It’s been a year since I posted anything because of a variety of issues, both personal and ecclesial. I spent a month in rehab last spring, due to drug dependency, and in the ensuing months I had 4 surgeries. When I was finally able to return to my teaching job, I found a hostile work environment without compassion for anything I had been through. Worse, the parish board of Holy Redeemer, reacting out of fear instead of information, voted to close the parish and dissolve the corporation. There are, to be sure, a handful of loyal parishioners who remain and I am still pastor of Grace St. John’s UCC–whose people have been supportive and kind and who decided early on not to listen to rumors and gossip but instead wait to speak directly with their pastor when he returned from rehab.
If I said I wasn’t profoundly disappointed and hurt by the actions of the board of HR, I would be lying. The parish was founded on the idea that no one was beyond the reach of grace or God’s love, and this brought together a group of people from varying backgrounds and economic situations who genuinely cared for each other. It was an amazing group of people and I am grateful for the blessings. I only wish they had had room in their vision of the world for a pastor who was also deserving of grace and God’s love.
Regardless, we move forward as best we can. Tonight’s combined service with the two congregations marks the 9th year we have traveled the Lenten road together. Here is my sermon planned for this evening:
On this night, millions of Christians around the world engage in the ancient ritual known as “the imposition of ashes.” This service marks the beginning of Lent, the forty-day period, not counting Sundays, between Ash Wednesday and Easter. The practice of using ashes as a sign of repentance goes back to the Hebrew people and was continued by Christians as early as the 2nd century.
Ash Wednesday begins the forty-day journey of Lent between Ash Wednesday and Easter. It offers us a sobering time of self-examination and conversion, to wait upon and prepare for the renewal given by God’s Spirit in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I remember working in a parish in Wisconsin and coming into the pastor’s office, where he had placed a container of leftover ashes from Ash Wednesday on his desk. I joked, “Whose ashes are those?” And he answered, “All of ours!”
Ashes on our forehead remind us that human life has limits, that it comes to an end, that we will all die, leaving a lot of things unfinished. We don’t want to admit this most days, so the ashes are offered as a reminder of our human limits and of our deep need for God. Humility comes from humus, the Latin word for earth. The ashes are symbols of the earth, and a reminder that we are all creatures of the earth.
Ashes remind us of our mortality, but why ashes in the sign of a cross? Why not a heart for Valentine’s Day, or our maybe our initials? Why in the form of a cross? The cross in ashes reminds us of human sin and the resulting injustice that is part of life. The cross reminds us that our innocent brother Jesus was abused and tortured and executed. Even on a somber evening like this one, the ashes in the shape of a cross remind us that the cross is not the last word—the resurrection lies beyond it.
Why be reminded of our human mortality and sin? To encourage us to fast from those attitudes and actions that drive a wedge between us and God and embrace those which bring us closer to God. The Pharisees had good intentions—to maintain the holiness of the people in the midst of foreign occupation. But their best intentions resulted in still more injustice and judgment against their fellow men and women. That is not the kind of fasting Jesus intended for his followers.
His ministry was imbued with the prophet Isaiah’s depiction of what is pleasing to God, namely to loosen the bonds of injustice, to undo the leather straps of the yoke, to set captives free, to share our bread with the hungry and to extend hospitality to everyone, especially the most despised among us. (Isaiah 58)
Recently I had a rude awakening of my own in this regard. I pastored a flourishing parish that prided itself on being open to all, and they loved to sing the hymn “All Are Welcome.” All of them were for one reason or another, not welcome in any other Catholic parish, so they felt a deep connection to each other. But then their pastor fell into an addiction and they decided they couldn’t deal with that, so they disbanded the parish and left. “All Are Welcome” was their theme song, but there was an invisible asterisk and a footnote that said “Some Restrictions Apply.”
Only two of them ever contacted the pastor afterwards to see if he was doing alright, but most lost interest and moved on. This is not the idea of community that Jesus envisions. In fact, Jesus condemns outward practices of worship that mask arrogant, unaccepting hearts. His disciples are not to wash their hands of the outcast in order to gain acceptance by the powerful. They are not to “give up” things in order to impress others, instead, they are to fill their days with the presence of God.
Lent is really about saying no to some things so we can say yes to others. At the outset of his ministry Jesus was tempted by Satan to say yes to the chance to use his gifts for immediate gratification of his physical needs, to say yes to the enjoyment of material wealth and the thrill of power over others. He said no to these temptations, and headed into the towns and villages to say yes to long days and nights of healing, teaching and feeding.
During Lent we Christians are called to say no to any habit that comes between God and ourselves. It might be an unhealthy physical habit: unhealthy eating patterns, drinking, drug abuse. It might be an unhealthy spiritual diet: the habit of vicious gossip, of jealousy of others’ accomplishments, or of consistently seeing the worst in people and situations. It might be indifference to the condition of the homeless and the lonely in our community. It might be the habit of judging and categorizing others to maintain our sense of superiority. It might be the tendency to see our spiritual lives as limited to one hour of worship on Sundays. It might be the habit of expecting unbroken peace and inward joy without putting in the time to cultivate our prayer relationship with God. It might be the habit of facing life’s challenges without factoring the presence of God into the equation.
When we answer Christ’s call to say no to destructive practices, energy is left to say yes to positive disciplines. We can fill the space and time left by our fasting with some positive disciplines to help us respond to God’s love more intentionally. They are literally the highways of grace: prayer, searching the Scriptures, fasting, acts of kindness directed at creating justice, as well as regular attendance at communal worship where we meet Christ in Word and Sacrament.
Just as there are lots of things we may need to say no to during Lent, so there are many opportunities to say yes. Maybe I will see something good in a family member I find annoying. Maybe I will be more affectionate to my spouse or lover. Perhaps I will keep in better touch with my extended family. Perhaps I will improve my understanding of issues of justice for the disenfranchised. Perhaps I will even create a new ministry of caring in my community.
In adopting positive disciplines, even when they are work, we will find new life in Jesus. As the prophet Isaiah says “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly” (Is. 58:8).
Starting next Tuesday, we will have Tuesday evening devotions in the lounge. When you enter the lounge, you will find a large cross in the middle of the room, with one word emblazoned on it: YES.
The cross in ashes on our skin is our “yes” to the kind of Lent Jesus desires for each of us. He wants us to accompany him boldly, saying “no” to that which would slow our steps and saying “yes” to that which would fill our hearts and our actions with love for him and others. The kind of Lent Jesus desires for us is the kind that prepares our hearts for a Savior who rises from the ashes of death and injustice to bring a new life of justice and joy. That new life begins today.