Ash Wednesday, February 26, 2020, Rev. Louise Kalemkerian

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
Ash Wednesday
Isaiah 58, Psalm 103, Matthew 6

Today’s Gospel stands in stark contrast to the one we heard on Sunday, when Jesus was again called “beloved” by God, as God calls each and every one of us, today and every day.  Instead we get a series of “dos” and “don’ts” from Jesus.

Today the church looks different than on Sunday.  Spare.  Somber.   Subdued.  And calls us into the season of Lent, a time of reflection, prayer, with fasting and almsgiving.

Thank you for being here today.  More importantly, God thanks you.

Let me say what Lent is not. It is not a time of feeling gloomy or guilty, it is not a time of groveling before God or enduring self-deprecating behavior because we think it makes God happy.  Lent is a time to remember that God loves us beyond our wildest imaginations and God has hope for us, that we will turn our lives more toward God’s path and God’s ways. It is a time to remember that there is a God, and we are not him.

Lent is about brokenness.  About acknowledging where we fall short, that we are not who we say we are. I know how I fall short in so many ways, in my words, deeds and actions.  Not what I profess, but rather what I have done.  Yesterday I read a sad story about one of my heroes, Jean Vanier, a man who established the L’Arche communities with for persons with disabilities. He was once talked about as a candidate for the Nobel Prize.  And now he’s been credibly accused of abusive sexual relationships with women. And the piece went on about other famous folk, including John Kennedy and Thomas Merton.[1]  Only to underscore what St. Paul said, “we’ve all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.”

We start the Lenten season with ashes.  Ashes are associated with repentance and mourning because ashes are connected with death. Ashes are a sign of the fragility and transitoriness of our lives. God tells Adam that he will die: “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” That’s where we get the phrase that we use in the service today: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The Prophet Isaiah holds up for us God’s standard, to how God wants us to live, not just in Lent but always.  Yet again, it’s not what we proclaim and profess, it’s how we live. If we’re going to fast, God says, it needs to be meaningful.  Fasting is not for show, or for boasting to our friends.  Fasting is to deny ourselves and share what we’ve given up and given away with those who have less than we do.   What Isaiah is calling us to is “loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free…”

Lest we think we’re there are no bonds of injustice around us, you and I eat and profit from the efforts of those who struggle to provide us with all the things we think we need and/or deserve.  How many times have I eaten more meat in a week than a person in an impoverished country will eat in a year? More times than I care to imagine.  How many times have I shopped for inexpensive clothing, ignoring the thread of sweatshop labor, the stitches of slavery, sown into their hems? More times than I care to imagine. Isaiah is talking to you and to me.

How many times have I been so concerned with international injustices, humanitarian crises and systems of vast inequality but rushed through a conversation with a lonely neighbor or parishioner for no other reason than my own impatience? More times than I care to remember.

Some years ago one of my mentors said that we should not give up meat for Lent if our heart was seized with anger, or give up ice cream if gossiping was our problem.  Fast from anger and gossiping instead.  That is the message of Isaiah for this Lenten season.  Undertake a fast that will truly be life-changing, not only for yourself but for all God’s holy people: fast from injustice, oppression and indifference in their many forms. Fast from TV or spending unnecessarily or judging, or from worry or complaining or bitterness. There are many things we can fast from, not just food.

Jesus talks about fasting, about praying, about sharing our resources. It’s a “when”, not an “if.” Set aside a time to pray every day, whatever works best for you, pray from a book or just talk to God.

Or follow any of a number of excellent spiritual teachers on line, Richard Rohr, SSJE, Barbara Crafton, Joan Chittister.  Or read Psalms and make them your prayers.  Read the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7 and meditate on it every day.  Or read thru the Gospels. Or spend time in silence, just sitting with God.

One of Thomas Merton’s prayers that I love so much, points to a truth I hold to be crucial: “I believe,” he wrote, “that the desire to please God does in fact please God.” Profoundly I rest much of my religious practice and inclination on that conviction. We move from religious season to season, sometimes plodding and sometimes ignoring, often starting with great intention and enthusiasm only to limp to the finish line if we cross it at all.

And, yet, deep in my soul I believe that God is honored somehow by all of it, by our insatiable desire, not always keen but always there, to find and be found by God. That conviction gives me a bit of comfort.

Ash Wednesday, Lent, Holy Week and the whole of Christian faith are about following Jesus on the path that leads through death to resurrection. This is the road of discipleship. It is about dying and rising with Christ. We are to follow him to Jerusalem, the place of death and resurrection. And know the truth that Jesus has conquered our ultimate enemy, death, forever.

And so I take heart in God’s steadfast love and pray for strength and courage for us all.  My brothers and sisters, I invite us all into a holy Lent.


[1] Thomas Reese, SJ, “When Saints Fall”, National Catholic Reporter, February 25, 2020.

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