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Ash Wednesday Homily

Ash Wednesday Homily
Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17; Mark 1:14-15
Preached at University Presbyterian Church


Fifteen years ago Duke University started paying attention to a disturbing trend among its population of female undergrads.  A study found that many young women were coming to Duke as freshmen with high levels of self-confidence, but they were graduating four years later with “eating disorders, stress-related illnesses, and an overall sense of insecurity and self-doubt.”[1]  As they conducted interviews to get a better sense of the women’s experience, they ran across one young woman who captured the campus climate in a single phrase.  She said the expectation for her and her peers was of “effortless perfection.”  The pressure was on both to excel academically and to maintain all the traditional markers of femininity—to be thin, pretty, and well-dressed, with nice hair and nice nails.  And, most importantly, these women felt the need to accomplish all these things without showing any signs of effort.

While this condition of effortless perfection might be particularly acute among college women, few of us are strangers to the practice of carefully curating the version of ourselves we offer to the world.  Most any day of the year, there is a rather narrow set of messages we proclaim from our faces.  The smile we paste on our lips says, “I am happy,” the lifting of the chin says, “I have it all under control,” the concealer we dot on our blemishes says, “I am flawless,” and the sweat-free brow we expose to the world says, “everything is fine.”  But this one day a year, those of us who lift foreheads to ashy fingers and allow the smudge of soot to stain our skin, we proclaim a different message.  We announce, “I am finite.  I am mortal.  I am caught up in the ways of a sin-sick world.  I cannot save myself.”

Margaret said in her sermon on Sunday that this Ash Wednesday service is one of the places in the church where we are the most honest.  I was grateful for that reminder—the mercy of honesty glistening brightly under the dark black mark of sin and death.


It’s long been my practice on Ash Wednesday to include all of Psalm 51 as the prayer of confession.  I get as little self-conscious about that, as I’m aware that its length spills from one page onto second, that it exceeds considerably our typical serving size of repentance, which on a normal Sunday weighs in at 50-70 words.  I worry we’ll grow weary of confession.  But truthfully—as long as we’re being honest—I often long for more of it.

The poet David Whyte says confession is a stripping away of protection, the telling of a truth which might once have seemed like a humiliation, become suddenly a gateway, an entrance to solid ground; even a first step home.[2]

I want to be stripped of the protection that takes so much work to maintain;

I want to know what solid ground feels like.

So here is a first step:

I confess that I have everything I need, and somehow I still want more.

I confess that I am quick to cast blame and slow to release a grudge.

I confess that I am as likely to summon resentment as I am compassion.

That I can paint a pretty picture of a more just and beautiful human society but that I will sacrifice only so much in pursuit of it.

That the way of Jesus captures my imagination and alights my heart like no other way does, but still I will follow him only so far.


I confess not only my own sin.

For I am a part of society that expects college girls to be able to slide effortlessly

into size two jeans.

And I am also a part of a country that finds it easier to watch schoolchildren cower under their desks as bullets fly above them than to come to some reasonable consensus on the concepts of freedom and restraint.

And I am a part of a faith that professes concern for the poor and marginalized but still struggles to erase the boundaries of class and race in its own churches.

And I am a part of a world that cannot quit its addiction to fossil fuels, no matter that we are plowing poison into the dirt of this earth and the soil of its future.

If we were to confess it all, the bulletin would be pages, volumes long.  As it is, we speak the words as best we know and honor the place of honesty and strive to turn ourselves back toward the Christ who points us to a different way of being in this world.


David Whyte says, “To confess is to declare oneself ready for a more courageous road.”[3]

Which to me sounds a bit like Jesus: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Lent is the invitation to a more courageous road.  There is no denying that it ends at the cross.  But the first step begins right here, tonight, as we pivot ourselves toward the Christ who insists on heading that way.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of hearing Ruby Sales speak.  Sales has been a lifelong activist, from her childhood growing up as an African-American girl in civil-rights era Alabama on through her adult work as a human rights advocate and founder of The SpiritHouse Project.  One of those gathered asked Sales to tell about a most formative experience in her life, when at the age of 17 she found herself on the other end of a shotgun being held by a white deputy.  Before she could register the danger that was staring down the barrel of the gun, she was pushed out of the way by her friend Jonathan Daniels.  Daniels was a white Episcopal seminarian who had marched beside Sales from Selma to Montgomery.  He took the bullet meant for her and died instantly.

There are ashes all over that story.  The soot of the systemic sin of slavery and racism.  The dark injustice of a just life cut off in its prime.  The cost of choosing the courageous road.  The fragility of human life and the real power of death.  So many ashes.

But when Sales was asked these fifty years later to talk about it, she said many things about courage and fear and friendship and risk.  And then, reflecting on Jonathan’s reflexes, she said, “You cannot do this work in the world if you believe death is the end of it all.”[4]

One final story, then: The preacher Richard Lischer tells of the first funeral he led as a young pastor.  His mentor was helping to prepare him, walking him through the outline of the service, rehearsing the sacred words of liturgy with him.  And then the older pastor took a small vial out of his pocket, handed it over, and said, “These are the ashes. When you come to the committal, pour these at the head of the casket and say, ‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’ And one more thing: don’t be sloppy. Make sure you make the sign of the cross with the ashes.”

Dr. Lischer says, “I might have asked, “Why not be sloppy with the ashes? That’s what death is all about, isn’t it? A chaotic reunion with the soil, which itself is a chaos of comingled organisms on a planet named Earth.”

But no, he ultimately concluded.  “[I]n Christ, even the chaos of ashes finds a form…Only in Jesus are they gathered into the shape of the cross.”[5]

Tonight we bear that cross on our foreheads as we remember the one who bore it into the world.  Gather in closely, friends.  Here, in Christ, we find our form.


[1] Freshman Women at Duke University Battle ‘Effortless Perfection.’

[2] David Whyte, “Confession” in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.  Many Rivers Press: Langley, 2015.  p. 33

[3] Whyte, 33.

[4] Personal notes from Ruby Sales at Durham clergy breakfast, Feb 1, 2018.

[5] Richard Lischer, “The Shape of Ashes: Repentance and the cross,”  Christian Century, Feb. 12, 2015.

Elizabeth Michael , Interim Associate Pastor


Phone: (919).929.2102 ext. 112


Elizabeth joined the staff in September of 2016 and counts it a tremendous privilege to learn and grow alongside the saints of University Presbyterian. A native North Carolinian, Elizabeth studied music and religion at Presbyterian College and received her M. Div. at Princeton Seminary. Her life and ministry have been shaped by work with Presbyterian churches in South Africa, a season of living in intentional community alongside the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC, and the chance to be a part of a team welcoming home citizens returning from incarceration. Her spiritual life has been consistently nourished by immersion in the community of faith, most recently at Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church in Durham, where she served as Associate Pastor for seven years. Elizabeth has a deep love for Christ's Church, a deep hope in the gospel's reconciling work in the world, and a deep joy in the life of ministry. At UPC, Elizabeth offers support to the church's caregiving and worship ministries, among others. Outside of work, she tries to take full advantage of her library card, the local food scene, national parks, and friends who live in places fun to visit.