Ash Wednesday, Matthew 6:1-18, Psalm 51, Sermons

Wash Me Clean

(A meditation for Ash Wednesday March 9, 2011 Psalm 51:1-17; Matthew 6:1-18)

It’s Ash Wednesday, and there are some years when I feel less like Lent than others, and this is one of them. I want a different approach, not self-denial, as if giving up chocolate in my coffee will somehow make me more like Jesus.


That’s not the way to Jerusalem I feel called to walk this year. Lent is man-made, whether you see it as a season for giving things up that distract you or taking things on you believe will improve you. It’s all human-organized. And it’s hilarious to me that out in the word people are talking and tweeting and Facebooking about the things (wine, beer, candy, desserts, even Twitter and Facebook!) that they will eschew for 40 days or so, minus Sundays, when the gospel for tonight clearly says, “don’t talk about it to anyone.”

Don’t show your self-denial. Show your joy. Wash your face and do your hair and show that shining beauty of God’s love to the world. Only God needs to know about what’s happening inside, what you’re going through, what you’ve given up, what you’ve laid aside to be able to have that face.

Don’t show off.

Don’t show off, or you just find a new way to commit sin.

Now, sin is a word that makes us uncomfortable. We seek euphemisms for it, because we want to soften what we assume will be the Almighty response to our failings and foibles. Sin is what Psalm 51 describes, not from an outward and accusatory perspective, but from an inner vantage point that works through a process of identifying sin and expressing remorse and receiving forgiveness. It reminds us of the essential human experience of being divided from the divine, and of the actions we wish we hadn’t undertaken, as well as of the feeling of being dirty because we think we are disconnected from God.  And that feeling of being in a discordant relationship is the key to understanding sin.

Sin is anything that gets in the way of our relationship with God.

So, on some level, it’s the human condition. We are distracted by the material world we have made out of God’s creation. We are distracted by other people. More and more we are distracted by the noise of the entire world bearing down on us 24 hours a day on the television and the Internet. All these things distract us from relating to God, but I promise you the people of Jesus’ time had their own distractions, things that led them to look for a way to maneuver themselves back into God’s good graces. It was their ritual approach to getting right with God that Jesus advised against.

He said, and I believe it, that God’s love is not available only if we do the right things in the manner accepted by the religious culture around us. God–thank God!!–loves us, no matter what.

The question here is not about God’s love but about our capacity to feel it. And the really crucial point from Matthew’s gospel is that Jesus asks us to rethink the human experience and trust that God will love us instead of believing the lie that we need to bargain God into that love and approval by showing off our capacity to be fancily faithful.

All we have to do is talk to God. The words don’t have to be glib or poetic. The fast we undertake doesn’t need to be public; it’s better if it isn’t.

Image found here

I know the difference between a sort of sorry and a real sorry. I bet you do, too. In my life I have been a master of the defensive “sorry” that really means, please tell me it wasn’t my fault! This is not the sorry of Psalm 51. The Psalm speaks of our hearts being broken, or I would say broken open. It speaks of having a contrite heart, which to me means being able to own the disconnection from God or the inaction in our lives or the violation of another person. It means to want things to be different, genuinely different, going forward.
We sometimes manage to convince ourselves that others feel this way when they don’t, really. We usually know better about ourselves.

God is smart enough to know the difference. And the place where healing occurs, where the oil of forgiveness can spread into all the cracks of our brokenness, where the water of new life washes away any feeling of being soiled, is the place where we really, truly mean our “sorry.”

Any limitation on forgiveness is not God’s; it’s ours.

So give up chocolate if it helps you get there. If I happen to do it, I won’t tell you about it. If I’ve thought up something else, I’ll keep that to myself, too. I’ll just do my best to keep washing my face and conditioning my hair and showing up in the world hoping to share an awareness of the one whose grace washes me clean in the way that matters most. Amen.

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