A Sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 10, 2016
by the Rev. Emily Rowell Brown
Many of you know that I make the trek east on 64 each morning I come to St. Mary’s, and I spend much of that time listening to podcasts. If you are not familiar with podcasts, they are similar to radio shows but available on your Smartphone. One podcast that has become a favorite is Death, Sex, and Money. The title may say it all, but its tagline definitely does: it talks about the big questions and hard choices that are often left out of polite conversation. Host Anna Sale speaks to guests about finding meaning in work, relationships, family, and money, especially when life does not turn out as planned. Past episodes include “Autism isn’t what I signed up for;” “Stop calling me the homeless valedictorian;” and “A funeral director’s life after burnout.” The interviews are heavy but moving, and they lean into rather than explaining away the difficult parts of our existence. Anna Sale does not tie up everything with a nice neat bow, but she always manages to identify kernels of hope, even amidst the most profound expressions of pain, grief, and confusion. She is not afraid to give voice to what is real as she seeks the larger, deeper story.
What you find when you listen to this podcast not unlike what we are stepping into this Ash Wednesday and Lent. Lent is a special season that we designate for exploring our humanity and frailty, an opportunity to probe those questions which can seem dangerous: How are disappointing God–and ourselves? What stands in our way of giving and receiving love? We say we are Christian–but do we really live in light of what is at the heart of our faith–that this, this world as we know it, this life, this handful of ashes, is not all there is but nonetheless a sacred part of God’s mystery and redemption?
The beautiful thing about Lenten practices is that they can draw us into this kind of contemplation. Sometimes parishes will take on practices collectively, perhaps fasting or engaging in more intentional prayer (as we are at St. Mary’s with our Wednesday services). We are probably most familiar, however, with the habits that individuals take on, whether negative–no meat on Fridays, no chocolate or coffee, no swearing–or positive–reading scripture every night, volunteering, giving money. These shifts in routine can open up new dimensions to our faith when undertaken with purpose and a willingness to make ourselves vulnerable, but they also can end up being, as Jesus hyperbolically points out in today’s gospel, just for show. When there are not layers of meaning to why we do what we do, then our practices can become hollow. One of the most transformative Lenten disciplines I have heard about was that of a fellow parishioner at the time who gave up his morning Coke habit. His sacrifice wasn’t the result of a health kick or an effort to shed a few pounds as a Lenten bonus, but he used the time he took to walk to the ATM and to the vending machine instead to pray. Every day, he set aside the money he would have used for the Coke in an envelope. At the end of Lent, he donated the money to a clean water effort. That Lent, he said, he felt connected to God and the world in a way he never had before.
Today’s texts testify to how our ancestors have drifted and returned to God, and they provide a clue as to how we might embark upon our own time of self-examination. In Joel, we encounter a prophet calling the Israelites to repentance, reminding them to come back home to their Lord who always ultimately has their best interest at heart. Paul reminds the Corinthians of God’s generosity and mercy, and he urges them to make their lives holy examples. Finally, Matthew’s gospel urges Christ’s followers to look beyond faith practices themselves, to the meaning of it all. Jesus’ remarks critique “holier-than-thou” public displays of faith absent of right intention, yes, but they also cast a vision of the kingdom of God. Heaven has as much to do with what comes after death as it does with the relationship with God that can be experienced in the present.
In a word, the scriptures are about reconciliation–made possible through repentance and self-knowledge and humility and mindful spiritual practice. Whether you receive the ashes today to mark the beginning of your own Lent, or whether you signal the start of the season by taking on a new discipline, may you–may we all–open ourselves to hear from God in a new way. May we receive God’s grace with gratitude and reverence, but not despair, appreciating more and more fully all the levels on which we need it. May we prepare to change course, sometimes slightly, sometimes drastically, and come home to God.