“Our Soul’s Liberation,” February 26, 2020, Rev. Daniel Simons

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Daniel Simons
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
Ash Wednesday

Here we are on this wet, gray day, focusing on two distinct themes: sin and mortality. These are two things we don’t like to talk much about. But today is the day we intentionally turn toward them both, and look into them more deeply, rather than away.

To be clear, these two things are NOT directly connected, even though early religion has linked them in the past and unreflective religion links them today.

Take the story of the garden of Eden, where all is perfection until Adam wants more than enough. His acquisitiveness ruins the wholeness of creation, and physical pain and death: it’s a powerful early imagining and metaphor of how we got to the mess we are in, but if we link it with Paul’s teaching in Romans that “the wages of sin is death” in a literal way it becomes toxic.

Let’s separate the two for a minute and see how that changes the picture:

DEATH — all forms come into being and pass out of being. Everything in the entire cosmos is recycled. Everything in the cosmos is evolving. What we call death is the ending of form, which is always happening to everything always. It is not the brokenness of anything but the mainspring of creation.

SIN — as I said a couple weeks ago, the biblical word for sin is best framed as “mis-alignment.” [hamartia: missing the mark]. It is a forced way of living that is unaligned with the unfolding cosmos, with Reality. This misalignment happens in the most natural of ways.

We are born into this world with a powerful tool, our self-aware-of-itself — our ego-self. It creates itself by distinction: the I and not-I. [examples]. It is about distinguishing forms, and the ego does a great job of it.

But there’s a problem, in that all forms are passing; nothing is permanent. Everything changes, including the body, which carries the ego, and the ego perceives the dissolution of that form as the ultimate threat behind every other threat, so it becomes self-preserving. And the success of this strategy revolves around us not knowing it’s going on. It’s the background operating system of our lives. So we become self-deceiving and thus even more misaligned.

So this beautiful tool, our ego, which has helped us find our place in the world, will also eventually misalign and mangle us if it does not find its place in a larger wholeness of Being, which is beyond form.

There are a number of celebrities and leaders currently who are good mirrors to us of what this mangled and misaligned life looks like. They are not other than us, they ARE us, if we don’t attend to this (un)natural process.

That’s why we do Lent. And this is why we specifically begin with incarnation, with our bodies:

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

When I was in college, I found the Episcopal Church. Sort of by accident — I was raised in Bible-land and I followed someone to church because I was curious about the liturgy. My first service was an Ash Wednesday service. And I will remember for the rest of my life the first time this happened: kneeling at the rail, and feeling the scrape on my forehead, and hearing the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

I had an unexpected and immediate physical, spiritual, and emotional response. Relief. I felt a weight fall from my shoulders. I felt light, almost giddy, and emotionally tender. I was raised in a heroic religious tradition, and this was one of the first times in my life I heard that permission to be temporary, to be frail, to fade, to fail. That all this was OK. It was this moment of alignment with Reality.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. This is not about sin, but about the reality of the transformation of all forms. But remembering that this form is passing on springs open the prison door of our anxious-mind and lets us discover what Thomas Merton coined our True Self, our connected self, something that is beyond our small, separate-self. It is beyond form, tied into the source of Being from which it arises and to which it returns.

That creates a very different picture of Lent from the traditional one — we are shedding old skins that don’t serve us; gently coaxing the ego to relax from its game of pretending and preserving. It’s a pretty bright and happy and holy season actually. Living without all this sludge is a lot easier!

So I invite you now to a holy Lent — hallow this time as a chance to look deeply and truly toward your soul’s liberation.

What do you need to let go of?

What is your soul hungry for?

This is God inviting you to what we call “the Easter feast,” life’s banquet.

Loosen, loosen, baby;
you don’t have to carry
the weight of the world in your muscles and bones;
let go, let go, let go.

Holy breath, and holy Name,
will you ease — will you ease this pain?

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