That Blessed Dependancy

"There wee leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him who hangs upon the Crosse…" -John Donne, "Death's Duell"

Tag: Ash Wednesday

“I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior!”

ChristCrucifiedontheTreeofLife_Lawrence_OP
(“Christ on the Tree of Life”, mosaic by Edward Burne-Jones, 1894.)

It was my great privilege to preach yesterday at the Church of St. Michael and St. George in St. Louis, Missouri. How delightful to be with that wonderful congregation on such a meaningful day! The Rev’d Andrew Archie and his clergy colleagues, the Rev’d Blake Sawicky and the Rev’d Ezgi Saribay, extended me such warm hospitality on a snowy Ash Wednesday. The staff and parishioners were so kind in their welcome. The music, conducted by Dr. Rob Lehmann, was sublime. 

A Sermon Preached on Ash Wednesday, February 10, 2016

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston

Texts: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

“I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior.”

Those words were written by an 18th-century sailor, slave-ship captain, Christian convert, Church of England priest, and hymn-writer named John Newton, most famous for penning the lyrics of “Amazing Grace.” Nearing the end of his long life, with his health broken and his eyesight grown dim, Newton told a friend, “My memory is nearly gone, but still I remember two things: that I am a great sinner–and that Christ is a great saviour!”

Standing before you as a guest preacher this Ash Wednesday, I take Newton’s words both for my introduction to you and for the starting place of my sermon. I am tremendously grateful to the rector for inviting me to preach today. But I am also keenly aware of the fact that I don’t know you, and that you don’t know me–or at least, you don’t know me apart from whatever Father Sawicky might have told you about me, in which case I am tremendously grateful you didn’t stay away from church today.

Seeing, then, that we are strangers to one another, I have resolved to stick to what I can know–what I do know: “That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great savior!”

For you see, that announcement–that declaration–is really what this day is all about. On this day, the Church exhorts her members both corporately and individually to “lament our sins and acknowledge our wretchedness.” On this day, we are called to claim with one voice John Newton’s self-summary–we are invited, each of us and all of us, to say, “I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior.”

And that is what makes this day so difficult. To confess our sins–to own up to the fact that we’ve done wrong–isn’t necessarily hard for us. We do it every Sunday at the Holy Eucharist, and daily at Morning and Evening Prayer. We know we are guilty of faults and offenses–that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed, against God and against our neighbors. We know we have gone wrong, both by our actions and by our inaction–by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We know we have sins to confess.

But Ash Wednesday goes deeper. On this day, we do not simply confess our sins–we confess that we are sinners. On this day, we do not merely own up to those times and places when we have broken God’s commandments–we own up to the fact that, at all times and in all places, we are broken creatures. On this day, we do not just cry out for forgiveness, asking that we may be set again on the narrow path–rather on this day, we cry out for salvation, acknowledging that apart from God’s grace we are lost no matter the path we tread; admitting that without the breath of God’s Spirit we are dead in our sins and trespasses; declaring that, until the Great Physician comes with balm for our hurting souls, “there is no health in us.”

This day dares to confront us, not simply the undeniable truth that we sometimes commit sins, but rather with the profoundly uncomfortable truth that we are sinners: that our hearts are hardened against the loving-kindness of God–that our wills have turned in on themselves to seek only our own drives and delights–that our very nature is fundamentally disordered by the problem of disobedience and the fact of Sin.

That’s why, when we come forward for the imposition of ashes today, we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Those words carry us back to the very root of the problem. They are the words spoken by God to Adam after he and Eve have broken the commandment not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. By choosing to disobey the Lord’s only law, human beings lose their only true freedom. They become slaves to their own needs and appetites–their own devices  and desires. They have no power of themselves to help themselves. And so God tells the dust-creatures who were made in his own image that that image will now be marred by mortality: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Now don’t for a minute get hung up on the historicity of that story, and worry about how a snake could talk or where the Garden of Eden might be located on a map. That story isn’t meant to explain things that happened long, long ago. That story is meant to explain things that happen now–each and every day–around us, and within us.

Why is it that we fall back again and again into behaviors we know are not good for us, for our souls or bodies, and are not good for our relationships with others? Why is it that I eat too much and drink too much, even though I know that temporary indulgence only leads to pain and unhappiness? Why is it that you tell lies even though you know they only serve to make your life more complicated and more difficult? Why is it that we continually look on other people as objects or obstacles or as the means to our own personal ends, even though we know that that leads only to the exploitation and degradation of God’s image in our fellow creatures?

“Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Today we hear again God’s words to Adam and we realize that they apply to each of us as well. The powers of Sin and Death are inextricably linked. The fact of our mortality and the problem of our continual disobedience are both wrapped up in the reality of our sinfulness. The ashes upon my head will declare what I cannot hide or deny–that I am indeed a great sinner.

But, dear people of God, that is not all that those ashes will declare. For mark the shape in which those ashes will be applied to each forehead in just a few moments. They may look like nothing more than a smudge. But feel the way that the priest’s thumb moves across your brow. If the ashes on my face carry with them the terrible reminder that I am a great sinner, they also carry with them the glorious announcement that Christ is a great savior!

For the ashes upon our heads will be imposed in the shape of a cross. The symbol of our sinfulness shows forth the sign of Jesus’ victory. The reminder of our mortality and brokenness also tells out the great Good News that God has not abandoned us or forsaken us.

 For God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The Cross is the everlasting declaration of God’s love and mercy for the lost and the broken. The Cross is the eternal announcement of God’s power and promise held out to the sinful and the stained. The Cross is the undoing of the curse, the defeat of death by death, the conquest of sin by bearing the cost of sin, the destruction of disobedience by means of Christ’s ultimate obedience.

And so the next forty days are not, for us, days of grief and gloom–of dismal drudgery and disfigured faces–of weeping and wailing for our sins. For in this holy season of Lent, we carry our own crosses gladly as we follow the footsteps of Jesus. In the weeks to come, we ready our hearts to hear again the story of what God has done for the sake of people such as we are–for sinners like me and like you. As we approach once more the contemplation of those mighty acts by which God has won for us life and salvation, we go joyfully to Jerusalem, to see sin silenced by the One who would not open his mouth; to see death vanquished by the One who humbled himself even unto death upon the Cross; to see the gracious gift of everlasting life flowing from the open-door of the empty tomb.

So let us, then, make a right beginning of holy Lent. Let us own the announcement of this Ash Wednesday. Let us, each and all, boldly, joyfully, gratefully, humbly declare, “I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior.” AMEN.

Dust Thou Art

As we come to the beginning of another Lent, I share the sermon I preached last Ash Wednesday.

A Sermon Preached on Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2014

by The Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut

Texts: Genesis 3; Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Matthew 6:1-6; Revelation 22:1-4

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

“Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Those strange and solemn words are at the heart of this strange and solemn day. They are the words that you will hear in a more contemporary form when you come forward to receive the mark of ashes as a sign of penitence. In that moment, the dust will be physical, literal—the gritty symbol of real ashes smudged on fingers and faces—but the force of those words will connect them to our need for repentance, and our mortality. “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”

But where do those strange and solemn words come from? If you look back over the readings in your bulletin, you will not find them there. The prophet Joel is not interested in ashes—in the outward signs of repentance—as he calls the people of Israel to “rend [their] hearts and not [their] garments.” Our Lord Jesus is not thinking of smudged foreheads as he urges his disciples, “When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face”—indeed, he seems to challenge, if not expressly to forbid, practices such as these

No, to find the source of today’s reminder that “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” we must go back beyond today’s appointed lessons—back beyond the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, and back beyond the prophetic pronouncements of Joel. We must go back to the beginning: to the Book of Genesis.

In Genesis, we are told of how God created the heavens and the earth. We are told of how the Spirit of God moved mightily over the face of the waters, and how, out of chaos and darkness, God brought order and light. In Genesis, we are told of God’s great goodness in calling forth the bounty and rich diversity of this earth: plants and animals, fish and birds, the beasts of the earth and the cattle of the fields and “every creeping thing that creepeth upon” the ground.

In Genesis, we are told of how God in his mercy and in his love made human beings in his image—formed out of the dust of the earth and enlivened with the breath of his Spirit. We are told of how he set them over the good earth that he had made, to tend and keep it, in order that we might rule and serve all creatures. In Genesis, we are told that God set the first humans in a garden full of good fruit growing on abundant trees.

And one more thing. In Genesis, we are told of a single command that the Lord gave to the first people—the dust creatures made in the image of God: “Of every tree in the garden, thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.”

Of course, we know what happens next. The serpent seduces. The people eat. And God comes to walk through the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day, only to find Adam and Eve hiding—ashamed of their nakedness. The relationship of trust and intimacy that the first people enjoyed with the Lord their God was broken by disobedience—by sin.

