Preached on March 5, 2014 (Ash Wednesday), at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Seattle.
A little while ago a friend of mine said something to me that I can’t get out of my mind. It’s one of those things someone says that to them seems obvious and uncontroversial, but it brings me up short. I just can’t shake it. Here’s what he said:
“You don’t take your dirty laundry to church.”
What does he mean by dirty laundry?
Something like this, I think. Dirty laundry: your worst secrets. Dirty laundry: your most painful regrets. Dirty laundry: that divorce years ago, the one where you behaved badly; or the day last year when you got fired for cause; or the addiction that plagues you; or the family scandal that doesn’t belong in a Christmas letter; or less dramatic but still-dirty laundry, like the daily dreariness of your life that weighs you down; or the painful doubt you experience that tells you you’re not going to fit in around here, because around here, people don’t feel doubt like you do. They don’t make mistakes like you, these church people. They smile; they eat their bread with outstretched hands, in a happy circle.
But you? You don’t take your dirty laundry to church.
“So what do you take to church?” I asked my friend, knowing the answer, and fearing it. “Oh, you take the easy things, and the happy things,” he said. By this he meant problems nice people have, tidy problems, or better yet, you bring only the things that can be celebrated, like new births and clean cancer screens and safe homecomings.
But today—today I hope we can do something that makes the church better than that, something that pushes the church deeper…if we will allow ourselves to do it. Today is Ash Wednesday. And Ash Wednesday can be all about our dirty laundry. In a little while we will pull a lot of dirty clothes out of our laundry baskets in a lengthy confession. We will come clean about many things, including hypocrisy, self-indulgence, gluttony, dishonesty, carelessness, disregard for the earth and the living creatures who inhabit it, and many more. We will confess these things as the mortal, unfinished children of God.
It’s a big pile of laundry.
And this day is for everyone, not just you and your own basket of dirty clothes: “Gather the people!” the prophet Joel, God’s mouthpiece, proclaims. This means all people—“assemble the aged,” God demands. “Gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.” It seems everyone has dirty laundry, and God wants to see it.
Jesus in Matthew then gives us further instructions, warning us that even in the humble acts of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, religious types can screw up. They can be tempted to make a show of it, as if to say, Look! My clothes are dirtier than yours, and my remorse is therefore more poignant, more grand! Aren’t I great?
No, that’s not how it works. Coming to church to confess wrongdoing is not a competition to be the worst sinner, or the most contrite parishioner. It’s not a production or a show or an empty ritual of public repentance. And it’s definitely not a form of masochistic self-flagellation.
So what is it then? Why do we do this?
I offer three reasons, three simple reasons why Ash Wednesday can be a kind of “laundry day” for the Church.
First, if we do this right, if we do this well, then the Church can be one of the precious few places where you and I can come and be our true selves. We can acknowledge the best and the worst in us, as a community of flawed yet beautiful human beings. Acceptance: that’s the first reason I offer for why Ash Wednesday is valuable. I can be accepted here. I can accept you here. The real you.
Last year I was having one of those days, one of those days when my weaknesses and strengths seemed to be battling it out. And a close friend said this to me: “I love all of you,” she said. “I love your strong parts and your weak parts, and I love how they come together in one person.” Acceptance! I was accepted exactly as I was. (My friend has attended many Ash Wednesday liturgies over the years.)
Second, if we all are truly welcome to bring our individual “dirty laundry” here, we can make the church … well, we can make it a kind of laundromat where everyone’s laundry gets jumbled together, my socks in static cling with your t-shirts … and in so doing, we can begin to see—and to confess—our corporate dirty laundry, the things we do as a groupthat take us away from God, harm our neighbor, and damage the earth. In one of the church’s forms of corporate confession, we confess “the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf,” and the language of this confession reveals that these sins are not just mine or yours, but ours. This gathering of people has dirty laundry. And we come to recognize this when we come here with our small baskets of mistakes and regrets.
And finally, if we do this right, if we do this well, then we resume once again the process of cleaning that laundry. If you’ve been to more than one Ash Wednesday, I wonder if you’ve felt like I have, reviewing the list of sins we confess and realizing that yep, I need to confess them all again. I inevitably feel a little melancholy. Year by year, I need Ash Wednesday. Weneed it. And year by year, by God’s grace, it “goes to work” on us, it cleanses us, it helps us sort and wash and dry and fold and put away our sins.
And that’s a good thing, because in this cleansing, in this renewal, we are strengthened to turn toward our neighbor in love, in serenity, in peace. Our conscience is made clean. We practice this in Lent, a 40-day season of cleansing and renewal, a season that developed over the centuries to assist new Christians preparing for baptism at Easter, and then evolved to include everyone in the community as a time to recall our life with God, and participate more intentionally in that life. By Easter, having submitted to the cleansing discipline of Lent (making our share of mistakes along the way, and that’s okay), having said Yes to the power from outside ourselves to cleanse and renew us—by Easter we may feel just a little bit stronger, a little bit calmer, a little bit more prepared to affirm once again our baptismal covenant.
Laundry, as most of us are well aware, is hard and often tedious work. But there are some upsides. If you’re like me, you love a row of matched and folded socks. You smile at the hamper, blissfully empty for at least a few seconds before somebody tosses another article of dirty clothing into it. You like the fresh smell and warm-to-the-touch comfort of clean clothes.
Lent can be like that, if we allow it. Lots of work, but a springtime season of cleansing, discipline, service to others, and peace.
I want to close with a poem by Jane Kenyon, a poem that captures for me not only Ash Wednesday, but the grace we restless ones are given by God each Lent, and always. As you hear her poem (which is also printed in our service folder), hear also my prayer for a holy Lent, and the hope of Easter for all the earth.
by Jane Kenyon
All day the blanket snapped and swelled on the line,
roused by a hot spring wind. . . .
From there it witnessed the first sparrow,
early flies lifting their sticky feet,
and a green haze on the south-sloping hills.
Clouds rode over the mountain. . . .
At dusk I took the blanket in, and we slept,
restless, under its fragrant weight.
Biblical Texts: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21