On Ash Wednesday I often find myself moved to preach from the back of the sanctuary. The words of Jesus that we traditionally hear this day from the sermon on the mount inspire this retreat from sight. He said,
“Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.”
The season of Lent leads us to move away from having ourselves “on display”; to go inward, to seek to strip away all deception within ourselves and before God; to try, as best we can, to leave behind all kinds of play acting.
So I’m back here, and you’re either gazing at the altar, or your eyes are closed, and hopefully, without me up front to get in the way, my words can help you go inward.
Take a few moments to be still. Psalm 46 reads, “Be still, and know that I am God.” God is in the stillness.
Pay attention to your breath; to the breath slowing going in, and breath slowly going out.
At the beginning of the Bible we read these words:
“Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
With each inhale of your breath, God once more gives life. The dust that is your body is filled with the breath of life, breathed into you by your creator.
Your life is a gift.
In the early days of the church, ashes were not given to everyone, but only to the public penitents who were brought before the church. Much like Hester Prynne bearing her scarlet letter, these open and notorious sinners were marked publicly with the sign of their disgrace.
As time went on, others began to show their humility and their affection for the penitents by asking that they, too, be marked as sinners. Like the classmates of the child who loses his hair because of chemotherapy, and in turn shave off their own hair in solidarity with the plight of their classmate, so these Christians would volunteer to bear the ashes of a sinner expressing their solidarity with the brothers and sisters who had publicly stumbled.
Eventually, the number of penitents grew so large that the imposition of ashes was extended to the whole congregation in services similar to those that are observed in many Christian churches on Ash Wednesday.
This is as it should be.
When Jesus showed up at the River Jordan when John was baptizing, he too, entered those waters, in a sense, taking upon himself the ashes of a sinner, identifying with all of us who stumble in the darkness.
And when the Spirit then drove Jesus out into the wilderness for forty days of temptation by the devil, he wasn’t just going through the motions. Jesus struggled out there with the dark voice that arose within him.
It isn’t easy being human.
We are fragile. “Lead us not into temptation,” we pray, for we know we are weak.
It isn’t easy being human. Pondering that fact, we join hands with all people everywhere.
When both John the Baptist and Jesus himself began to preach, their message was simple and to the point: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”
It is striking that they make no distinction — not, “Some of you repent, you bad ones…” but rather, “everybody needs to repent.” Everybody has been missing the mark.
To repent is to turn around. It implies that we are going in one direction, away from God, and that we need to turn around, to walk with God.
In our church’s Lenten devotional, the reading for today comes from the play Our Town. A young woman has died and entered the spirit realm. She begs to be allowed to return to relive a day of her life on earth. The other spirits warn her against this, but she is determined to spend a day with those she has loved. She is granted permission to return to the day of her 16th birthday.
She finds the experience terribly painful. From the perspective of death, she recognizes the poignant beauty of the gift of ordinary life — a beauty so readily missed by those of us who are actually living the gift. She flees back to the other spirits. A cynical old spirit, Simon Stimson says to her:
“Yes, now you know. Now you know! That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another. Now you know — that’s the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness.”
She had asked, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?” The stage manager replies, “No. The saints and poets, maybe–they do some.”
And so we enter this season of Lent with a desire to awake from our slumber. To truly live our lives before we die.
The ashes speak of sin, but they also speak of simple mortality. The ashes invite us to remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.
This could well be the last day of our lives on this earth. Who knows?
We are all approaching our deaths. Aware of this fact, a clarity about life arises: what is truly important, and what isn’t really important.
The play acting isn’t important. Can we stop the pretenses?
In the same Gospel lesson we heard, Jesus reminds us that money — stuff — doesn’t have the importance we routinely attribute to it:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where thieves do not break in and steal.”
What is treasure in heaven? Love. As the apostle Paul tells us, everything else passes away; love, alone, never ends.
Love, itself, is something of a mystery. It’s tough to define. Is it of the heart or of the head? Is it an attitude or an action? Yes, yes, yes, and yes.
It is like the famous remark made by the chief justice attempting to define pornography: “I can’t define it,” he said, “but I know it when I see it.”
So it is with love.
When love is present in our life, whether if be the love of a child or a parent, of a spouse, or a friend or a stranger or a pet, or even the love of beauty, say music, art, drama, or of creation, when the real thing is there, you will know. And all true love is of God.
This is the treasure of heaven.
Part of the problem though, is that in this world we are so tempted to get into the perpetual hurry. If we’re not in a hurry, the world says, there must be something wrong with us.
This is the devil talking.
It is only when we are not in a hurry that we can truly discern what is real — where true love — the treasure of heaven — exists in our lives. It is hurry that leads us to chase after fool’s gold, the stuff that always eventually begins to decay and turn rotten.
So, here at the beginning of the 40 days of Lent, it is good to try and make some room in our lives to get out of the hurry and rush; to carve out some time where we can listen for God’s voice and discover again what truly is important — to see where love would take us.
Some people like to give things up for Lent, and that can certainly be helpful, particularly if what we are giving up is one of those things that are distracting us from focusing on what truly matters.
If we decide to give something up, try and let the absence of the thing be a call to prayer. Say you give up sweets, or t.v., or the internet, or gossip; well most likely you will feel this longing for what you are going without. There will be this emptiness demanding to be filled in the familiar fashion.
Be with the emptiness; pray through it with whatever words come to you. Or simply be still. Eventually the emptiness will change. Mysteriously, it will become a good kind of emptiness. It is the “waking up” that poets and the saints touch. But it takes patience.
They say it takes 21 days to create a new habit.
Again, be gentle on yourself. It’s tough being a human being. One of the problems with Lenten promises is that when we break them, we tend to despair and end up fleeing all the more from that attentiveness to what really matters of which true repentance is all about.
So be gentle with yourself.
Keep in mind the wisdom of the verse we read from Psalm 51.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”
In the end, the transformation we are seeking is from God. It’s not something we can manufacture.
All we can do is to admit the dirt that is within our heart, and the agitated state of the spirit that is in possession of our bodies at the present moment, and ask God to come and do that which we cannot do ourselves.
We are trying to give God room to come and work. Even our stumbling can be the occasion for grace.