Thursday, February 23, 2012

Sermon for Ash Wednesday: Walking Dead and Dirty

"Walking Dead and Dirty"

Preached at House for All Sinners and Saints
Denver, Colorado
Ash Wednesday
22 February 2012

Texts: Joel 2.1-2, 12-17
Psalm 51.1-17
2 Corinthians 5.20-6.10
Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21


-For those of you who are new to Ash Wednesday and Lent, and wondering what to give up; or if you’re intimidated by all the “spiritual ninjas” and people reading 800 page Russian novels, let an old pro share a trade secret with you: try just giving up something you don’t like. “What’s my Lenten discipline? I think I’ll give up...doing the dishes…or drinking bad coffee…or watching Fox News!” You might feel like a bratty two-year old; but you’re guaranteed to feel a lot less guilt.

-If I was a two-year old again, I know exactly what I would “give up:” finger-painting. It would be a tough sacrifice. But worth it for the love of Jesus.

-I hated finger-painting. Hated anything, really, that required me to get icky and slimy. If you’d have asked me back in the day to help impose dirty ashes on people, I’d have said hell no. My parents joked that when I got married, they’d buy me china plates that had those little divider compartments built into it so I could keep my food neatly separated. I'm still waiting for them to come in the mail.

-And while I can stand before you today proudly able to share that I now feel perfectly comfortable smearing dirt on your foreheads, it’s made me think about today’s psalm. Because my automysophobic younger self wasn’t the only one looking for cleanliness. The Psalmist David gives voice to his desperate longing to be “washed thoroughly from his iniquity.”

-And for good reason. As Leonard Cohen sings in a song-that-must-not-be-named now that it's Lent, the great king and hero of Israel, like so many great leaders, was also great at making scandal. This time around, David saw the beautiful Bathsheba bathing on her roof, lures her to the palace where he promptly gets her pregnant, and then sends her husband to the front lines in the war to get killed off. And when the prophet Nathan calls him out, David is contrite and writes the very song we sang to open tonight’s service. Pleading with his God, “create in me a clean heart.”

-For all his rep as a “man after God’s heart,” this gangster version, this Kingpin David feels more real (except for the whole giving your lover's husband a cement bath in the river thing). It feels strangely fitting to pray his words. The words of a fellow sinner.

-And apparently, it feels fitting to lots of other folks too. I was surprised to learn during seminary that the most highly attended church service of the year is not Christmas or even Easter, but Ash Wednesday. Going out to the coffee shop on this day, it’s quite shocking to see just how many folks have suddenly remembered they are dust, and to dust they shall return.

-Witnessing otherwise ordinary, familiar citizens suddenly walking about dazed and black-crossed felt eerily like stumbling into a zombie movie – “Dawn of the Living Dead…Christians!” Where did they all suddenly come from??? As much as we strive to avoid the reality of Sin and Death - an avoidance that the Therapeutic Industrial Complex is all too willing to assist with – like an undead horde drawn to the sweet smell of brains, something about Ash Wednesday re-animates people’s neglected inner Sinner, and with it, an insatiable hunger for ritual and forgiveness.

-And I wonder if what draws people is the very dirty, cathartic practice of having some one else smudge an ashen cross on your forehead. Being told by someone that is NOT you, that, believe it or not, you are a sinner. Sin is real. You are going to die. Because if we’re honest with ourselves – which we can’t be! - its damn hard to admit on our own.

-Hard to confess that all have the deep capacity for self-deception. The deranged desire to take what is not ours. The staggering capacity to do damage to those we claim to love most. And no matter how many crossbow bolts of grace God fires into our hearts, like good zombies we keep on getting back up. Keep insisting, like the guy in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “I’m not dead yet!”

-It’s much easier for me to get divided china plates. Try to organize my own little micro-managed kingdom of purity, where the messiness is held at bay. Put up dividing walls in my heart, relegating the unclean and the imperfect into the shadows, while creating Lenten disciplines to perform and ladders of good works and merit to climb towards the light. Away from the reality that my heart is a BS factory. And towards some ideal of purity and holiness that enables me to feel like “a good person.”

