Six years ago, as a new clergy person in West Haven, CT, I was asked to preach at the Ecumenical Ash Wednesday Service. It was the practice of the West Haven clergy to invite the newest clergy person to preach at the next ecumenical service, and the Ash Wednesday service was the first ecumenical service at which I would be present as the newest clergy person in town.
When asked to preach at this service, I said yes, but felt a shaking in my bones. Ash Wednesday was not my preferred Christian observance at which to preach.
I'm an American Baptist, and the Baptist tradition is not a liturgical tradition. Baptists are part of what is described as the Free Church tradition. The authority within our denomination rests within each congregation, not with a presbytery, or with a bishop, or with the denomination.
We don't have a book of worship that we are required to follow; we don't have to preach according to the lectionary; there is no creed that we have to recite; instead, it is the privilege and the responsibility of each church to shape these things for itself.
This might make us seem like an extremely willful denomination, but there is a theology that created and sustains us as we are. Undergirding who we are and what we do is a strong theology of the Holy Spirit.
We believe that the Holy Spirit is felt most strongly within the gathered worshiping community, like on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples as they were worshiping together.
So, the Holy Spirit must be given the freedom to move within each congregation in the way that it sees fit, without being hindered by an authority outside of the congregation.
All of this is merely to say that I don't have a rich tradition or experience of Ash Wednesday on which to draw to write a sermon, especially a sermon for a service at which there are present members of denominations that have a rich tradition and experience of Ash Wednesday!
What I found when I began thinking about the sermon I would write is that I have strong feelings about Ash Wednesday and about Lent. There is something in me that resists the penitential attitude of the season, the “O, what a sinner am I” beating of the breast that the season calls to mind. I think that my resistance has to do with how I came to know God as an adult, because it was as an adult that I really came to know God in a personal and profound way. As a struggling and suffering young adult, God beckoned me with love, not with judgment. God showed me the heaven on earth that could be mine if I would give my life to him, and the hell on earth in which I could remain if I didn't give my life to him. Thankfully, I responded to God's beckoning, but what impressed me was not a sense of my sinfulness, but a sense of God's love.
What I have discovered over the years since then is that what is essential in having a right relationship with God is vulnerability. The vulnerability that is essential in our relationship with God can be created in us by different feelings. It can come to us through shame, or guilt, or grief, or fear, or confusion, or self-loathing, or whatever. The human condition is such that at one time or another – or at many times – we will feel one of these challenging feelings that will bring us to our knees (at least, metaphorically) and it is in those moments that we are forced by our own condition to turn to God in complete dependence and give ourselves and our lives to God, for it is in those moments that we understand on a visceral level that we are not capable of managing our lives or our world ourselves.
Such moments are what I would call Ash Wednesday moments; they may not occur on Ash Wednesday, but they are Ash Wednesday moments. They may not be filled with the familiar Ash Wednesday feelings of shame and guilt, but they will be filled with a feeling of our powerlessness and God's omnipotence, of our emptiness and God's fullness, of our need and God's providence.
I was reminded of this essential ingredient to a right relationship with God at a retreat I attended years ago. The retreat was sponsored by the Ministers Council of the American Baptist Churches of Connecticut and it was intended to prepare pastors for the Lenten Season. The title of the retreat was, “Encountering Christ: Remembering Our First Love.” The retreat leader read a brief scripture passage, then asked each of us to recall a time when we had encountered Jesus. He began by telling of a time when he had encountered Jesus. It was during a dark and difficult time of his life. He turned to the Bible for solace and came upon the following passage: “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.' So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me (2 Cor 12:8-9).” God spoke to him through this passage and let him know that the power of Christ would work through his weakness and redeem him. He was not able to be his own redeemer but, thankfully, he already had a redeemer who was – even in that moment – working to redeem his life for him. It was an Ash Wednesday moment.
One by one, as we shared that day, we heard one Ash Wednesday moment after another. For one person, the Ash Wednesday moment came in the shame of drug addiction; for another, it came in the rage of anger over spurned romantic love; for another, it came in the face of helplessness over infertility; for another, it came in the realization that we need God even when our lives are mundane and no great drama is occurring. What was the same about each story was the vulnerability at the center of it. We encounter Christ most often when we are vulnerable, for it is then that we are open to receive him.
And that is what Ash Wednesday and Lent are all about: bringing us closer to God, bringing God closer to us, closing the gap that separates us. It turns out that I didn't need to be wary of Ash Wednesday and Lent. When we say that we are sinners, what we're really saying is that we have become separated from God and from doing God's will. When we say that we are filled with repentance, we are saying that we have recognized this separation and are turning back to God.
Even though Ash Wednesday moments can happen anywhere and anytime, it is good to have a day on which we acknowledge the push and pull of our relationship with God, the giving of our lives to God and the taking of them back from God that happens over and over as we live our days. It is good to have a day on which we formally begin the journey with Jesus that took him to the cross. When he was about to enter his final trial, all that Jesus asked of his disciples was that they stay awake with him. That is what Lent asks of us, too: that we stay awake with Jesus on his way to the cross and that we witness his final trial, that moment of ultimate weakness in which the power of God is made known: the mystery of Christ crucified.
My name is the Rev. Amy Johnson and I can say now without resistance that I am a repentant sinner. I hope and pray the same for you this Lenten season so that when Easter morning comes you experience your own personal resurrection as you celebrate THE resurrection.
Rev. Amy Johnson, Pastor, Canton Community Baptist Church