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: savior

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

(“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.

“Son of David, have mercy on me!”


Ordinarily I eschew a storytelling approach in preaching. I have heard it used in incredibly effective ways by incredibly effective storytellers. But because I do not count myself an effective storyteller (and because I feel strongly that too many preachers today waste too much time retelling the Gospel story and don’t ever actually get around to preaching the Gospel) I don’t tend to use a storytelling style.

This old sermon is an exception to that rule. I find the story of Bartimaeus unusually rich and compelling. In an effort to develop its personal, theological, and political depths, I chose to open this sermon with an extended retelling of the story. As becomes clear in the end (I hope!), the extremely close focus with which the sermon begins ultimately makes possible a homiletical engagement with a much wider context.

A Sermon Preached on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 28, 2012

By the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, The Parish of Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut

Text: Mark 10:46-52

May I speak in the Name of Almighty God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Bartimaeus rose early that day. As the morning’s warmth found him wrapped in his cloak, huddled in whatever corner or alleyway served as his bed, Bartimaeus rose, and hurried through the well-known streets of Jericho. Though the bright light of daybreak meant little to his blind eyes, he had to rise early. Alone in the world, Bartimaeus had to claim his spot—had to stake out his place to beg—right beside the busy road that leads up from Jericho to Jerusalem. All the people passing between those two cities would see his cloak spread by the roadside, ready to receive their alms. It was a spot worth getting up early for. And on this day, there was even more reason to get to his spot early.

Bartimaeus couldn’t read a calendar, but he knew the times and the seasons. He could tell, as the traffic passing his special spot steadily increased, that the Feast of the Passover was coming. Bartimaeus knew that the pious pilgrims heading past his spot on their way up to the Temple would be extra generous. Each day, that crowd grew larger. Each day, the faithful thronged the road on their way to Jerusalem, joyfully preparing to remember and give thanks for God’s deliverance.

For soon, at Passover, they would remember the way that God brought their ancestors up out of the land of Egypt, freeing them from the house of bondage. They would remember the way that God delivered the children of Israel on the shores of the Red Sea, saving them from the chariots of pharaoh and setting their feet on dry ground. They would remember the way that God led them into the Promised Land, casting out the nations, and knocking down the very walls of the ancient city of Jericho before the face of Joshua and his army. All of these mighty acts of deliverance they would remember at the festival in Jerusalem.

They would remember. They would give thanks. And they would ask God to do it again.

For the children of Israel were once more a captive, conquered people, oppressed this time not as slaves in distant Egypt, but by the Roman Empire in their own homeland. And so at Passover, as they celebrated God’s deliverance in days gone by, they would pray and plead to see deliverance for their nation in their own time as well.

Blind Bartimaeus would not join them on their pilgrimage. And yet sitting by the roadside, all alone amidst the crowds of pilgrims, he too hoped for deliverance. Sitting by the roadside, unseeing and unseen, he too longed to glimpse the power and faithfulness of God in his own life. Sitting at his spot by the roadside, unable to join the rituals of remembrance, still Bartimaeus prayed for redemption.

And this Passover, this year, some of the talk he heard by the roadside raised in him a faint glimmer of hope. As the pious passed him by on their way to Jerusalem, Bartimaeus heard mention of a new prophet who had arisen in Galilee. Jesus of Nazareth, they called him. Bartimaeus heard talk about lepers healed, and demons cast out. One man told excitedly about the time he’d gone out into the wilderness with Jesus as part of a huge crowd. Even though there wasn’t any food around, somehow they were all fed with bread and fish—and there were leftovers! Most amazing of all, Bartimaeus even heard someone whisper a rumor that Jesus had raised a little girl from the dead.

The voices in the crowd were filled with hope. Folks thought that all the amazing things that Jesus had done were signs that he was God’s Messiah: that he had come to deliver their people once again, just like at the first Passover long ago. Sitting by himself, Bartimaeus didn’t think much about the politics. But he couldn’t help but wonder what Jesus might do for a poor, blind, beggar.

And then—just as the first Passover pilgrims of the day came past his spot; just as Bartimaeus sat thinking about what he’d heard, and about the old stories of God’s faithfulness, and his own deep longing for deliverance from blindness—Jesus came.

Bartimaeus could hear the excitement running through the crowd. Here was Jesus, the rumored Messiah, making his way up to Jerusalem for the Passover! And here sat Bartimaeus, his beggar’s cloak before him, hoping, yearning, praying for deliverance!

Before he even knew what was happening, before he even knew what he was doing, Bartimaeus lifted up his voice, and he cried out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”

The people around him were shocked and offended. “Be silent,” they said. “How dare you interrupt the Teacher. Can’t you see what’s going on? Can’t you see that now, at this Passover, in this time, in this place, we will see God’s deliverance again?” The wise and discerning in the crowd knew that it was no coincidence that Jesus was going up to Jerusalem at Passover. They were certain that redemption for Israel was at hand. And they weren’t about to let a blind beggar interrupt the progress of God’s great plan.

But above their orders, in spite of their offense, Bartimaeus cried out louder still. “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped, and stood still, and said “Call him here.”

The hoped-for Messiah stopped in his journey up to Jerusalem, where he would do something unhoped-for, and unimaginable. The savior of God’s people silenced the eager crowd so that he could talk to the broken, outcast beggar. The Lord of all time halted the great drama of history in its very tracks so that he could speak with someone of no significance or importance whatsoever.

And in that moment on the dusty road outside of Jericho, the grace of God shines out suddenly and brilliantly like a ray of light striking a prism. In the instant when Jesus responds to Bartimaeus’s cry, we see the power and purposes of God revealed to be vast as the cosmos and as intimate as each individual broken heart.

For the truth is that the crowds of people who expected something great that Passover were right. Jesus was indeed going up to Jerusalem to deliver God’s people once again—to free God’s chosen from the power of slavery and oppression. And yet the mighty tyrant he came to confront was not the distant Roman emperor but the painfully present power of Sin—the oppressive, ubiquitous authority of Death. Jesus went up to Jerusalem not simply to commemorate the freedom that God had won for the children of Israel long ago, but to win a new freedom for all people, of all times, in all nations. That’s the cosmic power of the grace of God.

But blind Bartimaeus who looked to Jesus for deliverance was right, too. The Good News of what God has done, is doing, and will do in Christ is not just for all people: it is for every person. That’s what Bartimaeus, the beggar, saw. That’s what Bartimaeus points us to today. The message of the Gospel, the promise of redemption and deliverance, the Good News for all the world, all the cosmos: it is also Good News for each of us.

For wherever we sit begging; wherever we spread our ragged cloak to ask alms from an indifferent world; wherever we wait alone and abused and ignored, Jesus stops for us. He calls us to himself. He reaches out his nail-printed hands to touch our blind eyes. He bids us go from our old life, our old ways, our old spot. He heals us, makes us whole, calls us to follow.

Don’t let the grandeur of this Gospel pass you by. Don’t let the voices of the crowd, or the voices in your head, quiet you. Cry out to Jesus! Ask him to take away your blindness. Ask him to open your eyes, that you may glimpse his face. Ask him to let you see again, that you may follow him on the way to Jerusalem.