-Because of course, then the messiness remains always out there, always somewhere else. Never with us. Our cleanliness costs other people theirs, but as long as we remember to pray for the souls of Frederick Douglass or Malcolm X (whose deaths we commemorate this week), we can continue to congratulate ourselves for our progressivism and enlightenment - without having to face the fact that sin is also a system. A system into which we pay dearly to keep our delusions of justice operating. A system in which we are deeply invested, and from which we continue to greatly profit. A system that numbs us, infects us, zombifies us.

-If cheap grace remains a problem, it’s only because we’re prolific at manufacturing and exporting cheap Sin, regardless of who chokes on the smog. If your iPhone was made in China, say Amen.

-That’s why I’m thankful for David’s confession. Because he names it. He says he can’t do it. Can’t make himself clean. Can’t stop lying to himself, can’t take back the damage he’s done. He is not a free man or a mighty king. He is slave to sin. He is walking dead. Can only cry out, “do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me!”

-Like David confronted by the prophet Nathan, on Ash Wednesday, when you come forward tonight to receive ashes from another, you too are confronted. You are not asked to present a catalogued list of sins. You are not expected to make excuses, or even to have them. You are not able to. When your forehead is marked by the cross, it is no longer a fellow sinner’s hand, but Christ’s. Christ, not asking for your opinion, if you think Sin exists. You are being told. Christ Himself confronts you, violently and prophetically, with the very truth of reality, spelled out in ash, in oil, and in blood. You cannot be honest with yourself. You are not clean, but dirt and dust. You are enslaved to Sin. You are helpless. You are dead.

-If it stopped there, we’d be better off zombies. But we are not just marked for death. We are signed with the cross. And not just by any cross, but with the cross of Jesus Christ. Forever. Marked by the love of the one who, full of grace and truth, did not despise us in our dirtiness, but joined us in it. Took on our ashes and dust. Descended to earth, that he might be lifted up from it on the tree of Calvary. Lifted up by our hands. To awaken us up to to zombie slaves we have become. But also to save us. To “create in us a clean heart.” To “restore us,” as David sings, “to the joy of salvation.” To “deliver us from bloodshed,” that “our tongues might sing of your deliverance.”

-You see, when someone else crosses you tonight, you are not only being claimed from something, but for someone. You are not merely a reanimated corpse, not merely un-dead. You are snatched from the chaos of sin and death that we humans have created, and from that void and darkness, God promises to make a new thing. When that hand smudges dirt on your forehead, it is the very hand of Jesus Christ, reaching through our muddy thoughts into the very depth of our souls, shaping in us a new heart, a heart that is capable of grace, truth, and love. A heart that is not hard and full of walls. But a heart that is soft, full of roots and water, where humility, beauty, and wonder can take seed and flourish.

-Receiving a new heart is not easy work. As David sings in the Psalm, his bones must be crushed, his body broken, before he can learn to sing. His self-deception must be utterly dismantled. Things will get dirty. When God sets out to make us new, God will do what God must to make it happen. Being marked by the cross of Christ, we are joined with him in his death.

-But the Good News, brothers and sisters, is that we are also claimed and joined to Christ’s abundant life. Our sin is taken into his perfection, our violence is dissolved in His peace, our hearts beat with His lifeblood. We are joined in intimate and mystical union with Jesus, whose Spirit dwells and animates your hearts, whose body surrounds you tonight, in this gathered people. Union with Christ, whose flesh and blood will be our feast. Whose grace alone opens our lips, whose song is our song, whose joy is our hope, his love our promise. We may be walking dead. But we never walk alone.

-Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Remember also that you are Christ’s, and by Christ’s Spirit, you are truly, fully alive. Amen.


  1. Dude, this was amazing! From one sinner to another, thank you for your words.

  2. This ash Wednesday, while having ashes spread on my forehead, I was especially awaken to my gender sin when the priest said "women. from dust you were made and to dust you shall return". Never before have I experienced the word "women" as I did in that moment.
    Thank God for compunction experienced in and through grace!