Ash Wednesday 2021

Ode to Dirt by Sharon Olds

Dear dirt, I am sorry I slighted you
I thought that you were only the background
for the leading characters—the plants
and animals and human animals.
It’s as if I had loved only the stars
and not the sky which gave them space
in which to shine.  Subtle, various,
sensitive, you are the skin of our terrain,
you’re our democracy.  When I understood
I had never honored you as a living
equal, I was ashamed of myself,
as if I had not recognized
a character who looked so different from me,
but now I can see us all, made of the
same basic materials—
cousins of that first exploding from nothing—
in our intricate equation together.  O dirt,
help us find ways to serve your life,
you who have brought us forth, and fed us,
and who at the end will take us in
and rotate with us, and wobble, and orbit.

Copyright © 2016 by Sharon Olds. Originally published by Alfred A. Knopf


Holy and merciful God, we confess to you and to one another that we have sinned by our own fault in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. 

We confess to you, O God, our self-indulgence and our exploitation of others, our participation in systems of inequality and injustice, our insistence on staying in our comfortable corners, and our neglect for human need and suffering. Have mercy on us. 

Accept our repentance, O God, for the wrongs we have done. For our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us, for our waste and pollution of your creation and for our lack of concern for those who come after us. Have mercy on us. 

Restore us, O God of our salvation, and show us your steadfast love. Turn to us in your mercy and redeem us. 


Psalm 51

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against 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.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
    a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being;[a]
    therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and put a new and right[b] spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
    and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing[c] spirit.

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
    and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
    O God of my salvation,
    and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

15 O Lord, open my lips,
    and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you have no delight in sacrifice;
    if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
17 The sacrifice acceptable to God[d] is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
    rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
19 then you will delight in right sacrifices,
    in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
    then bulls will be offered on your altar.

Luke 18:9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

REFLECTION by Rev. Sally Ann McKinsey 

This Ash Wednesday is remarkably strange, like the liturgical year that has been. Here in Middle Tennessee we are iced-in, pandemic-weary pilgrims limping our way into another Lenten season after a year that has quite honestly taken it out of us. 

Because this Ash Wednesday may find us exceptionally exhausted, the old Ash Wednesday truths bring fresh relevance in the midst of our current anxieties, challenges, and losses. Ash Wednesday gives us theological language for what we already know to be true from our experiences of fragility and uncertainty. We are invited to keep company with our limits and befriend our mortality on this day, remembering in word what is true all the rest of the year. From dust we have come and to dust we will return. 

We begin our 40-day journey to the cross with the mark of ashes, earthen material smeared on our skin as our knowledge of our fragility is written on our hearts. In the midst of a pandemic, our bodily limits, fears and losses are all too real. Ash Wednesday gives us an invitation to be honest about these limits, to admit our humanity, and to receive God’s grace. Over the next 40 days we will study the stories of Jesus, our human God, and remember that Jesus, too, was a body and tended to bodies. What good news in these times!

How will you journey in body and spirit this season? How will you mark the days, befriending your limits? Will you take on a new practice or observe healing moments of silence? May each of us find ways to reflect on what it means to be earthen bodies in the midst of a gracious, ever-present God.

Even as we observe Ash Wednesday under snow and ice tonight, I remind you in word what you already know in body: from dust you have come, and to dust you will return.

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PRAYER written by Rev. Jessie Light-Wells

God, the ground of our being, on this day we remember that we come from dust, and to dust we shall return. In the beginning, you breathed life into the dust. In the dusty valley you brought dry bones back to life. And at the end of our days you call us back into the dust. 

Like gravity pulls us toward the center of the Earth, your Spirit pulls us toward the center of goodness, toward wholeness, toward you. We give you thanks for this tethering, for the ways you ground us, for the ways you stop us in our tracks and demand that we pause, pay attention, wonder. For too often we rush through this world, flying through our days breathlessly, 

Consumed by striving, achieving, and climbing, wrapped up in the myth of self-sufficiency, coming before you only to brag that we’ve got it all figured out. But on this day we remember that we come from dust, and to dust we shall return. We remember that one day we will reach the end of this life and regret the times in which we failed to pause, pay attention, wonder. And even now, we know that we don’t have it all figured out. Our lives are uncertain and fragile, and we are afraid. We make mistakes and fall short, and we desperately need one another. 

So God, the ground of our being, humble us. Pull us toward you. Ground us in your presence. And in doing so, allow us to pause, pay attention, wonder. In humility, allow us to see the needs of the world and take action. In humility, guide our feet, raise our voices, put a giving spirit within us. In humility, help us love our neighbors as ourselves. God, the ground of our being, from dust to dust, humble us in your presence. 


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