Sermon: Wednesday, February 18, 2015: Ash Wednesday

Texts: Joel 2:1-2,12-17  +  Psalm 51:1-17  +  2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10  +  Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

mars_2445397bGeorge Hatcher is a man in his mid-thirties who works as a NASA engineer in Florida. He is married with a two-year old, and ever since he was a young child he has wanted to live on Mars. He may just get his wish.

Earlier this week it was announced that George was one of a hundred finalists out of an initial pool of over two hundred thousand being considered to establish a permanent human colony on Mars.  The project isn’t being sponsored by NASA, but by Mars One, a Dutch, not-for-profit foundation interested in inspiring a new generation to continue exploring the vast expanses of creation that exist beyond our atmosphere.

I became aware of George’s story because he is an alumnus of the Youth Theological Initiative (YTI), the same summer program of theological exploration to which this congregation sent Lynda Deacon about five years ago. Almost twenty years ago George was a rising high school senior, spending a month with young scholars from around the country on the campus of Emory University exploring the connection between their faith and the pressing issues of the day. Today he identifies as Baha’i, part of a global religious movement with roots in 19th century Persia that emphasizes the unity of God, religion and humanity.

In an interview for YTI’s alumni newsletter released before this week’s announcement, George spoke about his desire to travel to Mars, particularly in light of the fact that the mission is planned as a one-way trip with no return to Earth.  He said,

Regardless of whether I’m selected to go, making it to the second round of the application process has been more philosophically beneficial that I could ever have imagined. Every deep breath of free oxygen I draw in, every meal I enjoy, every step I take in Earth gravity, every sunset I witness, every moment I spend with my family and friends is more special, more profound, more real than ever before. When you live your life with the knowledge that your years on Earth might be fewer in number than you previously thought, when you know the actual date you might wave goodbye to everything you love, it’s almost like knowing the hour of your death. It fundamentally changes you. For me, it’s already for the better. I did not think it was possible to love life more than I already did.

“I did not think it was possible to love life more than I already did.”

If I could reduce the meaning of tonight’s gathering to one sentence, that would be a contender. In contrast to the almost forced gloom with which some associate Ash Wednesday, what I hear in the ancient reminder, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” is an encouragement to live, like George, with a sense of your own mortality so that each breath, each meal, each step, each sunset, each moment might be lived to the fullest. So that we all might come to really love the lives we’ve been given to the fullest, rather than squander them in anxiety and despair.

All this talk of love may strike some as too light for an evening focused on our mortality and need for repentance. As for me, I hear Jesus instructing his followers,

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your  Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:16)

There is a way of marking the season of Lent that focuses on generating a mood of self-denial for self-denial’s sake, that turns the forty day fast into a kind of spiritual marathon in which one can demonstrate to one’s self (and anyone who asks) a measure of Christian fortitude through the denial of pleasure — whether that be the traditional forsworn vices of coffee, or alcohol, or chocolate; or the more modern swearing off of television or social media. Without presuming to know every reason a person might choose to give up any of those activities, I’ll just say that I worry they miss the point.

The emphases on almsgiving, prayer and fasting outlined in Matthew’s gospel are not intended to create spiritual tests for us to pass, or to generate mild forms of suffering to help us empathize with the deeper suffering of Christ on the cross. These disciplines, as I understand them, are an invitation for us to notice all that diminishes our experience of the great gift of life that comes to us as an unmerited gift by the God who is revealed in Jesus as the voice of truth unmasking the interlocking set of lies that hold us captive to a vision of life that is literally killing us all.

If I fast during the season of Lent, as Muslims do during the season of Ramadan from sunrise to sunset, it is not so that I will experience the suffering of hunger pangs, but so that I will be moved to consider the hunger that is experienced in and out of season by the world’s poor; so that I will be moved to deeper prayer; so that I will take the money I might have spent on food and reallocate it toward acts of mercy, justice and advocacy for those who are hungry every day of the year. My fasting brings me to consciousness of the painful brokenness of the world, my prayer moves me to action as my almsgiving, my offerings, create the change I long to see.

