Ash Wednesday – Meditation and Service Elements

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The following is the meditation from last night’s Ash Wednesday service as well as a short description of part of our service.

Texts used:
Psalm 51:1-16 and 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10
*Note: Though we have been reading from The Message in recent weeks, something about the solemnity of Ash Wednesday caused me to want to revert back to the New Revised Standard Version. That’s what we read last night, and that’s what I’m posting here.*

The Bible is full of water:

  • Powerful waters like the waters that crashed down on Pharaoh’s army after the Israelites had safely crossed the Red Sea with Moses
  • Life-saving waters like the waters at Meribah that sprung from a rock and refreshed the Israelites as they wandered through the desert
  • Muddy waters of the River Jordan in which John baptized Jesus
  • Unassuming jars of water that Jesus miraculously transformed into wine at the wedding feast in Cana
  • Symbolic water
    • Proverbs – Like a cool drink of water when you’re worn out and weary is a letter from a long-lost friend.[1]
    • Amos – But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.[2]
    • 2 Samuel – We all die sometime. Water spilled on the ground can’t be gathered up again. But God does not take away life. [God] works out ways to get the exile back.[3]
  • Water acting as a draw for those who are seeking, even when they don’t know yet that they are seeking
    • Disabled man who begged for Jesus’ healing at the pool called Bethesda[4]
    • Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well – went for a simple pitcher of water, left with more than she could have ever guessed: A woman, a Samaritan, came to draw water. Jesus said, “Would you give me a drink of water?” … The Samaritan woman, taken aback, asked, “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” … Jesus answered, “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water. … Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst – not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.”[5]

Friends, tonight we gather to set out on another Lenten journey – a journey through the wilderness and deserts of our own lives and spirits, a journey of self-reflection and repentance and examining our faith, a journey toward a hill and a cross and a tomb made of stone.

We mark the beginning of that journey this evening with the opposite of water – with anointing oil and a cross of ash. God’s chastising words to Adam ring in our ears: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”[6] Sometimes the paths we’re walking feel more like oil – like everything that is life-giving and spirit-refreshing is somehow repelled, constantly pushed away from us and kept just out of reach. Sometimes the paths we’re walking feel more like ash – like everything that is life-giving and spirit-refreshing has been burned away, leaving us only with a dark smudge of what we thought we knew. Our passage from 2 Corinthians[7] tonight spoke to this. It spoke of times when we face hardships and calamities and sleepless nights. I cannot help but think of the 21 Egyptian Christians that were killed by ISIS this past week when I read these words – men who truly suffered persecution, beatings, and imprisonment; men who paid a price many of us cannot even fathom for their faith: life itself.

In times of sorrow and pain like this, whether it is pain we ourselves are experiencing or pain that we feel on behalf of others who are suffering, we want to cry out to God. We want to ask why and how, to demand a rhyme and a reason for what we know in our hearts is truly discordant and unreasonable. We cry out to God for comfort, for reassurance, for God’s life-giving, spirit-refreshing self. We hear this cry in our psalm tonight: Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love … Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me![8]

And what is the reply that we hear from God? “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters … Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.”[9]

And so tonight we also mark the beginning of our Lenten journey with water in all its vital, restorative splendor. Because sometimes the paths we’re walking are bathed in blessings, giving us the opportunity to not only experience that life-giving, spirit-refreshing presence of God but also to be that presence for those who need it most.

We gather together this evening as people of faith – people whose faith lies in a God of love and forgiveness, a God of grace and mercy, a God of hope. We recognize that it is through the waters of baptism that we are immersed in the body of Christ, the covenant family of the Church universal, and the incredible community that we so lovingly and uniquely call OZ. Through the waters of baptism, God claims us, working in us the power of forgiveness, the renewal of the spirit, and the knowledge that we are indeed called to be God’s people always. Instead of God’s stern words to Adam, it is God’s words through Paul that resonate in our hearts: Become friends with God; [God is] already a friend with you. … In Christ, God put the wrong on him who never did anything wrong, so we could be put right with God.[10] It’s not extraordinary water. It’s not special water. It’s not magic water. It’s only and entirely the grace of God, soothing, refreshing, and pure.

So whatever path our journeys have taken up to know, we come with the words of Psalm 51 on our lips: Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is every before me. … Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.[11] Amen.

Bringing Ourselves and Our Burdens to God

Tonight, I’m asking you to write your struggles, your burdens, your worries and fears and all those things that are holding you back in your relationship with God down on the small piece of paper that’s in your bulletin. When you’re ready, I’m going to ask you to fold your paper in half, come up to the front, and place it in the basin at the foot of the cross.

*We used a large glass bowl, sort of like a giant fishbowl. At the bottom of the bowl were 3″ fluted mason nails. People piled their folded pieces of paper on top of the nails. The paper itself was a special paper – what Amazon called “Spy Paper.” The papers remained there in the bowl at the foot of the cross until the very end of the service*

Benediction

“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Friends, (**POUR WATER**) let the life-giving, spirit-refreshing waters of God’s grace wash over you. Remember the words from 2 Samuel: God does not take away life. God works out ways to get the exile back. As you leave this place this evening, I invite you to reach through the water, through the remains of those struggles and burdens that you’ve been facing, and take a nail with you as a tangible reminder of (**BENEDICTION**) the love of God, the peace of Christ, and the companionship of the Holy Spirit that goes with you always. Amen.

*As I poured the 2 prepared pitchers of water over the folded pieces of paper, they began to instantly dissolve. By the time people began reaching in to retrieve their nails, all those burdens and struggles and worries that people had written down were gone. To be totally honest, I would’ve liked the water to have been clearer. But as one of my parishioners pointed out afterward, it was powerful to have to reach through the murkiness and obscurity created by the dissolved burdens in order to grab hold of those nails. Amen and amen.*

[1] Prov 25:25.

[2] Amos 5:24 (NRSV).

[3] 2 Sam 14:14.

[4] Jn 5:1-18.

[5] Jn 4:7, 9a, 10, 13-14.

[6] Gen 3:19 (NRSV).

[7] 2 Cor 5:20b-6:10 (NRSV).

[8] Ps 51:1, 11 (NRSV).

[9] Is 55:1, 3 (NRSV).

[10] 2 Cor 5:21

[11] Ps 51:2-3, 7, 10, 12.

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