The Urgency of Ashes: an Ash Wednesday Sermon

Ecumenical Ash Wednesday: March 1, 2017

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Pittsfield.

Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17

If you’re not trembling, you’re not paying attention. Or so says the prophet Joel. “Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near. A day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.” Every year on Ash Wednesday, we read this text from the 3-chapter book of the Prophet Joel. In the prior chapter, we learn of this overwhelming plague in the land, a scale of comprehensive devastation unseen in the memory of any generation. Joel writes in Chapter 1:4:

4 What the cutting locust left,

   the swarming locust has eaten.

What the swarming locust left,

   the hopping locust has eaten,

and what the hopping locust left,

   the destroying locust has eaten. “

Joel makes the connection from their current devastation by locusts to the potential devastation when God comes in judgment. You think this is bad now, just you wait, says the prophet. If you’re not trembling, you’re not paying attention.

Now, mainline Protestants are not prone to taking our sense of urgency from the coming day of the Lord. I think of evangelical friends who would wake up in a cold sweat to find their parents gone from their house and presume the rapture, rather than getting the newspaper at the end of the driveway. I think of Pentecostal friends whose urgency for conversion and right relationship was motivated by the unknown day of reckoning, so you got dressed in your Sunday best and you got saved. Much of our Scriptures are written with the presumption that judgment by God is scheduled in the near future but the date unknown. Days of judgment are of comfort to people under the heel of oppression. If things aren’t getting better, at least your oppressor will be judged, and hopefully soon. But for most mainline Protestants, a greater sense of urgency is more likely prompted by the close of the fiscal year or annual meeting than a coming day of judgment. And if we’re honest, most primarily white mainline Protestants have not felt communal pressure to get our house in order because of a coming judgment. The status quo works for us, so why change?

Like the locust in the land of Judah, this land, the very ground beneath our feet has been visited upon by waves of plagues over generations:

What the colonization of native lands left,

     The enslavement of Africans took up,

What the enslavement of Africans left,

      The destruction by Jim Crow took up,

And what the destruction of Jim Crow left,

       The continued and pernicious structural racism and white privilege has taken up.

There are twice as many black men under correctional control today than there were under slavery in 1850. If we’re not trembling, we’re not paying attention.

Into this cataclysmic moment of destruction for the people of Judah, the prophet Joel says “ Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” Yet even now. Again and again in scripture, before God’s judgment comes the opportunity to repent. Before God’s judgment comes the opportunity to repent precisely because of who God is- gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. The God who we worship relents from punishing. God wants us to repent, to get into right relationship with God and one another. Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me.

We tend to treat Lent as a solitary walk through the desert, forty days alone in the img_1243

wilderness set aside for intense personal introspection. At our worst, Lent is a magazine cover promise of contorted self-betterment: 40 days to a thinner waist, or 40 days to quickly kick that addiction to alcohol, to spending, to gambling.   At our best, Lent is a New England snow pile, a slow time to melt away all that covers up the crap we’ve tried to hide from God and ourselves. This personal practice isn’t wrong, it’s just incomplete. In Joel, the repentance is communal.


If you want to make like Baptists, you can open your bibles with me to Joel Chapter 2, starting at verse 15. “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; 16 gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. 17 Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.” The solemn assembly, God’s people gathered to repent is intentionally inclusive. Gather the all people. The nursing child and the nursing home resident, even the newly weds are pulled from their marital bed. God’s people squeeze in tight, and the ministers begin the communal petition: “Spare your people, O Lord.”

The good news is not only of our God of second, third, fourth and fifth chances, but that we do not repent alone.

This is why, as generations of flawed and faithful people before us have, we gather this night, not alone, but communally and annually. God knows our habits. We know how to respond to the clang of a fire alarm, the insistent text from a devastated friend. We are a generous people when the devastation is sudden and visible. But we struggle to respond the habituated devastation of addiction, of unstable housing, of despair, of racism. In God’s parental care for us, Lent shows up whether we are ready or not. There is an urgency to our ashes.

Recently, a friend’s small son decided, unsupervised, to do a naked belly flop into pile of glitter he poured onto the hardwood floor. Confronted with her stark child, a glitter-bellied Sneech of a four-year old, she threw him in the tub. As she reported later, “it turns out that bathing my glitter-bellied child is just a way to redistribute glitter all over the rest of one’s body, and the tub. I do not recommend this strategy.” That’s the thing about sin, it gets all over. We need one another to help get to the spots we cannot reach.

Each Ash Wednesday as the night goes on, the ashes slide across our foreheads: a bit transferring to an old friend we hug after church, a smidge getting on our hat as we walk into the cold night, staining the wash cloth as we stand in front of the bathroom sink, molecules of carbon on our finger tips as we retrace the lines on our forehead.

There is no clean. We are all smudged, marked by the very reality that our time on this earth is limited, and to dust we shall return. And we who apply the ashes are the most besmirched of all, the ashes getting under our finger nails, into our pockets, on the cuffs of our nice white robes, on the pages of our bibles and into the palm of every hand we shake. Without even paying attention, the ash creeps into every fold of our wrinkled skin and every corner of our house. Part of the fantasia of white privilege is the myth that we can somehow stay unsullied by the sins of racism. But there is no clean.

I confess to you, for years, I thought that if only I get my behavior perfect enough, I would be clean. The plagues on our land have been so thoroughgoing that there is no clean. The cheap fabric in my shirt was likely woven by children laboring for unfair wages in unsafe conditions, the gas in my car pulled from the earth at an unsustainable rate, the home I return to this night was likely affordable for my family because unjust lending policies redlined black families, the food tomorrow morning picked by migrants longing for reunited families and living in fear. Lent invites our reflection on just how complicit we are communally, not so that we get stuck in our trembling, but so we learn to pay attention, and maybe, as a people, feel the urgency of the prophet’s call to change.

An invitation to you, and to me this Lent: Even as we practice our personal discipline these forty days, what will we do communally? What is the trumpet that is sounding now, calling this community to repentance? The fierce urgency of now that Rev. King spoke of in 1963, is already 54 years in the waiting. In 1963 he said,

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late.”

There is such a thing as being too late. Even now.

Hear again the invitation from our God this night:

Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart.

 This is our God. Let us gather together and return to the Lord. Amen.

Published by RevEverett

I'm a pastor in the United Church of Christ here in Boston. I serve as the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Cycliss, seamstress, my book is "Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels." NJ by birth, MA by choice. Opinions are my own. Love abounds.

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