And so it is, at last, that in the Third Chapter of the Book of Genesis, we find the strange and solemn words for which we have been searching—the dread words that we will hear again in just a few moments this evening. The Lord pronounces judgment: first upon the serpent, then upon the woman, and then at last on Adam, the first man. God declares: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it thou wast taken. For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

This, then, is the source of tonight’s strange pronouncement. Here, then, is the meaning of this day’s solemn declaration. The startling and unsettling truth proclaimed in the imposition of ashes today is that you and I stand in the line of Adam. Over us is spoken the same condemnation, the same curse. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Now perhaps this is too much for you. Perhaps here you might raise an objection. Perhaps, as modern Americans in Greenwich, Connecticut in 2014, you chafe against so simple an application of so ancient a story. Talking serpents? First parents? A divine curse? Can you imagine a more preposterous explanation of human origins?

But let us be very clear this Ash Wednesday. The story you have just heard—and the curse at the heart of that story—is not meant to explain the past. The truth of this tale cannot be confirmed by an archaeological dig or a mitochondrial DNA analysis. The story of Adam and Eve is not a story about where we come from, explaining our background. Instead, this is a story about where we are, and it explains where we are headed. This is not a story about the past, but about the present and the future. For the truth is that the fruits of Eden’s loss still fall, heavy and rotten, all around us.

We see them falling in the Crimea, as the great powers of the world once again find themselves drawn into the tired, terrible dance of war. To be sure, this day we hope and pray that peace will yet prevail. But we must also acknowledge that each time nations collide and tyranny rises and blood is spilt, the fruits of Adam’s fall can be seen, and the ancient curse can be heard again in our time: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

We see those fruits falling in Mexico, where Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman now sits in federal custody. The arrest of perhaps the world’s most powerful drug lord late last month has been major news, supplanted only by the crisis in the Ukraine. Guzman rules over a multi-billion dollar cartel. His actions and activities have brought misery and pain to the streets and suburbs of America, even as he has brought violent death to the towns and cities of Mexico. Yet we must not forget that his enormous wealth is built upon the enormous American appetite for his products—cocaine, methamphetamines, and heroine—and therefore, by the enslaving power of addiction. Here, surely, around one life we see the fatal fruit fall abundantly, and hear the curse spoken to so many of the innocent and guilty alike: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

And lest we forget the purpose of this season of Lent, if we would see the truth of this day’s pronouncement—if we would see the fruit of Adam’s fall—let us look within ourselves. You and I may not be as brash as Vladimir Putin or as ruthless as “El Chapo” Guzman. But can you outrun the terrible words we hear this night? For all our advancement and enlightenment, for all our wealth and wisdom, for all our piety and our spiritual practices, who among us can claim a perfectly clean conscience, or the knowledge that we have not been disobedient?

We know what it is to exploit our fellow human beings in ways big and small. We know what it is to eat gluttonously, to drink intemperately, to look and act lustfully, to yearn enviously, to react wrathfully, to amass greedily, and to boast pridefully. And what is the price of all this? What is the cost of these actions? Is it not the same penalty paid by Adam: the loss of a relationship of intimacy and trust with the Lord our God, and with one another? For all our sophistication and satisfaction, for all our charity and our credentials, for all our goodness and our gratitude, who among us can escape death? “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

But let us make something very clear. Ash Wednesday is not, in fact, a day to sit in our sin; to wallow in the warped, worn-out weariness of our hearts; to fixate on death. Our worship this day does not end with the imposition of ashes. Our story this day does not conclude with the pronouncement of a curse.

For behold, Christian, the shape of the ashes that will soon bedeck your brow! The dust with which you are marked today is no mere smudge. Rather, the symbol of mortality applied to our foreheads this night will be made in the form of a Cross.

And that realization lifts us to the true and better meaning of this strange and solemn day. For what that sign of the Cross shows forth is that we have not been left alone in our fallenness and our mortality. What we remember this day is that the same God whose justice drove Eve out of Eden has come down from heaven to be born a son of Eve. The same God whose righteousness could not bear the disobedience of our father Adam took on our flesh—our flesh of earth and dust—to become for us a new Adam, a new creation: a new and better beginning for our race.

The sign we receive this Ash Wednesday reminds us, not only that we are dust, but that God himself has come to share in our dusty, deathward life. The purpose of this long season of Lent is not to fix our hearts on our fallenness, but to prepare us for the announcement that on the Cross of Calvary, Jesus our Lord has conquered Death and Sin forever, and in the bright light of the Resurrection he calls us to share in a new life that cannot end.

