February 18, 2015
a sermon for the people of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church
in Marysville, WA
And so Lent begins…
For thousands of years, God’s people have been smearing ashes on their foreheads or pouring them into their hair as a sign of repentance and admission of guilt or deliverance into sin. The earliest mention, I believe, is in the book of Job chapter 42. Job says, “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” Job has spent a lot of time in suffering and railing against God for the terrible things that has happened in his life and for his own understanding that God has abandoned him. But by the time we get to chapter 42, Job has found a little clarity about his own situation and he says, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” In other words, Job thought he knew God, but now that he has really seen God, Job understands just how good and gracious our God is and in contrast, just how broken he is.
And so I wonder, what does this act mean to us today? How does the rending of garments (tearing your clothes) and dirtying your face please God? Spoilers: It doesn’t.
We begin the church year in Advent, and we breathlessly await the coming of the Christchild. He arrives, and we joyfully celebrate Christmas. Then, in the season of Epiphany, we look at all the ways in which God reveals Godself to us particularly through the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. And just as we are beginning to get it…really get the message that God is in and through and all around us… Bam! Screeching halt. Lent begins.
And I wonder if by the time we finish the season of Epiphany, if we like Job, finally SEE God revealed to us in our own lives “with our own eye”, as it were, through the person of Jesus and by seeing God we really get it…just how broken we are and how separated we have become from God and from our neighbor. And so we need to stop and pour ashes on our own selves. Not to please God, but to remind ourselves that we are in deep need. That we cannot save ourselves. That we are largely the architects of our own “crap/stuff”, that we are our own worst enemies and that we need help to get out of the situations and relationships and brokenness we’ve gotten ourselves into.
So, Ash Wednesday is the opportunity to think about the power of sin in our lives, to recognize that we can’t defeat it on our own, and that we need liberation or rescue from outside ourselves. We need God. We need a savior. And those ashes are a visible reminder of that for us. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
The psalm for today, Psalm 51, has long been a favorite of mine. “Create in me a clean heart, O God…” And it is frequently found in liturgy as hymn or as confession. But probably precisely because it is so prevalent in the ligurgy, it was a very long time before I realized that this psalm is King David’s response to the shocking sin he has committed: David upon the rooftop sees Bathsheba bathing (remember this story?), and he is so sure that he can have whatever or whomever he desires that he takes his neighbor’s wife and THEN tries to cover up that sin by murdering Uriah, his neighbor.
So maybe you haven’t done something quite like David, or maybe you have, but let’s be really honest, there are certain events in everyone’s life that brings forth alienation from creation. There are things that you do and things that I do that wound, destroy, and separate. We wound one another, we destroy relationships, and we separate ourselves from community.
And somehow, even though we know it to be the wrong thing, we cannot help ourselves. We just can’t seem to stop doing these things to one another…or to ourselves. And so, in this new season of Lent, we cry with David, “Have mercy on me, O God!...Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.”
Hear the good news: God does. In God’s infinite mercy, we are washed and made clean. We are claimed in baptism. We are called to life in the gospel. And we are beloved.
So the season of Lent ought to be a time of reconciliation. A time when we reunite ourselves as broken sinners with the deep desire God has for us to be whole and clean.
It is a time for taking up a new vision of who you are, how you act, how you choose to be in the world, and how you stand alongside your neighbor. Lent becomes a time not for berating ourselves for how wretched, sinful, and terrible we are, but it is a time for gaining a whole new perspective about ourselves in relation to God’s good creation and for understanding our place in it. It’s a time for seeking understanding and compassion for our neighbors and for ourselves wherever there was none before.
So, beloved, I ask you, how are we going to be reconciled to one another, to ourselves, and to God this season? How are you being called?
In our gospel lesson today, Jesus gives us all sorts of direction for how we might go about some of this. He lays out some guidelines for spiritual practices and disciplines about giving, prayer, fasting, and hoarding. This is really good and certainly worth reflecting on regularly. But since we read this text every single year for Ash Wednesday, I am wondering if perhaps I could entertain another idea for this year.
The spiritual discipline to which I feel myself called this season is one suggested by a classmate and friend of mine. She has proposed a “Negativity Fast”. Those of you in 12 step communities will recognize this as Step #10. The idea is that we refrain from negative thoughts, speech, and “self-talk” for the season of Lent. And at the end of the day, reflect a little on the places you were negative or destructive or harmful or sarcastic or self-loathing…journal about them…think about how those places may have wounded someone and about how it wounded you. How it separated you from the understanding that God calls you “good” and “beloved”. And then, make your apologies to your neighbor if necessary, but also, make your apologies to God and to you. I plan to engage in this spiritual practice this Lent. And I invite you to join me.
How would a little reshaping of your own narration, that little voice in your head, change the way you see yourself, your neighbor, your world? How could that help reorient us toward God? Could that help God create clean heart in you? in me?
God does have mercy on us in God’s steadfast love. God does not cast us away from God’s presence. God’s Holy Spirit is ever upon us.
This season of Lent, let us r-turn to God, re-voice our personal narrators, so that we may find ourselves restored in the joy of the Lord and in love with one another.