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Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on February 9, 2005

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Ash Wednesday

Sermon preached by

The Rev. Ethan Cole

February 9, 2005

Some Christians have an experience of their conversion to Christ as a dramatic moment, they could tell you 'I was saved at such and such a time in such and such a place.' They have a profound experience of being born-again and changed in a way that is deep and lasting. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodists, felt his "heart strangely warmed" -as he put it-while listening to someone read from Martin Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. While Luther was describing the change that God works in the heart through faith in Christ, Wesley was graced with a powerful experience. He writes, "I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation: and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death." Wesley says, that in his earlier life he struggled with sin, and sometimes overcame sin, but was often conquered by it-but from that day when his heart was strangely warmed, he was always the conqueror over sin.

This is a rich story of conversion, but I think that those who like Wesley are granted the special grace of constant blessed assurance and those who always conquer over temptation and sin are few. I know I am not among their number. I have never had my heart strangely warmed, and I find myself subject to temptation and guilty of sin.

On Ash Wednesday the Church invites us to call to mind our sin and human frailty and we pray, as the collect puts it for God to "create and make in us new and contrite hearts that we may obtain perfect remission and forgiveness." This day is a liturgical expression of our repentance. This prayer is an invitation for God to convert us, to draw us back to him from the waste places where we are prone to wander, to restore us to him.

Paul tells the Corinthians, "See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of our salvation." Now, he says, is a critical moment. Today is the day we are being saved. This is a good scripture for Ash Wednesday when we corporately call to mind our sins, and call to mind God's promises of redemption. But I think it is a good scripture for every day. Being able to affirm this daily is more what my experience of conversion is like. Conversion is continuing. It is an ongoing turning to Christ. It is daily saying, "Now is the day of my salvation."

Our baptismal covenant asks the question of us, "Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?" And we answer, "I will with God's help." If you are like me, you persevere in resisting evil, and sometimes falter and fail, and you repent, and God welcomes you back, and uses the whole experience for your conversion. The grace granted to people like Wesley is a special grace of lasting sinlessness-God preserves some from faltering. Those blessed with this grace are shining saints throughout Christian history-women and men who present a powerful challenge and hope in the way we live our lives. But the grace I experience in my ongoing conversion is a simple grace-the grace to pick up and try again, trusting that in God's economy, nothing is ever wasted, not even my manifold sins and wickedness. They too, are part of God's plan for my conversion.

God is using this Ash Wednesday for all of our conversions. It is a moment, an acceptable time to draw our hearts closer to Christ and away from those sins that grieve God. Today is the day of our salvation. And so will be tomorrow if it comes, and so on, until we are fully converted to Christ, and we are his little sisters and brothers.

As we put our lives into Lenten habits for this season, we discipline ourselves, we mourn our sins, we repent of them, and commit ourselves to trying anew. This is our piece of the equation in the ongoing work of our conversion. But the power of sin is strong, it is a prowling lion seeking someone to devour. I pray I will not sin, but I know from my history, that likely I will-and soon. In the litany of penitence we will say in a few moments, we see just how pervasive the sins are of which we are called to repent-and probably before the end of the week I will be guilty of them again. But God's piece of the equation is that he is merciful, that he hates nothing that he has made, and that he transforms people that are broken into people that are glorious. Knowing this, and trusting in God that he will use all things, including our sins, to invite us ever deeper into his life-we must be gentle with ourselves when we fail. Lent, repentance and conversion are not about self-flagellation and self-punishment-rather they are about keeping our eyes on the prize of our salvation that God has made available to us in Jesus Christ. See, now is the acceptable time. See, now is the day of our salvation. Amen.

 

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2005 St. Paul's Cathedral, Buffalo New York