Monday, February 22, 2010

Ash Wednesday Sermon: Return with your whole heart

“Return with your whole heart”

Joel 2:12-18 and Mt 6:1-6, 16-18

I preached this sermon for the imposition of ashes service at St. Clement Church on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 17th, 2010

My friend Justin hated Ash Wed as a child. He recounted to me looking up at his mom, with a scratch of ash in the sign of the cross on her forehead and pulling at her clothes, asking her, pleading her to take the mark off.

Justin’s recollection ends here. I imagine his mother calming his distress with soothing words. I wouldn’t pass so quickly over his response, however. Perhaps Justin’s reaction is more than just a childhood discomfort with seeing change on his mother. She was marked. She wore on her forehead that which remains hidden to the innocent eyes of a child, the failure and regret of a parent.

On this day where we mark ourselves in ash and dirt, we allow our finitude, our sin and our death to pierce through the pretty masks we wear.

We mark ourselves in our finitude. It does not belong to us to be anything but creatures. A pastor and poet named Walter Bruegermann writes

“we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
of failed hope and broken promises,
of forgotten children and frightened women,
we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.”

We mark ourselves in our sin. We admit our wrongs as wrongs and not merely accidents. In a radically counter cultural way, we admit to failing; we have sinned. We don’t do that in America, certainly not publicly.

In this church today, we don’t mark ourselves, admit to wrong, to pick at the scabs of our failings. We mark ourselves so as to begin a journey.

Today we begin Lent, joining with Christ as he spends 40 days in the wilderness. It is always in the wilderness that Israel is called back to recommit to God.

In the first reading, Joel calls us to this journey today: Return to me with your whole heart.

This is message sent for the chosen people in Joel. The whole world struggles with this. Today, this is a message for us who have chosen to be in this church. In these words we are both radically welcomed, even as we are beckoned to wholeness

Return to me with your whole heart.

How do I come with a divided heart?

Many of us within these walls are shamebound. My shame shackles parts of myself away, keeping it out of sight of the community? Instead of shame, it may instead be my ambition. I put my best foot forward and I strive to look great on paper. To rise in society today, one must master well the maxim, “fake it until you make it.” For better or worse, we catholics have sung that tune for a long time.

It may instead be fear that divides my heart. I’m not ready to set aside my anger, my frustration, or even my sense of guilt, so I’ve quarantined it off, and leave it at home. It is out of God’s reach, free of the risk that an encounter with God entails.

We mark ourselves with ashes today so as to begin journey

Return to me with your whole heart

But a journey can only begin with where your two feet are at. I must start where I stand. It takes grace from god to see myself honestly.

Return to the Lord

Return with your anger

Return with your doubt

Return with you fear

With your feelings of inadequacy.

Return with the knowledge that your words have commited violence

Knowing that your silence has meant a failure to share your love.

Return with the injustice in society of which we are a part

Return equally with your beauty, with your relationships, with your success, with your joys, with your praise.

Return, Return, Return to your lord.


The ashes we wear already speak volumes: we wear on our forehead all of this. We need, as Joel says, to do the same with our interior, to bring our whole heart.

In order to begin to the journey, we have to see where our two feet are at. We have to accept ourselves as accepted by god. We have to accept ourselves as accepted by god and we have to trust our God who may and will transform us. God calls us to wholeness, not prettiness.

Return to the Lord, your god.

In our parish there are many ways we make this journey with Christ. We do it in our fast and in our penance. We are invited each and every Friday to walk with Jesus through his passion in the stations of the cross here at St. Clements.


Jesus tells us today how to begin this journey and how to return.

We are called to enter the inner room,- we seek a place of solitude. We are told to close the door. We shut our mouths, and we are silent. We listen. We allow the light of god guide our attention, sifting through the whole of ourselves, and we seek the hidden father. This is the true secret of ash Wednesday. Every journey is filled with anticipation for what is to come. We seek the father who is hidden within us. We move towards Easter.





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