I don't usually post my sermon manuscripts on the site for a number of reasons that I won't bother recounting. The homily from Ash Wednesday wasn't recorded, though. And a good friend was willing to do some brilliant copy editing on short notice. So, the full text is below. Note that the scripture passage is Isaiah 58:1-12. Click here to read it.
Ash Wednesday Homily
"Day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God."
In these verses, Isaiah is taking a message from God to the people of Israel. No need to read between the lines; there isn't more than meets the eye here. Take God's words at face value. He is calling the Israelites hypocrites. They fast but complain that God doesn't notice. They humble themselves but wonder why God won't give them credit.
God's people can't figure out why their apparent adherence to the most basic spiritual disciplines is not making headlines in heaven. Nothing they do seems to work. Their devotion to discipline is admirable, but it's not effective. Something is wrong.
It is the prophet Isaiah who identifies the problem with an objectivity that should make us all cover our eyes. The secret is out. The charade is over. The Israelites devotion to discipline is getting in the way of God's love. They have disguised their true motivation by deforming the discipline into a material exchange of good behavior for God's blessing.
God's response is specific, abrupt, and complete. No, God says, you missed the mark and the point. You are hypocrites who make a mockery of our relationship by reducing me to a candy store clerk. I don't want your fraudulently earned fast or your corrupted humility. I want you to stop the hypocrisy and come back when you loosen the bonds of injustice. Check in after you undo the thongs of the yoke. Text me when you let the oppressed go free. Call me when you break every yoke and share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your house, cover the naked, and stop hiding from your own kin.
The Israelites are in a bind. God has just called them out for their hypocrisy. That makes me wonder: What's this got to do with us? Are we innocent bystanders who stumbled on an old family feud? Can we claim the jubilant promises of God that close this passage without also accepting the judgment that introduced it? I wish this text was an artifact to be admired for it's antiquity, but it is not. It's not a relic that we've preserved for the sake of historical accuracy. The judgment has withstood the test of time, and we are as culpable of being religious hypocrites as Isaiah's original audience.
The season of lent is an opportunity for us to take the words of the prophet and present ourselves to God as people who need to be shook up. Hypocrites don't reform until someone loves them enough to tell them the truth, that their words, their soul, and their actions don't resemble each other. Each of you has shown up on a Wednesday night for worship because you've heard the sound of your own soul, and the sound lacks harmony. Instead of a sweet song, there is dissonance. What should be is not. What can be seems impossible. What will be is unknown. That is the chorus of a dissonant soul, a broken spirit, a life that longs to be shook up.
Tonight can be the beginning of that journey towards wholeness. To bear the mark of the cross on your forehead, and recall that you are dust and to the dust you will return, is an act of rebellion. You are rebelling against the myth that God is through transforming you. You are rebelling against the myth that the God of eternity is too far removed from real life to be known by name and to know your name. You are rebelling against the myth that we will live forever, that we possess the power to design our own destiny, that neither life nor death is to be feared.
Is it possible to be free from the tyranny of a restless soul? Do these ashes have magical power to relieve the soul from it's own undoing? No, this is the paradox of living in the face of a death that is certain. We are all living and dying at the same time, deconstructing and rebuilding in the same moment, breaking down and building up, over and over, year after year, season after season, day after day, whether we dare admit it or not. Friends come and go, life moves along, things are born and die -- to be born and built again. This is life; most of it is not in your control. To admit this truth is the beginning of a journey towards freedom.
Take a rock with you tonight. Let it be a reminder that the earth moved, God shook it up, and a chunk of creation is in your hands. The rock is integral, it is whole. In it there are no lies, hypocrisy, or charades. The rock will not move when you're not looking. The rock will not die if you forget about it for a day. It is self-sufficient and eternal. It is broken from creation, yet it remains whole. The rock got shook up and survived.
If you dare to offer yourself to God as a broken soul that's worthy of bearing the cross on the front of your head, be prepared to be shook up. Know that God's got you covered. God's promises go like this:
"The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in."
You can stand on the rock of ages. Give your restless soul a break.