So it is that this evening (and only this evening in the whole cycle of the Church year) we come forward twice. The first time, we come forward to hear the dread reminder; to be told “Dust thou art”; to acknowledge and bewail the fact that the seeds of Adam’s fall have taken root in us and grown up and produced rank fruit in our souls.

But then, beloved, once we have been marked with the cross, and have made our confession, and have heard words of absolution, we will be called forward again. We will be called forward to hear, not a curse, but words of blessing and holy union. We will be called forward to taste, not the bitter fruit of fallenness, but a new and better fruit: the fruit of the new Jerusalem, the fruit of Christ’s Body and Blood.

Tonight, Christ Jesus invites all those who have shared in his death through baptism, and who repent of their sins, and who embark now on the holy road of Lent, to draw near in faith, and to see the fulfillment of words not from the first book—from Genesis—but from the last book—from Revelation—and to taste at this altar the fruit of the Tree of Life.

“And the angel showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the lamb. In the midst of the street of the city, and on either side of the river, there was the Tree of Life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads.”

AMEN.

Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

A Sermon Preached on Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2014

by the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich, CT

Texts: Genesis 3; Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21; Revelation 22:1-4

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

“Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Those strange and solemn words are at the heart of this strange and solemn day. They are the words that you will hear in a more contemporary form when you come forward to receive the mark of ashes as a sign of penitence. In that moment, the dust will be physical, literal—the gritty symbol of real ashes smudged on fingers and faces—but the force of those words will connect them to our need for repentance, and our mortality. “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”

But where do these strange and solemn words come from? If you look back over the readings in your bulletin, you will not find them there. The prophet Joel is not interested in ashes—in the outward signs of repentance—as he calls the people of Israel to “rend [their] hearts and not [their] garments.” Our Lord Jesus is not thinking of smudged foreheads—indeed, he seems to challenge, if not expressly to forbid, practices such as these—as he urges his disciples, “When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face.”

No, to find the source of today’s reminder that “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” we must go back beyond our appointed lessons—back beyond the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ; back beyond the prophetic pronouncements of Joel. We must go back to the beginning, to the Book of Genesis.

In Genesis, we are told of how God created the heavens and the earth. We are told of how the Spirit of God moved mightily over the face of the waters, and how, out of chaos and darkness, God brought order and light. In Genesis, we are told of God’s great goodness in calling forth the bounty and rich diversity of this earth: plants and animals, fish and birds, the beasts of the earth and the cattle of the fields and “every creeping thing that creepeth upon” the ground.

In Genesis, we are told of how God in his mercy and in his love made human beings in his image—out of the dust of the earth and enlivened with the breath of his Spirit. We are told of how he set them over the good earth which he had made, to tend and keep it, in order that we might rule and serve all creatures. In Genesis, we are told that God set the first humans in a garden full of good fruit growing on abundant trees.

And one more thing. We are told of one command that the Lord gave to the first people—the dust creatures made in the image of God: “Of every tree in the garden, thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.”

Of course, we know what happens next. The serpent seduces. The people eat. And God comes to walk through the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day, only to find Adam and Eve hiding: ashamed of their nakedness. The relationship of trust and intimacy that the first people enjoyed with the Lord their God was broken.

And so it is, at last, that in the Third Chapter of the Book of Genesis, we find the strange and solemn words for which we have been searching: the dread words that we will hear again in just a few moments this evening. The Lord pronounces judgment, first upon the serpent, then upon the woman, and then at last on Adam, the first man, whose name in Hebrew means “earth.” God declares: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it thou wast taken. For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Here, beloved, is the source of this evening’s strange pronouncement. Here, then, is the meaning of this day’s solemn declaration. The startling and unsettling truth proclaimed in the imposition of ashes is that you and I stand in the line of Adam. Over us is spoken the same condemnation, the same curse. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Now perhaps this is too much for you. Perhaps here you might raise an objection. Perhaps, as modern Americans in Greenwich, Connecticut in 2014, you chafe against so simple an application of so ancient a story. Talking serpents? First parents? A divine curse? Can you imagine a more preposterous explanation of human origins?

But let us be very clear this Ash Wednesday. The story we have just heard—and the curse at the heart of that story—is not meant to explain the past. The truth of this tale cannot be confirmed by an archaeological dig or a mitochondrial analysis. The story of Adam and Eve is not a story about where we come from, explaining our background. This is a story about where we are, and it explains where we are headed. This is not a story about the past, but about the present and the future. For the truth is that the fruits of Eden’s loss still fall, heavy and rotten, all around us.

