Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Beloved Dust: Homily for Ash Wednesday

How ironic that we have a gospel that warns us against the practice of a public piety on a day when many Christians mark their foreheads with ashes and wear them all the rest of the day?

Yet I think there are good words in our gospel today to serve as a reminder of what this day is all about.

It’s trendy to talk about “giving things up for Lent”—even people who do not normally make a big show of their faith talk about it. But I think we need to be careful, lest our Lenten fasts—because that is what that is, a fast from something—become the center of our attention, or the discipline of giving up chocolate or soda or whatever becomes a test of one’s own will rather than an offering up to God of our determination to repent from all that has distracted us from our love and worship of God, and from our love and care of each other, throughout the rest of the year.

Let’s be honest—how often have we chosen something to give up for Lent based on how peripheral it really is to our lives, and with a subtle understanding that we can give it up for these next 7 weeks without too much real disruption to our daily business? I know I have been guilty of that myself. 

What if we rethought the idea of fasting completely, and aligned it more properly with the true purpose of Lent: which is to center ourselves more firmly into a God-centered and directed life, a life lived not just for denying ourselves treats but in treating ourselves—and each other, no matter who those others are-- as God wants us to do?

Pope Francis has been attributed with these suggestions on the subject of fasting during Lent:

If you really want to fast this Lent,

Fast from hurtful words     and instead say kind words in their place.
Fast from the sadness caused by discontent   and instead be filled with gratitude. 
Fast from anger    and instead be filled with patience.
Fast from pessimism     and instead be filled with hope.
Fast from worries     and instead have trust in God.
Fast from complaints     and instead contemplate simplicity.
Fast from pressures     and instead be prayerful.
Fast from bitterness     and instead fill your hearts with joy.
Fast from selfishness     and instead be compassionate to others.
Fast from grudges     and instead be reconciled.
Fast from words     and instead be silent so you can listen.

When we seek to offer a sacrifice to God, may we remember that the purpose of a sacrifice is not pain and denial, but to make ourselves holy, and making ourselves holy is a step toward making ourselves whole and at peace within the bounds of God’s mercy. It is a reminder to us of our dependence upon something outside of ourselves that God’s word insists over and over again throughout scripture is the heart of the gift of being fully human in God’s image.

As we are marked with the ashes today, ashes derived from the palm fronds from previous Palm Sundays, may we remember that the ashes originated in rejoicing, in proclaiming Jesus as our ruler and Lord within our lives.

As we are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, may we remember that ashes are not just a sign of mourning but a reminder of our union with all creation, and that being dust makes us kindred of the stars that dance overhead, and set ourselves the task, during these 40 blessed days, to be drawn back into the knowledge of our one-ness with all things, our fellowship with even the most common stuff of creation, and be drawn therefore into love and care with each other and with all the whole earth, that we may we dies to the casual sins of complacency and disdain that so pervades too much of our world, and instead live in gratitude and joy --starting today and for the rest of our lives.

These ashes do not just remind us of our ending and our death. These ashes are really a sign of renewal, of unity, of hope.

They remind us of our beginning—formed by the hand of God, who breathed life into us from God’s own Spirit, the God who then gave us God’s Son as the ultimate sign of how beloved we all are—all of us. No exceptions. I am convinced that living out our days embodying that truth would be the greatest, most holy fast of all.

Let us dedicate ourselves to the true fast to which God calls us. Please join with me in prayer. 

Humbly, let us kneel before our God,
opening our hearts to examine and purify them
for Love's sake.

Holy One, you are the True Vine,
our Portion and our Cup,
our Model of Mercy and Justice.

We acknowledge before You
and each other
our manifold sins and wavering intentions,
and ask forgiveness. 
Teach us to walk not in fear
but in integrity, mercy, and love,
and gentle our warring spirits, we pray.
Cleanse and deliver us
from all envy, jealousy, and hatred,
from all that seeks to diminish another
for our own benefit.

Lord, reconcile us to right relationships;
teach us to follow you as our true North Star.
Gentle Savior, you knock at the door
and ask to abide within us:
make us worthy to receive you.
You call us to be your Body in the world,
your witness against evil,
and to reflect your light
through the storms and trials of life.

In all we do,
may we seek to abide in You
in fellowship and compassion.
Lord, we remember before You
those who are in pain, sorrow,
or any kind of trouble.
Send your Spirit to guide us into redemption,
and grant respite and comfort to those for whom we pray.


Preached at the noon and 7 pm service at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, on March 6, 2019.

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