Sermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
Ash Wednesday – February 18, 2015 – 12:05pm
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
On Sunday, in the story of the Transfiguration, we heard the words to Jesus, “This is my Son, the beloved” and understood that these words apply to us as well. And here today, 3 days later, we’re hearing words that seem like part challenge, part invitation, part judgment, hugely penitential and not at all like the comforting words that “you are my beloved.”
When I leave here I will go to Trumbull and offer “Ashes to Go” in front of the Starbucks to anyone who comes for them. This will be the 4th year I have done so. And more often than not, the person receiving the ashes says “thank you.” It amazes me that, when I tell people they’re going to die, they thank me. There is something about Lent that touches a very common nerve. Is it a hunger for truth? Maybe.
In the interest of truth, I need to tell you I have mixed feelings about this season of Lent. I guess it’s because I struggle with the disciplines I know I need to take on. I need to embrace them because I want to make more time for God in my life. And at the same time I know I am weak and frail and not strong in the “self-denial” department. I guess what I always disliked about Lent is the guilt piece. I know I have sinned and do sin, and fall short of God’s glory, to use St. Paul’s words. I don’t like to be reminded of it. And yet I am comforted by the 14th century words of William Langland, “All the sins of humankind are to God as a live coal in the sea.” So our shortcomings, our sins, don’t matter to God. We are still – and always – God’s beloved ones. And nothing will ever change that.
Lent is the time the Church has set aside to help us get back on track in our relationship with God. And the ashes remind us we have a deadline. When we have a “deadline” we get serious — if we want to lose weight for a wedding in 2 months, we start dieting immediately. If we’re told we have only 2 years, or 2 weeks to live, what are we going to do with this time? Lent is an opportunity to “do something” to get closer to God.
What might those “somethings” be? We call them disciplines. They come from the same root as the word disciple, which means learner. They are trainings to help us live in the way of a disciple of Jesus. Discipline for the sake of discipline creates disciplinarians but doesn’t do much for changing one’s heart. Worthy Lenten restraint is practiced for the purpose of learning, of discovering what attitudes and behavior are to be changed in order to reflect the teachings of Christ.
For instance, we can discipline ourselves to keep quiet instead of having to be right, to not verbally come back in response to hurtful remarks, to stop trying to show how wise we are. Closing our mouth is not enough, though. There also needs to be an opening of the barriers in our heart. The prophet Joel says blow a trumpet! Call a fast! Return to the Lord. Rend your hearts and not your clothing—do it on the inside, or don’t do it at all. And remember that God’s love is endless.
In our Gospel today Jesus has some definite things to say about spiritual practices, those that we particularly associate with Lent. Jesus’ three essential practices in the Sermon on the Mount are fasting, praying, and giving. In Matthew’s gospel, we hear Jesus’ saying, “When you fast.…” (Not “if,” but “when” you fast….”) Jesus makes the assumption that people would hold observe the practice of fasting; they simply needed instruction on how to do it properly since fasting was a common practice in his day.
If you were to fast, what kind of fasting might you practice as we begin this solemn Lenten season of preparation for Easter? It might be a helpful discipline during Lent to fast in the sense of eliminating some food or preoccupation or distraction or habit so as to make space for some greater good, such as awareness of God’s presence, or for empathy or solidarity with the poor and suffering in the troubled world that surrounds us.
Or, it might be meaningful to fast from worry, or to fast from regret, or to fast from revenge, or to fast from jealousy or envy. It may be a meaningful discipline in Lent to fast from multi-tasking or over-committing, a discipline of “holding fast” to a slower pace. The season of Lent is a period of time to give up something that bloats your soul and consumes your attention. Fasting can help create some space and give us some inner freedom.
And Jesus talks about praying. Again it’s a “when”, not an “if.” Set aside a time to pray everyday, whatever works best for you, pray from a book or just talk to God. One of my favorite prayerbooks is called Daily Prayers for Busy People, by Jesuit William O’Malley. You might like it. Or pray the Daily Office from the BCP. Or read Psalms and make them your prayers. Or spend time in silence, just sitting with God.
Jesus talks about giving, too. About sharing our financial resources with those who have less. Choose a cause/organization that is dear to your heart and then pray for them and give your money. Years ago we used to receive dime coin folders to put our money in; at the end of Lent we’d have $4 to contribute back to the church. What about setting an amount, $1, $2 or more for each day of Lent, or the amount spent on coffee, for example, and contributing that to a charity of choice? Or even better, to St. Paul’s?
These disciplines, as good as they are, are hard to keep. At least for me. It’s almost inevitable that I am going to break them, perhaps even before today is over. And yet, it’s okay. For when I do, it reminds me that I am not in charge, and that I cannot make any of these happen by myself. That only with God’s help will I be able to keep them.
As I think about my own Lenten disciplines and my own weaknesses I am hugely comforted by a reflection I read some months ago by Brother Mark Brown of the SSJE. He wrote, “Sometimes I imagine Jesus pondering the human condition down through the centuries and saying, ‘What was I thinking? It’s just too hard for them – they’ll never get it all right! I’d better give them all a free pass.’ There’s a certain expansiveness in giving out free passes – and what could be more expansive than God?”
And so I take heart in God’s steadfast love and expansiveness and pray for strength and courage for us all. My brothers and sisters, I invite us all into a holy Lent.