These disciplines are a form of repentance, which is not merely a manufactured emotion worn in public for all to see for forty days. It is an amended life, that turns away from the world and its death-dealing values to reclaim solidarity with all of God’s creation. It is the response to the prophet Joel’s call for us to “rend our hearts and not our clothing.” (Joel 2:13)

All of which is good practice for the life of baptism, for which the season of Lent has historically served as a time of preparation. As we move through these forty days toward the festival of the resurrection at Easter, we are moving into a deeper awareness of the call we each receive in our baptism to repent; to notice, name and turn away from all the death-dealing powers of this world, so that we can more fully embrace the gift of the life God has given to each of us, and to the whole world.

What is it that generates distress in your life?  What lie does the world whisper in your ear that keeps you up at night?  Is it that you aren’t young enough? Old enough? Is it that you are too large or too small? That you don’t have enough money, enough education, enough experience, enough friends, enough time?

Dear ones, those voices lie. You are God’s own beloved but we are living in a world drowning in lies.

God has a different flood in store for you, a different deluge in which to wash you. There are waters that unite you to the rest of life on this planet, and beyond. Consider this night what you need to confess, what you need to remove from your life, what you need to eliminate from the menu of ideas and goods and habits the world keeps trying to force feed you. Consecrate this night a holy fast, a simplification of life, so that you might come to the great feast of Easter awaiting us all and be able to affirm a love of life deeper than you’ve ever imagined before.



Sermon: Wednesday, February 22, 2012: Ash Wednesday

Texts: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17  +  Psalm 51:1-17  •  2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10  •  Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

IMG_0865A week ago tonight my third godchild was born. Kai Gajilan Fowler, born on Wednesday, February 15th at 6:09pm. In her short week on earth, she is already the subject of hundreds of photographs, and each one convinces me that she is the most beautiful little girl I have ever seen. I felt exactly the same last year when my godson, Gabriel Benfield, was born; and I felt the same way almost 24 years ago when my first goddaughter, Katie Russell, was born. To be honest, each time I have the privilege of baptizing a child – infant or adult – I am struck by how beautiful they are.

In the first reading appointed for Ash Wednesday, the prophet Joel describes a moment of terror in the life of Israel, a day of darkness and gloom. His response is to urge the people to call an assembly and sanctify a fast. He says, “gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast.” (Joel 2:16)

The infants show up again in Psalm 51, traditionally attributed to King David and associated with a moment of confession when he’d been caught in his wickedness. He writes, “Indeed, I was born steeped in wickedness, a sinner from my mother’s womb.” (Ps. 51:5) Though this Psalm is written from the perspective of one person, when we sing it as an assembly we put King David’s words on our own lips and we are drawn into consideration of our own sinfulness.

Were we born steeped in wickedness, sinners from our mothers’ wombs?

I recall an evening almost a decade ago, sitting around a table in a pub back in my hometown of Des Moines, Iowa with a friend from childhood who’d grown up in the church, but who was not raising her children as Christians. In particular, she objected to this idea that her children – who are every bit as beautiful as my three godchildren – were somehow born in sin. She said, “look at them! How can you ask me to believe that these beautiful children were born with any kind of taint at all?! They are pure. They are goodness and joy, and I want to keep them that way as long as I can. I want to protect them from all the negative messages they’ll one day internalize, starting with this one.”

That desire to deny the presence of sin in those we love the most – our infants, our children – is so understandable. They are the closest we may ever come to pure love or pure joy. They are the essence of purity, and any attempt to assign sin to them seems like the real blasphemy.

