Ash Wednesday

February 14, 2024

Lectionary Texts

Joel 2.1-2, 12-17. — Sound the alarm: the day of the Lord is coming. “Return to me.” Rend your heart, not your clothes. Return to God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.

Psalm 51 — Have mercy on me. You desire truth in the inward being. Create a clean heart in me. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a contrite heart.

2 Corinthians 5.20b – 6.10 — Be reconciled to God. For our sake God made Christ to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Christ we might become the righteousness of God. Now is the day of salvation. We are treated as nothing, but we endure.

Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21 — When you pray… when you fast… when you give alms…

Preaching Thoughts

Valentine’s Day
 Go ahead and work with it. Imagine smudges of ashes on our foreheads, not in the shape of the cross, but a heart. What might that mean? In a way Ash Wednesday is God’s Valentine card to us, God’s way of saying “Won’t you be mine?”


      The prophet imagines the judgment God will pronounce (and enact) on Israel will be harsh, because of our sin. But. God is, after all, “ gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (a creed repeated often in the Hebrew Bible—for instance Ex. 34.6; Num. 14.18; Neh. 9.17; Ps. 86.15, 103.8, 145.8…) The point of repentance is not to feel bad, but to open our hearts to God’s grace, which changes us. Repentance is a transformation that requires our both openness (“return to God”), and God’s grace (“God will leave a blessing”).

      The focus is not on self-loathing but self-awareness, not on God’s punishment but God’s grace. The psalmist’s posture is not one of groveling but openness. Repentance is a conversation, and flow between us and God: we get honest about our brokenness with openness to God (“you desire truth in the inward being… wash me “); God responds with grace (“have mercy on me… wash me…let the bones you have crushed rejoice”), and the result is transformation (“put a new and right spirit within me”). Readers of John Wesley will recognize his description of the prevenient, justifying and sanctifying nature of grace.

2 Corinthians
     Sloppy theology says Jesus’ Jesus’ sacrifice changes God’s mind about us: that because of the cross God decides to forgive us after all. But Paul doesn’t say God is reconciled to us; it’s the other way around: we are reconciled to God. Paul urges us to choose to enter into that relationship.
        The thing is, there are two religions in the world: the religion of being right and the religion of being in love. Our sin is that we don’t trust God’s love, and think instead that we have to be good enough to deserve God’s favor. The religion of our sin is the religion of being right. The crucifixion embodies our judgment that Jesus didn’t “get it right.” And God’s judgment is to have mercy on one who didn’t “get it right,” because God’s way is to be loving, not to be right, or to demand that we get it right. In fact God’s mercy points out that our judgment is wrong. Jesus did “get it right.” We’re the ones who messed up. God’s mercy overturns our judgment. God is reconciled with Jesus despite our judgment otherwise—and God is reconciled with us in the same way. Christ crucified embodies both us and God: we see our sin and its effects, and God’s grace, both at the same time in the same person. Jesus bears the suffering caused by our sin, and yet forgives us.
       Even though we are out of harmony with God, we are given the gift of a harmonious relationship with God, which we call “righteousness.” It’s not our accomplishment, but God’s gift. When we assent to that grace, when we allow ourselves to “be reconciled to God,” we become God’s faithfulness. In that sense Jesus takes on our sin so that we can take on his righteousness.

        Here, as part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs us in the traditional penitential disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (which is not just charitable giving but also working for justice). Jesus tells us to focus not on outer appearances but our inner relationship with God. He echoes Joel (“Rend your hearts, not your clothing”) and Psalm 51 (“you desire truth in the inward being”). In all these spiritual practices the emphasis is not on our (outward) performance but our inner relationship with God. Repentance isn’t a gloomy thing, but a joyful, hopeful, grateful reliance on God’s love and mercy.

       “God formed a human from the dust of the ground, and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living being” (Gen. 2.7). The ashes remind us that we are both dust and also Spirit. We are mortal; we have a finite time in this life to do what we’re here to do and live the lives we’re meant to live—and then it’s too late. So start now. Ashes also remind us we’re not just dust: we’re dust plus Spirit. Lent invites us to ponder both our mortality, our bodies and our createdness, and also the Spirit that makes us alive, that makes us more than just dirt. The ashes on our foreheads invite us to open ourselves to the Spirit.

Call to Worship

Leader: The grace of the Beloved, Jesus Christ, be with you.
All: And also with you.
Bless the Holy One who forgives all our sins.
God’s mercy endures forever.

Leader: O God, we come.
All: We are ashes, crying out.
We come, broken and in need.
We come, trusting and open-hearted,
We come, forgiven and welcome.
We come to be honest, to confess, to be ourselves.
We come to be received, to be blessed, to be anointed;
in the name and the mercy of Christ, we come.

3.Leader: Beloved in Christ, we come at the invitation of the Gentle One.
All: And we are loved, and received with joy.
We come, broken and in need.
And we are healed.
We come, dust and ashes.
And we are filled with the Breath of Life.
God of grace, receive us, bless us,
and renew in us the gift of life. Amen.

Leader: In the beginning, God, you took up dust from the earth…
All: and your breathed into it the breath of life
and it became a living human.
We are dust and Spirit, bone and breath.
O God, renew in us your Spirit,
that in this time of our flesh,
before we return to dust,
we may be the people you create us to be.
Your grace is eternal; your mercy is sure; your love is perfect.
We worship in humility, gratitude and trust.
Heal us, forgive us, and create us anew.


Gentle God,
you created us in love and for love.
We are the pure light of your love, given flesh.
Your Spirit is our life; your breath is our breath.
Your love shines in us, the image of Christ,
and we are all being transformed into this image,
from one degree of glory to another.
But we deny your light and obscure your image.
Help us to see all that impedes your perfect love in us,
and to remove it, so that we may truly shine with your light.
In this Lenten season, help us to see, to repent,
and to be perfected in love,
in the grace of Jesus Christ. Amen.

God, we turn to you, we who are made of the dust of the earth.
Receive us in our brokenness.
We turn to you, we who are made of the dust of stars.
Breathe your light into us once again.
Create in us a new heart, O God,
and put a new and right Spirit within us. Amen.

Creator God, from stardust you have made us
and from the dust of death you raise us.
Your spirit alone breathes life in us.
Create new hearts in us, O God,
and put a new spirit within us,
that we may repent of our sin, be made new,
and live lives in harmony with your delight,
through Jesus Christ, the Beloved. Amen.

God of love,
Jesus calls us to lives of love, trust, justice and compassion.
We want to be faithful, but our fears and desires interfere.

We want to trust in you, to rely wholly on your grace.
We want to be whole, to be true to the people you create us to be.
We want to be a healing presence and a source of grace.
But our fears and desires interfere.

We want to be kind to all, including our enemies.
We want to reach out to those who are in need,
and heal those who are hurting.
We want to be bold in doing justice.
We want to pass on to those who struggle
the way of living Jesus taught.
But our fears and desires interfere.

Forgive us. Heal our fears, re-direct our desires,
and give us the courage and compassion of your Spirit.

Create in us a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within us. Amen.

Gracious God, you made us from the dust of the earth,
and breathed your Spirit into us to give us life.
The dust is the dust of stars.
You have made us from light,
and your Spirit blazes within us; your glory shines in us.
But we have veiled your glory, and lost sight of your light.
We have clung to the dust,
but not the light, the Spirit, the Life.
Renew your light in us this Lenten season.
May we again become true earthlings, pure stardust, living light.
Renew your Spirit within us, that we may live.

Most holy and merciful God,
to you and to one another we confess our sin. We have sinned in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart, mind, soul and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven as you have forgiven us.
We have been untrue to the spirit of Christ. We have grieved you, and we are sorrowful.
Have mercy on us, O God.
Our unfaithfulness to you, our distrust, our neglect of your faithful grace, our failure to live wholly for you,
we confess to you, God.
Our unfaithfulness in prayer and worship, our failure to nurture the faith that is in us, our negligence of the Holy Spirit,
we confess to you, God.
Our self-indulgence and exploitation of others, our participation in injustice and oppression, and our failure to act or speak out, our love of worldly goods and comforts, our defense of our privilege, our pride and impatience, our envy and our quickness to judge and not to heal,
we confess to you, God.
Our waste and pollution of your creation, our blindness to the awe and beauty which you have given us,
we confess to you, God.
Accept our repentance, God, for the wrongs we have done. For our blindness to human need and suffering, and to your presence in the poor, for our indifference to injustice and cruelty, for our failure to love courageously,
accept our repentance, God.
For our judgments, fear, anger and all uncharitable thoughts toward others, for our prejudice and contempt of those who differ from us, for all that is hurtful that we have done,
accept our repentance, God.
Restore us, gracious God, for your mercy is great.
Hear us, O God,
for your grace is the source of our life. Amen.

Listening Prayer

(suitable as a Collect, preparation for hearing scriptures, or invitation to prayer)

God of grace,
my life is ashes.
Breathe your breath into that dust,
that I may be created anew,
and live by the grace
of your Spirit alone.


Psalm 51, a paraphrase

Be gentle with me, O God,

         hold me in your constant love.

With your abundant mercy

         free me from my sins.

Wash away the grime 

         that covers your image in me.
I know I don’t live the life you give me;

         you know the difference.

My love is not perfect;

         this you see.

But you lead me to live in harmony

         with my inner truth,

to be transparent

         to your presence within me.

Purge me with your love,

         that I may be pure love.

Fill me,

         that I may be pure light.

Deep within me, in your light,

         I discover joy,

gratitude even for bones broken

         to be reset.

When you look at me you don’t see sins;

         you see love.

Create me all over again, O God;

         breathe your life-giving breath in me.

Hold me close 

         and give me your loving spirit.

You are the joy that sustains me;

         you give me my willing heart.

O Beloved, when I open my lips,

         my mouth will sing praise, only praise. 

I can’t offer a thing to please you,

         can’t determine your love for me.

What delights you is just me,

         this broken heart,

         this true, simple heart.

Use me as I am to love the world.

         That will be gift enough for both of us.

Suggested Songs

(Click on titles to view, and hear an audio clip, on the Music page)

Brief (repeatable) prayer songs:
Use any one of Kyrie, Six Versions.
       Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.

Behold the Lamb of God (Original song)
       Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world
       Come, let us follow the lamb of God
       who takes away the sin of the world.

The Jesus Prayer (Original song)
      Jesus, Beloved of God, have mercy on me, for I need you.

See all songs with tags for Confession or Repentance; especially these:

Darkness (Tune: Tallis’ Canon or CONDITOR ALME)

The darkness is a coveringto hide the questions that I bring.God bless me even in the nightto bring my love into the light. The darkness is where fears may hide,but help me, God, to look inside.Give me the courage, Love,
to face my demons with your saving grace.

The darkness is a mystery,
the way that is unclear to me.
Yet God, you lead me by the hand
to journey toward a promised land.

The darkness is a place of rest,
where I may sleep and be your guest
until the rising of the sun.
I rest in you, O Loving One

God of Mercy (Original Song)

God of mercy, you forgive me,
may I myself forgive.
Now confessing, I ask your blessing.
By your grace I shall live.

God, heal my sin, brokenness deep within.
Too often I bear pain I make others share.
Set me free from what I have been.

God of mercy, you forgive me,
may I myself forgive.
Now confessing, I ask your blessing.
By your grace I shall live.

You are gentle with me; gentle I learn to be.
You touch me and heal; deep in my soul I feel
burdens gone, and I am free.

God of mercy, you forgive me,
may I myself forgive.
Now confessing, I ask your blessing.
By your grace I shall live.
By your grace I shall live.

God, we are broken       (Tune: Be Thou My Vision)

God, we are broken, for all flesh is weak.
Grant us the healing and peace that we seek.
For all that pains us, beyond our control,
grant us your healing, our bodies made whole.

God, we are broken; our hearts are not one.
Sometimes it seems that our souls come undone.
Bring us renewal and calm in our soul.
Grant us your healing and make our hearts whole.

God, we are broken: for families and friends
suffer when love fails and faithfulness ends.
May your forgiveness and grace play its role.
Grant us your healing; make covenants whole.

God, we are broken, for many are poor,
and we ignore those who lie by our door.
God, may your justice like great rivers roll.
Grant us your healing; make all people whole.

God, we are broken for hate and all war
wound us so we are not free anymore.
Make us one people from pole to pole.
Grant us your healing, and make the world whole.

God, you have searched me     (Tune Be Thou My Vision)

God, you have searched me; you know from within
all of my beauty, my wounds and my sin.
Deep in my heart—I’ve not spoken a word—
you know my soul, and my thoughts you have heard.

You who have made me and always are near,
help me to shed my illusion and fear.
Help me be truthful, and truthfully see,
humbly transparent to your grace in me.

Your loving presence within me each day
go with me, guide me, and show me your way.
Give me the eyes of your mercy and grace,
to walk in love in each moment, each place.

Into the Darkness       (Original tune)

Only the seed that has died and is buried
lives to bear fruit, Jesus said.
Lead me then into the darkness and dying,
so you can raise me up from the dead.
Jesus, help me die and rise.

All of my living, my loves and desires,
all of the things that I cling to,
now I surrender to die and be buried.
Raise me in following, serving you.
Jesus, help me die and rise.

Lead me to truth and have mercy and wash me
deep in the dark of my being,
a spirit like bread that is taken and broken:
this is the death that is freeing.
Jesus, help me die and rise.

Give me a clean heart, a heart pure in spirit,
willing and steadfast and made new.
My life I lose; let your cross lift me up now.
One joy restore to me: life in you.
Jesus, help me die and rise.

Into the Light
       (Original tune)

God, I come into the light of your mercy and grace:
may I receive your forgiveness, your loving embrace.
You know my brokenness better than I, and my sin.
You love me perfectly, setting me free once again.

All of myself I now humbly bring into your light:
wash me, renew me, forgive me and set me aright.
God, I surrender myself to your life-giving love:
may I be born by your Spirit, anew, from above.

God, you have loved us so much that you even would give
Jesus, your Son, the Beloved, so that we would live.
Help us to live so we bring your good news into sight.
Help us to trust in your grace and come into the light.

Return, My Soul
(Tune: Finlandia)

Return, my soul, from all your hungry wandering,your fearful search for comfort and control.Let go my grasp of things apart from God,for God alone can heal and hold my soul.Return to God, for God alone will love me,and give me life, and bless and make me whole.

Return, my soul, from all the things that dull me,that soothe my sense, but leave my sin in place.My broken heart, return from tricks and bargains;turn to the One who meets me face to face.Return to God. Each moment turn again;receive unending love and life and grace.

I turn, O God, to you who love with patience.You walk beside me, though I cannot see.You are my life in dry and weary deserts,my spring of life that flows eternally.I turn to you, from false desire and grasping,and letting go, I find that you hold me.

Our Living Breath (Tune: Londonderry Air: “Oh Danny Boy”)

O Holy One, Creator of the stars of night,
whose dust we are, created with your light,
now breathe your spirit into us and give us life;
give us new hearts that beat with your delight.
Our dust and ashes, Lord, we give in faith to you.
Receive our lives, our sin, our wounds, our death;
and raise us up with Christ from death to life by grace.
Lord, may we be your love and you our living breath.

Set Me Free (Red Sea) (original song)

1. Forgive me, God of mercy, set me free. (Repeat)
Refrain: From slavery to the past, through the deep Read Sea,
lead me God of love. Set me free.

2. From anger and resentment, set me free… Refrain
3. From blaming and from judgment, set me free… Refrain
4. To be completely loving,set me free… Refrain

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