Ash Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013
The Rev. Carol Howser, Deacon
Trinity Church, Ashland
Isaiah 5:1-12, Psalm 103, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
In the name of the living God: Earth Maker, Pain Bearer, Giver of Life.
Last week Fr. Tony spoke beautifully about the difficulties of being human. He said, and I’m paraphrasing here, hopefully correctly, that God can change us: not taking away who we are or our choices, but transforming us into our true selves: who God intended when we were created.
Today we start Lent and for the next 40 plus days to open that up and look at it again and again. We are entering that time when we remember our frailties, the times we have tried and failed, the times, when, as the prayer says we have done those things which we ought not to have done and left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we, say,” there is no help in us.” It’s a time to really dig down deep, not only to discover our-selves, but to find out if what we believe WILL help us.
There is an ancient tradition in our faith about tithing: that is giving one-tenth of what we have to some holy use. Lent is roughly one-tenth of the church year. Today we are considering giving that time to God. Giving our self in that time, with all honesty, with all that we know about ourselves (and hope no one else does) so that we might be changed and transformed into something holy too. Soon we will be confessing our sins and asking for God’s mercy and the grace to repent: that is to turn from our tendency toward these things.. to turn …and be made new. It’s pretty all-encompassing, that confession. And it’s important that we do it out loud, in the presence of each other as well as God.
I want to add something more, not because the liturgy is incomplete, but to add a bit to it that relates to another part of what Lent is about. Lent is also about facing our mortality too. It’s a time when we let ourselves die a little bit so that we can really live.
These are things I found as a hospice chaplain that came up with people at the end of their lives. They don’t have anything to do with what other people think of us or of the image we have created: what we show to the world. These are things that we know about ourselves, or should know. Things that God knows. Things that would serve us well to consider now rather than when we have just a little time. The list is from Frederick Buechner (and I quote)
“If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn’t, which side would get your money?”
“When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?”
“If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in twenty-five words or less?”
“Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?”
“Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?”
“If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?”
Use Lent to consider those things. (I think they fit within the liturgical confession.) And when you begin to discover your answers, listen not just to who you are now, or who others see you to be, but to who you are becoming or failing (yet) to become, to what life is teaching you or failing (yet) to teach you. The answers will be about fruitfulness. (What kind of fruit are you bearing?) About living well (or not). About what you believe keeps you ultimately safe and what you hope for.
Doing that can be hurtful. It can also be dangerous to look so closely at this part of ourselves if we don’t have support and something else to hope for and to put in place of the anguish we may feel as we uncover our imperfections.
One of the great truths of Christianity is that we are not Christians in a vacuum. We have each other, we have a community of people who are struggling too. We all have fears, we all grieve something or someone, we all have things that make us cringe in the night. We all fall short. A woman told me once that the secret to her long marriage of 60 years was that “we didn’t give up at the same time.” I think there is something of that in a faith community too. At times we struggle individually, but there is someone among us who has endured that struggle and become stronger for it. Someone who is wiser now, and patient and loving. Who can be truthful in speech and who is compassionate. They become our guides, leaders, comforters, examples when we need that. We have each other to lean on and then we take our turn to let someone use what we have learned. We can be leaned upon.
We are a sometimes dim but many times fearsomely bright reflection of our God. We can be a reflection to others of our God, who the Psalm says: forgives all those things that stand between us, who heals all our infirmities, is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness, who does not deal with us according to our sins. Whose mercy endures forever. It’s hard to allow others to be Christ like that to us and to think we can be Christ like that to someone else. We know ourselves too well. But as we grow in Christ and as the image of God is perfected in us we can offer ourselves in mercy and compassion to each other as well as to people beyond these walls.
The great rhythm of the church year is the same as the rhythm of our lives. We move from times of growth to times of greatness, from times of penitence to times of forgiveness and renewal, from times of rest to times of activity, from times of darkness to times of light and joy. We, like the year, are always moving, in effect from dying to new life. Lent is one of those times when we slough off the old dullness that keeps the God-light from shining within us so that we can be all that God created us to be. And we move through all of this with God who knows it all anyway.
When we acknowledge our deep inward sadness, our longing for grace and truth, it is not self-defeating. Rather, what we are saying is, “help me.” For some reason, saying, “Help me,” breaks down the walls we’ve created around ourselves. When we are not so closed off and hidden channels open through which grace and truth and the love of God and others can flow. When we acknowledge anger or grief, or laziness or selfishness, we can begin to mourn for our true self which we have lost. We can be comforted, and having asked for help, God can take what is lumpy and unformed or distorted and broken and restore us, reconcile us and make us whole. Make us more than what we have invented ourselves to be or what others think they know of us. Make us real. It may take our whole life well…and then some.
We are dust and to dust we shall return. We are of the earth and nothing on the earth exists forever… but we are God’s and what belongs to God will not be lost. So we begin. We will wander in our wilderness with Christ for the next 40 plus days. If we keep this time holy we will be stretches and bent out of the stiff shape we now make It will open us up and make us face our lives and our deaths and make us new. It won’t be easy. It ought not to be easy. We usually don’t grow during the easy times. But in this place, with these people, with prayer and sacrifice and thanksgiving, and with God… it will be possible.
God is present: in our fasting, our prayers, in the Eucharist and in the liturgy. In the faces of people we love, the people who hold us in prayer and in the eyes of people we serve. God will make God’s self known to us in all of those things by faith and that will sustain us.
We are fortunate in our tradition. We have ways to participate in and to experience God. Our liturgy, our church year, all that we do uses even our senses to illuminate God with us even if we don’t really understand it all. We hear God in the scripture. Like today’s scripture from Matthew. We need to be reminded that when we pray we should not just use our lips but our spirit. And when we give it should not just involve our pocket book or our hands, but our hearts as well. We hear God in music, in the bell calling us away from the busyness of the world to rest here and be refreshed. We taste God in the wine and the bread. We smell God in the incense and candles. We touch God in each other, in our hands when we pass the peace.
And one more thing. There’s something that stays when we do all of those things in the name of Christ and with intention. Something that stays washed for a very long time when someone washes our feet on Maundy Thursday. Something that stays humble in us when we wash someone else’s feet. Have you noticed when you come into the empty church, maybe as altar guild, maybe just to sit for a while, that it’s not like other buildings? You are not alone here. There is something that stays, that is left by all the prayers that have been said and the blessings given, the baptismal water that has been poured, the hearts that have been lifted, the grief that has been shared. Something stays.
Today we will receive the sign of the cross, in ashes on our foreheads. We will hear that we are dust and we’ll feel that cross on our foreheads. And that will stay too. Even after the ash falls away, it will stay. God with us in the cross. Our humanity with us in the dust, all brought together like mixing water into wine, never to be separated again, something new. This is holy ground, where God meets us.
Lent is a holy time if we intend it. May we have the strength: courage, to ask real questions of ourselves, and then to offer the answers, to be broken open and then… to be healed. To make ourselves ready for the newness of life that is to come.. for as someone very wise said,” though it begins with sackcloth and ashes at the start of it, something like Easter is very likely at the end.”