A Sermon from the Church of
Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 22, 2023 (Ash Wednesday)
I’m not a big fan of makeup mirrors. The only time I ever see myself in one is when I accidentally, and horrifyingly, glance over at one in a hotel bathroom. Now, I realize some of you are used to this view, but I’m not. And so it’s always rather jarring when I look up and come face-to-face with that magnified, hyper close-up image staring back at me. It’s shocking to see all of those blemishes in high definition, and I quickly avert my eyes.
In a sense, Ash Wednesday is a makeup mirror kind of day. Our entrance into the season of Lent compels us to take stock of our lives and gaze deeply into the intentions of our hearts. We can’t just take a superficial glance in the mirror, as we might check our hair in the hall mirror on our way out the door. Today requires a deeper look.
And the reality is that it’s not always a pleasant view. We are sinful beings in need of repentance. That doesn’t necessarily make us bad people, it’s just a reality of the human condition.
But one way we authentically look into the mirror, as the ash Wednesday liturgy starkly highlights, is by confessing our sins. We do this every Sunday, of course, as part of the General Confession. We look in the mirror and acknowledge those things we have done, and those things we have left undone. We say we’re sorry, we promise to do better, and we are absolved of our sins in the name of Jesus. And this cycle of confession, repentance, and the assurance of forgiveness should be, must be, a regular part of our spiritual lives. It both holds us accountable and reminds us of God’s loving mercy; of God’s joy for the one who repents and returns to the Lord.
But today is a makeup mirror kind of day. And so we can’t just say the words and move on with the service which, if we’re honest, sometimes happens on Sunday mornings. As we prayed at the start of this service, we gather today to “lament our sins” and “acknowledge our wretchedness.” That’s hard language. But it does shake us out of the complacency of confession that often marks our words on Sunday morning. It helps to both pierce and open our hearts.
On Sundays one of the priests says, “Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.” We usually leave at least a few moments of silence before launching into the confession. “Most merciful God…” But if you’re really struggling with something you’ve done or left undone, those few moments aren’t really enough space in which to fully reflect and repent. Before you know it, we’ve confessed, been absolved, moved on the Peace, and suddenly someone’s trying to shake your hand while you’re still trying to acknowledge your wretchedness.
Ash Wednesday spreads this out. In many ways it’s an extended version of that brief silence between the bidding of the confession and the confession itself. And I encourage you to embrace it. To spend the time to lament and acknowledge that which stands between you and God. That’s what sin is, after all. It’s that which separates you from the love of God.
And God wants to remove any barriers, anything that keeps you at a distance. God wants you within reach, not at arm’s length. Which is why confessing our sins, removing those obstacles, brings us into deeper relationship with the risen Christ. And it’s precisely why I don’t think you can talk about sin without talking about love.
That may sound counterintuitive. But Lent in general, and Ash Wednesday in particular, isn’t merely a time set aside to feel bad about ourselves. We may all be “miserable offenders” with “no health in us” as the old confession from the 1928 Prayer Book put it. But that’s not our full identity. We are beloved children of God who, out of shame or fear, fall away and turn away and run away from God’s deep and abiding love for us. In a word, we are human. And God loves us anyway. Deeply and unconditionally.
In a few moments, you will be invited, in the name of the Church, into the observance of a “holy Lent.” And I think it’s helpful to reflect upon what this means. And to remember that, popular misconceptions aside, we are not invited to keep a miserable Lent or a guilt-ridden Lent or a gloomy Lent or even a wretched Lent, but a holy Lent. And holy simply means “set apart for God.” You, in all your imperfections, have been set apart for God. Because God loves you. And in the same way, we are invited to set apart some time for God. Through prayer, worship, reading, whatever your particular Lenten devotion may be. Whatever allows you to set apart some time to spend with God.
As you enter into this holy season, I invite you to acknowledge not just your sinfulness, but God’s loving grace. These ashes aren’t just a reminder of your own mortality, but a sign of God’s abundant and abiding love for you. Remember that you are dust, yes, but remember also that you are God’s beloved child. That Jesus rejoices at your presence this day; forgives you when you humbly repent of your sinfulness; and seeks after you in goodness and mercy all the days of your life.
I look forward to walking into the wilderness of Lent with all of you this year. May we emerge emboldened in our faith, and be drawn ever nearer to the heart of Jesus.