Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
Ash Wednesday – February 25, 2009
You have probably noticed that there are no Hallmark cards celebrating Ash Wednesday. Shop windows are not decked out in sackcloth. This is not a day that garners much popularity. A woman sitting in church one Ash Wednesday turned to the man sitting next to her and ask “What is it that brings people out on a cold night to get dirt smeared on their forehead, and be reminded that they are sinners and are going to die.” He looked at her somewhat oddly and said, “I don’t know. I guess it’s as habit.”
It doesn’t feel like a habit to me this year. This is not any ordinary Ash Wednesday. Metaphorically, people’s lives are being reduced to ashes because of the loss of jobs, homes, dignity, and hope. The entryway to Lent this year is markedly different for me. People have been humbled in ways they never imagined and will no doubt continue to grow in humility as time passes—not by choice but by circumstance. Another rector and I spoke yesterday about how people we know are being affected and she said, “I think people are so ready for Easter to be tomorrow.”
Typically, Lent has been perceived as a very boring time when we work in the negative, that is to say we “give up something” we otherwise enjoy. Some of these little fasts are, indeed, a good and healthful thing for us, like sweets or cigarettes or fatty foods. But I wonder if, given the somber tone of the day and the pall of gloom that has been cast over the nation for the past several months, we wouldn’t all like to give up Lent…for Lent.
Well, that’s probably a little too drastic and is surely an example of throwing the baby out with the bath water. The better alternative it seems to me is to reframe it. What I would like to suggest to us on this unusual Ash Wednesday is that we think in terms of an economic stimulus package—but not the kind being debated in the chambers of congress. I’m talking about a different economy—God’s economy. I believe that God’s plan would have us stimulate our minds during these forty days of Lent—expanding our narrow understanding of what God wants to do for us and God’s world and our limited vision of what exactly is the dream of God for each of us.
In her book , In Kneeling in Jerusalem, Ann Weems writes “Lent is a time to let the power of our faith story take hold for us, a time to let the events get up and walk around in us, a time to intensify our living into Christ, a time to hover over the thoughts of our hearts…a time to allow a fresh new taste of God.”
And I believe that God wants to stimulate our hearts. “Return to me with all your heart,” the scripture tells us today. This is an Ash Wednesday when we can really pay attention to changes of the heart and a deeper commitment to others around us. The plight of those affected by the current crisis calls out to us to be giving of ourselves, not for the sake of Lenten piety or to impress others, but because that may be the only way to bring some relief to a hurting population.
The crushing poverty of so many people requires that we share our prosperity even in small ways with those who have so much less. Giving food and cash to those who are suffering so profoundly in the crisis of the day is no longer a matter of charity—but of social justice.
For many years I have worn the ashes of Ash Wednesday as a reminder of my mortality and of death which is inescapable and inevitable. But we don’t need these ashes to prove that point. Tragic loss as recent as the death of two of our members last Saturday will continue to drive home that stark reality. Tonight I ask us to wear these ashes as a symbol of life—to remember who we are, molded out of dust by God and given life by the holy breath God has breathed into us.
Writing in the Christian Century on the Ash Wednesday after September 11, 2001, Barbara Brown Taylor offered these words for reflection: “When I went to the rail this year I received a different sacrament. The gospel of the day is not about the poverty of flesh so much as it is about the holiness of ashes, which are worthy of all reverence. It was God who decided to breathe on them, after all, God who chose to bring them to life. We are certainly dust and to dust we shall return, but in the meantime our bodies are sources of deep revelation for us…Those ashes are not curses. They are blessings instead, announcing God’s undying love of dust no matter what kind or shape it is in.”
So remember that you are dust, but remember not just the limitations but the possibilities inherent in your humanity. Remember that you are dust, but remember the grace that is conferred on your human life. Remember that you are dust but remember that God created you to live in God’s own image. Remember that you are dust, but remember that you are in a living, growing, unfolding relationship with God and with each other.
Let’s resolve tonight to do this Lent differently. We have 40 precious day to open ourselves up to God’s love, to examine ourselves in the presence of the one who created us, and to both expand our understanding of what God’s dream is for us and stretch our hearts in ways that will touch the broken lives of those who are suffering in these very threatening times. We are dust and to dust we shall return, but by God’s grace we can learn to live life more fully and be transformed by the stimulus package of God’s economy. So let us begin…