Between the Porch and the Altar
The following is a sermon preached in ACU Graduate Chapel on March 1, 2017.
Sermon Text: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Today is Ash Wednesday—a day set aside for people of God to remember our lowliness—our earthiness—our rootedness in an ever-so-fragile existence.
I did not grow up in a church that regularly observed Ash Wednesday. In fact, I did not learn about this day in the Christian calendar until I went to college and happened to visit an Episcopal church with a friend for their Ash Wednesday service.
I recall feeling so nervous as I sat on that pew—feeling like a fish out of water—a Church of Christer in such a high church context. I did my best to follow the service, to keep up with the call and response, the rising and kneeling, the singing and silence. Eventually we were called to enter the aisle to receive Eucharist and ashes. I grew increasingly anxious, as I had never before received communion in this fashion. I had always just taken my little piece of stale cracker and semi-congealed grape juice as it conveniently arrived by tray. But on this particular evening, I would have to move beyond my comfortable seat, into the aisle. I would walk down to the front of the church, vulnerable and awkward, and I would receive the gift of ashes and communion on my knees.
When I arrived down front, my shaky knees clumsily landed on the kneeling bench—where this kind stranger with gentleness, and yet the deepest sadness, looked upon me and said, “From dust you came, and to dust you will return.” Marked with ashes, I received communion and returned to my seat. I remember feeling rattled, exposed, and weak. I was pronounced fragile dust, as I knelt before a stranger.
Today, so many years later, again I feel fragile and weak. I feel burdened and tired. My nerves are positively singed from being summoned every waking moment to see the havoc raging all about me. Every morning I oscillate between reading the news, or carrying on in blissful ignorance. Nine out of ten days, I read the news, and I despair.
As injustice conquers the seat of governance, my anxiety brews within me. I find myself running to the rescue of whatever semblance of truth I can testify to, only to find truth being buried in the sand by those who are much more powerful than I.
We are under attack.
WE ARE UNDER ATTACK!
And when I say that we are under attack, no I don’t refer to that delicate and overly-sensitive American Evangelical notion of persecution in a land where freedom for Christians so clearly abounds.
When I say we are under attack, I mean that we—the beloved and global people of God who long for restoration, who long to live in everlasting shalom—are up against the ropes.
Peace is not ours today.
But you already knew that, didn’t you? God calls for the sounding of the alarms! The blowing of the shofar! WAKE UP, OH PEOPLE OF GOD! CALAMITY IS UPON YOU! But you, my beloved colleagues, friends, mentors, and peers, you did not need for me to sound an alarm, because you already knew we were in danger. You, like me, like Joel, have exhausted yourselves scrambling to rally the forces. I have watched you knock down doors, and take up arguments, and fill public forums in an effort to wake the people up.
With hopefulness and diligence we have called the people to repentance. Our hearts are torn and bleeding out when we declare that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. This is the God who rescues—and world, we are not beyond rescuing if we would just turn! Return to our God, return in humility with all our hearts.
We have been baffled by the sleeping masses, wondering how they sleep so soundly when the Day of the Lord is upon us. Indeed, we know that as suffering continues, judgment will soon follow. So after all of our shouting, preaching, and rallying—we are disheartened by the lack of response.
We look at this world of weary foreigners, families torn asunder, evildoers, and innocent victims, and we feel small. Insignificant. Helpless. We remember our lowly state. So what is the proper response to a world gone mad? What is the proper response when we feel helpless? How will we ever face our God when the chaos emerged on our watch?
We find ourselves in a unique position. We are not the slumbering masses—no—we are the vigilant intercessors who desperately and firmly stand between the porch and the altar. With hands raised in surrender we cast ourselves upon the mercy of God.
And I find this to be such a compelling image—on this Ash Wednesday. When we feel strong and victorious, we feel like we are flying. We feel weightless. We might even describe the elation as a euphoric sense of soaring above the world. And yet, when we are defeated, helpless, and despairing, we are in the dirt. We are insufferably anchored to the ground with the deadweight of our sinfulness and sorrows.
So today—anchored to the ground as we are—let us respond appropriately.
I’m going to ask you, if you’re comfortable, to please remove your shoes. Now is not the time to be self-conscious. How absurd our mourning and repentance would seem if we were bound by our pride! As you remove your shoes, please feel welcome to assume a position that is comfortable for you. You are welcome to stand, kneel, or simply sit.
As you stand, or kneel, or sit, I want you to feel the ground beneath your feet. You are dust, and to dust you shall return. We are a people in need of God. As those who have been called to tend our faith communities, we stand between the porch and the altar today and we mourn. We weep. We cry out, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations.”
We are going to enter into a time of communal supplication. After a moment of silence, I would like to invite you to offer aloud a prayer of mourning and contrition on behalf of our community, just wherever you’re standing. You may offer a confession, a grievance, or a cry for mercy. Do not allow your anxious searching for the perfect words to prevent you from speaking what is on your heart. In random fashion, as you feel compelled, speak on our behalf before God.
After several minutes, I will conclude our time with a benediction.
Oh Lord, hear our prayer.
As we leave this chapel, let us not forsake our place as those being called to intercede. Let us weep, let us grieve, and let us repent.
Friends, as you render your hearts to God, may you be greeted by God’s graciousness and mercy, patience and steadfast love. The Day of the Lord approaches—as dust, we cry out to God for salvation. Go in peace.