Ash Wednesday – Sermon on Psalm 51:1-17

Psalm 51:1-17

“For you have no delight in sacrifice, O God. If I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

As I am sure many of you are aware, two nights ago 4 young women were killed in a car accident near Minneapolis. I had heard about the accident that night, but it wasn’t until Tuesday morning, when a friend on Facebook posted a picture collage of the four girls that I realized the severity of what had happened. My heart broke, as I imagine many of yours did. I grieve for the families of these young women… for their anticipated futures now lost… for their friends and how their lives have been forever changed.

But then my heart broke a second time. I couldn’t see it at first, but as I scrolled down on the picture of these four young women, there was a phrase written at the bottom. “Heaven needed four beautiful angels. Rest in peace.” Heaven needed four beautiful angels. Heaven needed four beautiful? I just don’t buy it. You may disagree with me, and that’s okay. But for me, I just can’t believe it. I cannot believe that heaven needed something and those four girls and their families were the sacrifice to pay for it.

Now, I realize that when people say this, it is usually their own grief coming out. Someone with tear-streaked cheeks sat down at their computer and tried to give honor and a tribute to these women by creating a photo collage and writing these words. Why? Well probably because it felt like something had to be said. Maybe, they think, if there is a heavenly purpose, then this accident won’t seem so purposeless. If there can just be an answer, if there can be a reason, then maybe the world beneath our feet will stop shaking and we won’t have to be afraid anymore. But hidden underneath this statement, I think, is exactly that – a fear. An incredibly truthful fear that we all share – a fear about the trustworthiness of this world. Who is in control of this world? Is it God? If it isn’t God…then who is? And if God isn’t in control of this world…then why believe at all? Is there any purpose in this life, because if there isn’t….then why live at all? People make statements like “Heaven needed four beautiful angels,” because they want to make sense of that which seems so senseless. We don’t want a world that doesn’t make sense.

But if these are words meant to comfort, then why do they sting so much? It doesn’t sound like the truth to me and I desperately want someone to tell me the truth. I want someone to tell me that two nights ago four beloved children of God died and we don’t understand it. It probably had to do with the weather outside, some human error, and some randomness. But to turn this into a happy, angelic event in which heaven needed these girls…it betrays what happened to them. It betrays the tragedy of this event. It betrays the grief of their families and…it betrays the broken heart of God.

I don’t know about you, but whenever something like this happens, all it does is reveal my own broken spirit. It reveals my own inability to make sense of the world. That’s the truth, isn’t it? And so I wonder, can we just say that instead?

The psalmist says that the only thing we can bring before God, the only acceptable sacrifice to offer to God is our own broken spirit. And so can we be honest about that? Can we confess that tragedies like this break our spirit and call into question the trustworthiness of this world. Rather than saying, “Heaven needed four beautiful angels,” can we be honest with God saying, “Lord, I don’t know what to make of this accident. I want to say something but I don’t know what. Lord, I want to understand it, but I just can’t seem to and, instead, all I feel is fear for my own life and for the life of my loved ones. Is my life going to change that quickly?

Maybe it doesn’t stop there, just with tragedies. Maybe we lay before God the other parts of life that break our spirits. Our failures, our inadequacies as a parent, spouse, friend. The things we regret doing and the things we regret not doing. The masks we wear that tell everyone that everything is okay, when it’s not. Let’s just lay it all out there for God. Let’s offer to God our broken spirits.

Tonight is a perfect night to do it. Ash Wednesday, it is all about speaking the truth. It is about being honest with ourselves. Tonight, we will be marked with a cross of ashes on our forehead and that is the most honest thing we can do. It is a sign and a reminder that this life is fragile and death comes for all of us eventually. We are dust. And to dust we shall return. We know neither the day nor the hour. In this ritual, we bring before God our broken spirits. Because until we name them, until we name our need, then we have no need for God and God’s radical acceptance of us as we are. For when we confess the truth about ourselves, we confess that we cannot do this alone. If our spirit is to be mended, it will be mended by God. If fear and hopelessness is to be replaced with peace and wholeness, it will come from God. If we are to be forgiven for that which we have done or not done, it will be because God has forgiven them.

We know that the world shakes with uncertainty. This is the truth. We see it everyday. But, as one author once said, maybe the life of faith isn’t something that should answer all of our questions and make the ground stop shaking, but instead helps us to keep our footing in the midst of the tremors and gives us hope and courage as we try to answer life’s questions together.

Nowhere in Scripture does it say that the life of faith is easy. But throughout Scripture, we do hear how much love and concern God has for each and every one of you. That God wants you to be you; to lay out before God the truth about yourself. For it is this God, who is steadfast in love, who is made most visible in the life and death of Jesus, who is so committed to us that this God then chooses to love us, accept us, and care for us throughout our tattered lives. I don’t know about you, but that also sounds like truth. And it gives me steady feet in the midst of a trembling world. AMEN

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