Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
Ash Wednesday – February 18, 2015 – 7:30pm
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
The young boy went to church with his mom on Ash Wednesday and, after hearing the end of Psalm 103, “For he himself knows whereof we are made, he remembers that we are but dust,” turned to her and said in a stage whisper, “Mommy, what is butt dust?”
“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” For centuries, Christians have heard these somber words as this black sooty glob is smeared on their foreheads in the sign of a cross. This is by no means a revelation. We all know we are going to die and that, one way or the other, our bodies will turn to dust. There are stark reminders of this reality all around us every day.
What’s the big deal? Why do we have an entire liturgy designed around the wearing of ashes? I happen to believe that symbols and rituals are very important. Human beings have employed them since the beginning of recorded time to make sense of the mysteries of life.
I’d like to offer a different spin on the wearing of the ashes we will receive tonight. Might we not just think about our own mortality as they are imposed on our foreheads and consider as well the part we play in the destruction of our world and its natural resources? Can this blob of grime confront us with the destruction caused by war and the humanity crushed by it, the cities turned into piles of ash and decay?
What about the ashes of those cremated bodies who die because of the lack of clean water or a virulent virus like Ebola? Do our attitudes about those who aren’t just like us bring with them obstacles to their seeing their own self-worth? Do we incinerate the feelings of others by our judgments about them?
These ashes are meant to remind us that we are mortal, yes, and to prompt us to consider our relationship with God. Yet that relationship will never grow unless we examine our relationship with each other and with all of creation.
In her work, Lent: A Time to Choose Direction, Joan Chittister writes: “Lent is our time to prepare to carry the crosses of the world ourselves. People around us are hungry; it is up to us to see that they are fed, whatever the cost to ourselves. Children around us are in danger on the streets; it is up to us to see that they are safe. The world is at the mercy of economic policy, foreign policy, and militarism; it is up to us to soften the hearts of leaders in government so that the rest of the world can live a life of dignity and pride.”
You may have noticed that there is great emphasis in the scriptures tonight on “the heart,” which in Hebrew tradition was the “hidden place” or “sanctuary” where choices were made. It was the deep place of conscience, the “inner tabernacle” in which the spirit dwelt and through which God encounters us and compels us to act. It was considered the dwelling place of God and all that is good.
With all this in mind, how will we keep Lent this year? Here’s what I’m thinking. Can we surrender the old time and gloomy practice of “give=up-isms” that are supposed to accomplish the true purpose of Lent? Instead, how about “Taking on.”
“Taking on” a commitment to worship more regularly on the Sundays in Lent and, nourishing ourselves with the additional practice of participating in at least one weekday celebration of worship. Taking on a few moments every day to look carefully at what we have said and done, the people with whom we have interacted, how we may have been a blessing to them and them to us or how we may need to forgive them or ask for their forgiveness.
Taking on might mean listening to and reading the news with new ears and to ask ourselves what we can do to make this world look more like God’s kingdom than a living hell for others. Each Friday evening at 6, we will gather for a very brief time of Celtic Prayer during which will remember the people, events, and tragedies that touch our lives and about which we learn during that week. Join us or send us names or situations that you would like us to remember.
Taking on one or more of the invitations by our Social Justice and Outreach Ministry to help make a better life for those who have far less than we do. It might be delving a little deeper into Scripture at our Sunday morning forums or the evening series on women mystics.
A few weeks go, as I was pushing my shopping cart through an aisle at Stop & Shop, a man who was stocking shelves surprised me by asking “How are you today, sir.” That’s never happened before! I responded in kind, “Good, thank you. And how are you?” “Better than I deserve to be,” he said. “Better than I deserve to be.” That was a moment of revelation for me. Most of us are by far better off than so many people in this world. When Lent is doing its work, the truth breaks through our defenses. We see the world and everyone in it through God’s lenses.
William Temple, who for two short years was the Archbishop of Canterbury once said: “The world as we live in is like a shop window in which some mischievous person has got overnight, and shifted all the price-labels so that the cheap things have all the high-price labels on them, and the really precious things are priced low. We let ourselves be taken in.”
Perhaps the goal of this Lent can be getting those price-labels back in the right place.