Ash Wednesday — The Rev. Karen C. Barfield

Psalm 103
Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

In the name of the one, holy and living God:
Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifying Spirit. Amen.

“Amazing grace!
how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me!”

For us Episcopalians the common theme of Lent is all-too-often our wretchedness.

And for a few of us who grew up in certain denominations, our wretchedness – our sinfulness – is not relegated to six weeks but is a year long focus!

This year I want to offer us a slightly different focus: GRACE!

In the Catholic Church Pope Francis has declared this the “Year of Mercy.”

At the beginning of Advent he said, “How much wrong we do to God and his grace when we speak of sins being punished by [God’s] judgment before we speak of their being forgiven by his mercy.

“We have to put mercy before judgment, and in any event, God’s judgment will always be in the light of his mercy.” (Pope Francis, as quoted by Gerard O’Connell, “Pope Francis Opens Holy Door says: ‘We Have to Put Mercy before Judgment,'” December 8, 2015, http://americamagazine.org/content/dispatches/pope-francis-opens-holy-door-says-we-have-put-mercy-judgment.)

God’s mercy is infinite!

In today’s Psalm we read:

“The Lord is full of compassion and mercy,
slow to anger and of great kindness.
He will not always accuse us,
nor will he keep his anger for ever.
He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so is his mercy great upon those who fear him.”

Mercy is not devoid of judgment, but there is more balance than our egos need to believe. It is difficult for us to accept God’s mercy – and thus to extend that mercy to others. The beginning, however, is Grace.

As we just sang in our hymn:

“ ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace my fears relieved.”

Grace opens our eyes to the love of God,
and thus we become aware of the places we fall short,
and it is then through the grace of God that we find healing.

During this season of Lent we are called to slow down and take a deep look at our lives, paring away our many distractions, much like we remove the beautiful ornamentation in our sanctuary.

With distractions stripped away we can then take notice of our relationships with God, self and others.

Jesus admonishes his disciples to pray and give alms and fast, not so that others will see and think well of them but so that their life with God and others will become deeper and richer.

The point of any Lenten discipline is to love…
to love God, others, and self more deeply….
Indeed, to love the whole of creation with the love in which God created all.

And… to discover what it is in our lives that hinders our ability to love as God loves.

I offer for you one such tool called the daily examen.

The Jesuits would call it the examination of conscience (a moral examination),
the Franciscans would call it the examination of consciousness (an awareness of all of life).

It is a tool that balances an awareness of Grace and an awareness of sin.

There is an insert in your bulletin, which you may take home with you to refresh your memory of what I say. I am going to give you an even shorter version.

The examen is usually done at the end of the day and can take as little as five minutes or as long as you want.

Begin by remembering that you are in the presence of God and ask God for help in your prayer. Place yourself in God’s loving presence.

Take a few moments to remember when you experienced God’s grace in your day:
a moment of joy or peace,
a time of intimacy with a friend or family member,
delight in the beauty of nature,
a beautiful piece of music you heard,
someone’s smile or laughter,
a story or experience of generosity.

Thank God for these gifts in your day.

Then take a few moments to remember when you felt distant from God, yourself or your neighbor:

a flash of anger or resentment,
passing judgment on another’s actions or ability,
a twinge of jealousy,
saying something unkind or harsh,
not being truthful when called for.

Ask God’s forgiveness and healing.

Consider whether an apology would help you or another to heal, and offer it then or write it down to do before the sun sets tomorrow.

Then offer prayer for yourself, for others in your life and for the whole world…commit yourself and the world into God’s loving care and ask for God’s grace for the following day.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace my fears relieved.

Our Lenten journeys will all look different, and that is just fine.

I pray for us all a holy Lent, where we will be joined more deeply together in God’s love and healing Grace. Amen.