Reflections on Ash Wednesday given by the Rev. Joe Summers on February 14th, 2018 at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation. (AshWednesday Readings: Isaiah 58:1-12,
2nd Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21)
I was struck by Isaiah’s vision today of being renewed in hope, and strength and light. I don’t know about you, but I’m at that point in the winter where it feels like all I can do is just put one foot in front of the other as what I really want to do is crawl up in bed and sleep, or read, or watch TV, until spring comes. It’s at that point of the year where spring begins to seem more like a concept, a theory, maybe even a fantasy—even though my rational self says spring is a reality and that it will come again.
The word Lent is an early English word for spring. Lent is the season of preparation for the spring of resurrection, so—
*other than the snow and freezing weather,
*other than the plagues of flus and colds people have been suffering from,
*other than having a former ardent defender of segregation as our national attorney general,
*other than having a president who says he never repents, is anti-the stranger, anti-the poor, rarely misses an opportunity to perpetuate racists attitudes and who seems to sow division and conflict in whatever area he turns his attention to,
*other than living in a county that elected this president and this administration,
*other than living in a time where in Yeats words it seems :
…anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.* (From the poem The Second Coming”
*other than the apparent lack of strong moral leadership, individuals and movements committed to doing the right thing and also to doing the hard interior work and hard interpersonal work you need to do for real change to happen.
*other than living in a society that seems to have developed denial, disassociation, and disconnection into a high art form through all kinds of media, all kinds of substances, and an endless assault of materialist propaganda that encourages us to retreat into our separate cocoons,
*aside from these and some other realities I could easily name—what stands between us and resurrection, what stands between us and the spring time of our world?
Jesus said, nothing that we can’t help to change, if we are willing to do our homework, if we are willing to do our heart work, because the same inter-connected nature of our social reality that is currently so weighing on us—is the same inter-connected reality through which we can help to change things—if we are willing to change.
So, the question is, what are we needing to do in order to change? What can help us become resurrected?
Some hear the call to Lent as a call to feel bad about ourselves. I don’t think that sounds like much of a change. It seems like most of us have been pretty well programmed to feel bad about ourselves to the degree that it is a vital part of what is maintaining this ugly status quo. Now it may be that attempting to deny, or disassociate, from feeling bad about ourselves is not working. If that’s the case it’s probably time to confess such feelings, get them out in the open and in the light of day, so that we can ask God’s help in transforming them. But that’s not the same thing as feeling we ought to feel bad about ourselves.
No, the seeds of the spring of resurrection are nurtured by kindness: kindness we need to learn to show ourselves, kindness we need to learn to learn to show towards those parts of ourselves that we’re angry or frustrated with or are frightened by. Punishing ourselves into being good doesn’t work. Letting the light of God’s kindness shine through us towards ourselves does. So, this Lent, what about considering taking time to show loving kindness to the ways you feel trapped into living in ways you don’t want to live, or in bondage to parts of yourself that you don’t like. If you do it, take notes and see if it doesn’t make a difference.
Some people think Lent is about public displays of piety and being religious. We hear in both Isaiah and Matthew today the opposite. Isaiah says it’s not about being or looking religious. It’s about “breaking every yoke” and letting the oppressed go free. Matthew says it’s about letting go of that part of ourselves that wants to look good in the eyes of others and instead truly loving God and truly loving others. The Jesus story tells us, over and over again, that loving truly is going to be in conflict with our attachment to looking good in the eyes of others. Trying to please others, trying to be pleasing to others, turns out to be one of the biggest obstacles to leading a soulful life, to living a life that has real soul. Consider how trying to be pleasing to others has you trapped in the pit of desolation. What would you do differently if you could let go of your desire to look good in the eyes of others?
Some people think Lent is all about being alone and introspective. We hear Paul say the opposite today. It is also about action. It’s about letting the seeds of the kingdom of God take root in us and grow and blossom and bear the fruit of doing anything and everything we can to truly love other and bring about the reign of love.
Some people think Lent is all about action. No says Matthew. It is also about going into empty room so that we meet God in that place where there are no distractions, so that we can open up a conversation between our hearts and the divine for it is that conversation that is transformative. It is that encounter that is resurrecting.
Some Christians don’t practice Lent because they think Christians are supposed to be happy all the time and Lent sounds like a downer. But Jesus says, for the conditioned self, ourselves as life has left us, ourselves as we have attempted to create ourselves, to become our beloved selves, ourselves in all the fullness and glory that can come through the transformation of the Spirit, there is a dying process, the seed of grain must fall into the dark earth and lose its life as a seed before the plant can begin to grow. In my experience, anybody who tells you can give birth, or you can die, without any pain is lying to you. And yet pain is a whole different experience when we know it has a purpose, when we now it is leading to something better. Lent is about a dying to our selves as we’ve been forged in the flames of fear, so that we can help to birth new selves forged in the fires of true love.
May this Lent be a time for holy living, holy dying, and holy birth, so that we can awake from the nightmare of just trying to get through life and awake to the incredible gift of what life can be when we give ourselves fully and wholly to loving. For if we are willing God is able and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen