sermon art: Ken Phillips, textiles, 2020
Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Ash Wednesday – February 22, 2023, 11:00 a.m. worship
[sermon begins after two Bible readings from the books of Joel and 2 Corinthians; Psalm 51 is at the end of the sermon]
Joel 2:12-17 Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—
2a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
nor will be again after them
in ages to come.
12Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
14Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
for the Lord, your God?
15Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
16gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation;
assemble the aged;
gather the children,
even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her canopy.
17Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.
Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord,
and do not make your heritage a mockery,
a byword among the nations.
Why should it be said among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’ ”
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
6:1As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2For he says,
“At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”
See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 3We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
How would you describe the way a favorite old hymn catches you off guard during a worship service? Or the way a new hymn immediately feels like an old favorite? For me, it runs the range of human emotion. Sometimes singing a hymn feels like joy so strong that it moves me to dance…or at least moves me to the less conspicuous swaying option. Sometimes hymn singing feels like inspiration that strengthens my resolve to love my neighbor and work for justice and peace. And sometimes hymn singing feels like deep grief, when the words get caught in my throat and like I won’t be able to breathe if I keep on singing or, at the very least, tears will dampen the sound. I could go on and on but the bottom line is that singing in this place with you all is food for the soul whether we’re exuberantly singing together on a tried-and-true hymn or bumbling along on a new one. There are very few places in which public singing happens. Concerts have their superfans who know all the songs by heart and include the rest of us slouches who may know the words to one or two of their popular songs. Baseball games have the 7th Inning Stretch with the happy group singing of, “Take me out to the ball game!” But regular singing together happens less and less for people. Places of worship are the main places where songs are sung as a group.
In the reading from Joel, the people are assembled and gathered into a congregation – men and women, old and young, even the bride and groom. Everyone is called to return to God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Joel writes, “…rend your hearts, not your clothing…” We hear that the people assembled with hearts broken open before God. When the people gathered even in those days, there were songs to be sung. In the case of Joel’s story, the song was likely a psalm of lament and confession, a psalm that describes their open, penitent hearts and their trust in God’s grace, mercy, and steadfast love – perhaps Psalm 51, an Ash Wednesday classic. The Psalms are the Bible’s hymnal. There are songs to be found in other places in the Bible, to be sure, but the Psalms are a record of liturgical poetry accompanied by music.
The English term [psalm] title derives from the Greek psalmos, meaning “song accompanied by a stringed instrument.” In Hebrew, the book is known as Tehillim or “songs of praise.”
As the people sang in Joel’s story, perhaps their throats closed as their tears fell…and as their hearts opened. Singing yet struggling in the midst of their suffering to trust that God is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love. Suffering and yet still they sang.
In 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul lists the suffering that he and the other disciples had endured. It’s helpful that he begins the passage calling the readers to be reconciled to God because it could be argued that Paul reveled in his suffering just a bit much. But the good part of listing his sufferings is that he’s drawing a complete picture of where God shows up in the darkest places of our humanity and how hardship can shape us for the good. Not that suffering is lucky or somehow part of the bitter medicine we’re supposed to take. But because the apostle Paul might say, “It’s because of the ways that suffering conforms to the example of Christ crucified and new life coming out of that.”
On Ash Wednesday, we’re acknowledging our fragility as humans, our mortality in these fragile bodies and we place our trust in God who meets us in our most fragile places – when our bodies betray us and when we betray ourselves and each other. Today is a day to be honest about the suffering we experience because it’s part of the human condition and also the suffering we inflict on ourselves and each other. Care needs to be taken that we don’t corrupt this theology into valorizing suffering and hardship. Rather, if you are going through “hardship, chronic pain, deep disappointment,” if the Beatitudes fit your story in this moment, God meets you there not because it’s a magic ticket to God but because it’s a place where God shows up. God shows up and promises transformation and new life – the story of Lent through the glory of Easter.
Last Fall, I attended our Theological Conference for ministry leaders, pastors, and deacons. The topic was Trauma and Resilience. These beautiful banners in our Sanctuary today were lined up in the hotel ballroom where we met and worshipped together. The art was a visual prayer during that time as we talked about suffering and trauma and healing and research and mental health practitioners and where our faith was or wasn’t in those experiences. I wondered with someone afterwards if the artist might make them available to us during Lent. From the psalmic poetry and the textile beauty, we chose our Lenten theme, “Rise and Sing Again.” It’s part of the words on the banner over by the baptismal font – a location of happy accident as the banners were laid out in the order the artist intended. The banners tell a story of feeling forsaken in suffering and rising to sing again. They start at this one by the pulpit and move backwards in order on this side of the Sanctuary and then forward on the organ side.
Rising and singing again is part of what our faith community does for each other over and over. We sing when the person next to us can’t. They sing when we can’t. We all sing when we can. Rising and singing again acknowledges this imperfect and messy world where suffering often has no explanation and is regularly the actual result of people hurting us through the sin of carelessness or maliciousness or, vice versa, us hurting other people through carelessness or maliciousness. In difficult times, people sometimes use the non-biblical, cultural expression, “Well, everything happens for a reason.” To which, in the right situations, I’ll respond, “Yes, and sometimes the reason is sin.”
Today is a day of penitence. A day to be honest about who we are as fragile, mortal creatures which includes the sin and suffering we endure and inflict on ourselves and others. A day to be honest about whether or not we’re ready to sing in the midst of it – as Paul says, “…sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”
Today on Ash Wednesday, the ashes on our forehead remind us that mortality, suffering, and death do not have the last word. God does. And God meets our fragile, careless, and malicious humanity with grace, mercy, and steadfast love, transforming our lives with God’s promise of new life. For this and for all that God is doing, we can say thanks be to God and amen.
 Rabbi Or Rose. “The Book of Psalms.” https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-book-of-psalms/
 Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave Podcast for Ash Wednesday on February 22, 2023. www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/889-ash-wednesday-february-22-2023
 Ibid.; Also, find Jesus’ teaching on the Beatitudes in Matthew 5…blessed are the poor in spirit, the grieving, etc.
 Ken Phillips, local Denver textile and liturgical artist. Read more about him here: www.regis.edu/news/2022/magazine/06/ken-phillips-weaves-a-tempest-in-tapestry
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
3For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
5Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
6You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
10Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
13Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
14Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
15O LORD, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
17The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.