We see them falling in the Crimea, as the great powers of the world once again find themselves drawn into the tired, terrible dance of war. To be sure, this day we hope and pray that peace will yet prevail. But we must also acknowledge that each time nations collide and tyranny rises and blood is spilt, the fruits of Adam’s fall can be seen, and the ancient curse can be heard again in our time: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

We see those fruits falling in Mexico, where Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman now sits in federal custody. The arrest of perhaps the world’s most powerful drug lord late last month has been major news, supplanted only by the crisis in the Ukraine. Guzman rules over a multi-billion dollar cartel. His actions and activities have brought misery and pain to the streets and suburbs of America, even as he has brought violent death to the towns and cities of Mexico. Yet we must not forget that his enormous wealth is driven by the enormous American appetite for his products—cocaine, methamphetamines, and heroine—and therefore, by the enslaving power of addiction. Here, surely, around one life we see the fatal fruit fall abundantly, and hear the curse spoken to so many of the innocent and guilty alike: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

And lest we forget the purpose of this season of Lent, if we would see the truth of this day’s pronouncement—if we would see the fruit of Adam’s fall—let us look within ourselves. You and I may not be as brash as Vladimir Putin or as ruthless as “El Chapo” Guzman. But can you outrun the terrible words we hear this night? For all our advancement and enlightenment, for all our wealth and wisdom, for all our piety and our spiritual practices, who among us can claim a perfectly clean conscience, or the knowledge that we have not been disobedient?

We know what it is to exploit our fellow human beings in ways big and small. We know what it is to eat gluttonously, to drink intemperately, to look and act lustfully, to yearn enviously, to react wrathfully, to amass greedily, and to boast pridefully. And what is the price of all this? What is the cost of these actions? Is it not the same penalty paid by Adam: the loss of a relationship of intimacy and trust with the Lord our God, and with one another?

For all our sophistication and satisfaction, for all our charity and our credentials, for all our goodness and our gratitude, who among us can escape death? “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

And yet let us make something very clear. Ash Wednesday is not, in fact, a day to sit in our sin; to wallow in the warped, worn-out weariness of our hearts; to fixate on death. Our worship this day does not end with the imposition of ashes. Our story this day does not conclude with the pronouncement of a curse.

For behold, Christian, the shape of the ashes that will soon bedeck your brow! The dust with which you are marked today is no mere smudge. Instead, the symbol of mortality applied to our foreheads this night will be made in the form of a cross.

And that realization lifts us to the true and better meaning of this strange and solemn day. For what that sign of a cross shows forth is that we have not been left alone in our fallenness and our mortality. What we remember this day is that the same God whose justice drove Eve out of Eden has come down from heaven to be born a son of Eve. The same God whose righteousness could not bear the disobedience of our father Adam took on our flesh—our flesh of earth and dust—to become for us a new Adam, a new creation: a new and better beginning for our race.

The sign we receive this Ash Wednesday reminds us, not only that we are dust, but that God himself has come to share in our dusty, deathward life. The purpose of this long season of Lent is not to fix our hearts on our fallenness, but to prepare us for the announcement that on the Cross of Calvary, Jesus our Lord has conquered Death and Sin forever, and in the bright light of the Resurrection he calls us to share in a new life that cannot end.

So it is that this evening (and only this evening in the whole cycle of the Church year) we come forward twice. The first time, we come forward to hear the dread reminder; to be told “Dust thou art”; to acknowledge and bewail the fact that the seeds of Adam’s fall have taken root in us and grown up and produced rank fruit in our souls.

But then, beloved, once we have been marked with the cross and have made our confession, and have heard words of absolution, we will be called forward again. We will be called forward to hear, not a curse, but words of blessing and holy union. We will be called forward to taste, not the bitter fruit of fallenness, but a new and better fruit: the fruit of the new Jerusalem, the fruit of Christ’s Body and Blood.

Tonight, Christ Jesus invites all those who have shared in his death through baptism, and who repent of their sins, and who embark now on the holy road of Lent, to draw near in faith, and to see the fulfillment of words not from the first book—from Genesis—but from the last book—from Revelation—and to taste at this altar the fruit of the Tree of Life.

“And the angel showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the lamb. In the midst of the street of the city, and on either side of the river, there was the Tree of Life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

“And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads.”

AMEN.