet, and brief. People come for the ashes, not a mountain of words. And yet we must preach. Perhaps such preaching should be poetic, and it wouldn’t hurt the preacher to ponder T.S. Eliot’s moving “Ash Wednesday” as mental and spiritual preparation.

I think a lot about the “mark of Cain” (Genesis 4:15); in negotiating his guilty status for killing his brother and being exiled “east of Eden,” Cain is marked by the Lord – as a sign of his guilt, but also as a sign of protection. Interacting with God on Ash Wednesday: we are guilty, and we are sheltered simultaneously by God’s mercy.

The mark of the gray/black cross on the forehead: I was struck the other day by an art exhibit we toured. An African-American painter, Leo Twiggs, produced a series of nine paintings dramatizing in commemoration of the vicious Charleston shootings of 9 church people by Dylann Roof in June, 2015. The series of 9 batiks begins with Mother Emmanuel church with an X as a target, then with a bloodied Confederate flag, which gradually through the series is transformed into 9 crosses soaring upward to heaven.

The Confederate flag is a grotesque perversion and abuse of the cross. And yet we all pervert and abuse the cross. Somehow Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the transformation of our perversion of the cross into the resurrection healing of Easter.

Of course, in our culture, it’s an uphill battle to persuade people they are in fact sinners. When I was in seminary a generation ago, I read the psychiatrist Karl Menninger’s astute book, Whatever Became of Sin?

He was right to ask. Through most of Christian history, you came to church to have your sins absolved; now people come to hang with people they like, and to see if the preacher agrees with their jaded views of the world.

And yet, as the preacher, you know it is futile to say You guys most certainly are sinners! Jonathan Edwards, in his “Sinners in the hands of an angry God,” would be theologically correct, but couldn’t muster much of a crowd in our day. How do we tease this out?

I love alternative images of sin to help people get the hang of things. Sin is trying to be Atlas, trying to be God (a la Genesis 3), hoisting the whole world on your shoulders… which is exhausting, isn’t it? Or you have blind spots. Or you are just self-indulgent, self-focused — and isn’t that exhausting? Wouldn’t it be a relief not to be the center of the universe? And we also flat out hurt other people, even those we love. This latter clarification is easy for people to identify with — and it’s crucial.

We have now in our pantheon of Presidents a stunning contrast you might just be daring enough to name. Donald Trump, while campaigning for election, was asked if he had ever sought forgiveness from God (video here). He shrugged, said “No,” and then clarified: “I don’t think in those terms. If something doesn’t work I try to make it right. I just try to do a better job.” Pastors might want to ding him – but really, he expressed in those words where the majority of mainline Christians live. We don’t think much about sin, and we really try to do better  missing the whole dynamic of sin / forgiveness / healing / empowerment! 

Not surprisingly, Trump named Norman Vincent Peale as his favorite preacher. Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking was and is big in American religiosity… but it is most assuredly not biblical. As my American Church History professor Stuart Henry used to say, “Paul is appealing, and Peale is appalling.”

Contrast President Trump with President Jimmy Carter, who rather famously, back in the 70’s, acknowledged that he had committed adultery in his mind, that he had harbored feelings of lust (citing Matthew 5:28, which just appeared in the lectionary). He wasn’t bragging, but sorrowful, humble, admitting sin in need of forgiveness, correction and healing. This says more about our culture, and the demise of healthy Christianity, than anything I can imagine.

As I preached on that text, it isn’t that God is a ruler with a ruler  like a fastidious, harsh schoolteacher ready to swat us down for sinful thoughts. It is rather that we grieve a profoundly loving God’s heart  and you grieve your own heart, however unwittingly. Understanding what is sin, seeking forgiveness and then healing, is a liberation, being set free from the bondage that really is our undoing.

Sometimes I wonder if Ash Wednesday preaching is simply a stammering, a shudder over our mortality, our brokenness, and the preacher, hardly saying anything at all, stands in awe with everyone else, pondering the sorrow of sin and the enormity and tenderness of God’s mercy. You just mutter a few phrases, then move on to the imposition of the ashes…

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission. 

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