As I sat in the waiting room with my goddaughter’s two mothers and one of her grandmothers, I pulled out my favorite book of Irish blessings and read one to my friend as she finished her final hours of labor. The book is To Bless the Space Between Us, by the Irish poet and author John O’Donohue. It was a gift to me one Christmas from my own mother. I was able to read the blessing For a Mother-to-Be, but before I could read the blessing As a Child Enters the World, the doctors came in and the heavy labor began. If I could have read the blessing to Kai on her birthday, she would have heard these words,

If my destiny is sheltered / May the grace of this privilege / Reach and bless the other infants / Who are destined for torn places.

If my destiny is bleak, / May I find in myself / A secret stillness / And tranquility / Beneath the turmoil.

May my eyes never lose sight / Of why I have come here, / That I never be claimed / By the falsity of fear / Or eat the bread of bitterness.

In everything I do, think, / Feel, and say, / May I allow the light / Of the world I am leaving / To shine through and carry me home.

That rich Irish blessing is, perhaps, the most beautiful meditation on the sinfulness of our world that touches even the lives of our infants as they are being born. Some are born sheltered, others into bleakness. And in truth, each of us will experience shelter and bleakness in our lives, but not equally. We are born into a world of inequalities and injustices. We are born into a body of life already broken, a fabric of being already torn. None of us comes into the world whole.

I have been meeting with more visitors to St. Luke’s in the last six months than I did in the entire previous year. Many of them have children they are looking forward to having baptized. I’m looking forward to baptizing them – though not until Easter comes. These forty days that begin tonight have been used by the church over the centuries to prepare people for baptism in a process called the catechumenate. We’ll be recapturing that emphasis on baptismal preparation throughout the season of Lent on Sunday mornings as we study portions of Luther’s small catechism each week, beginning this Sunday with Luther’s teaching on the Holy Sacrament of Baptism.

As we journey these forty days to the cross, you will be encouraged to keep up the disciplines we adopt tonight – the ancient Christian traditions of fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Too often, I think, we reduce these disciplines to a kind of renewal of our New Year’s Resolutions – a commitment to a kind of self-denial as a practice in empathy for the self-denial of Christ. That is fine and good, but I think the emphasis on the self misses the essence of what these disciplines are trying to shape in us.

These three disciplines are not separate options on a menu of spiritual practices, but rather pieces of a whole. During the season of Lent we are drawn to consider how, in the poet’s words, “the grace of this privilege [may] reach and bless the other infants who are destined for torn places.” We make the idea of that privilege concrete and real by choosing something common from our routine habits and fasting from that item throughout these forty days. In my case, I might choose coffee or dessert – but not because they are bad for me – instead because they are luxuries I take for granted. Then, as the forty days progress, each time I crave the cup of coffee or the dessert, I use that desire to remind me to stop and to pray for those whose lives do not afford the luxuries I take for granted. Finally, I give alms, I make an offering, I give the equivalent of what I would have spent on coffee or dessert (you fill in the blank here) to help create relief for those who suffer.

Do you see the difference? We’re not commending fasting, prayer and almsgiving as a self-oriented exercise in willpower. We’re inviting one another into these disciplines as a tangible exercise in compassion. What if I slip up and buy a cup of coffee, or dessert after dinner with friends? There is no failure of character here, no judgment of weakness. Instead there is simply an opportunity to be reminded, even then, of the ease with which we forget the suffering of those other children – young and old – whom God loves.

That, finally, brings us to the heart of these forty days. So often we do forget the suffering of those other children whom God loves. Not so for God. In the coming weeks we will follow behind Jesus, remembering his unwavering commitment to the poor and the suffering people of this world, a commitment that took him straight to the cross. As we purge our kitchens, as we silence our sanctuaries, as we empty out our lives; we are creating the space, the silence and the stillness in which we may be able once again to hear God’s voice calling us back to ourselves.

The time is now. Enter these forty days of Lent and return to the Lord your God. Return to yourself. In the stillness of this night, remember who you are and how deeply you are loved. As you are marked with these ashes, the sign that all life is fleeting, remember what you have been called to do with the time given to you, to “allow the light of the world [you] are leaving to shine through and carry you home.”