Ash Wednesday vs. the Primary (A Homily About Being Told What We Don’t Want to Hear)

So, it may just be me, but if feels like there are less people here in New Hampshire than there were yesterday. The cable news vans are gone. No one is speaking at town hall. Even the commercials are off the air.

For campaigns the run-up to yesterday’s Primary began a year ago, or more in some instances. And, despite the fact I have voted in every major election I could have since I was 18, I have never felt more popular as a voter than I did in the past few months in New Hampshire. Everyone wanted a minute of my time. Everyone wanted to tell me how they would make things better. And everyone wanted to tell me exactly what I wanted to hear.

But today, one day later, no one is telling me what I want to hear anymore. At least, not here in New Hampshire. The show has moved on to Nevada and South Carolina, and people will be hearing exactly what they want to heard state by state throughout the spring.

Now, before we New Hampshirites feel too badly about being left behind, I want to argue that maybe the timing of this year’s Primary, and this year’s observance of Ash Wednesday, is incredibly poetic for us. Overnight we have gone from being told all the things that we want to hear, and all the ways we are wonderful and powerful and important, to perhaps the one thing that more than anything else we don’t want to hear: that we are mortal.

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

It’s not a slogan that’s going to win any elections. No one is going to put it on a bumper sticker or a yard sign. It’s not something we like to acknowledge. And yet, maybe it is the one thing that we need to hear more than anything else in the world.

The reality is that this world is bigger than we are, and has been around far longer than us as well. And one day, when we draw our last breath and return to dust, the world will go on. At some level, no matter how comfortable we might be with that, it’s still a little terrifying.

And so this ritual that we take part in once a year? It’s terrifying too. Put it in plain terms: earlier today I took the left over palms from last year’s Palm Sunday service, and I burned them on the front steps of the church offices. Then, Cat and I mixed them with oil. And in just a few minutes I am going to invite each of you forward, and smear these palm ashes on your forehead in the shape of a cross while telling you that one day you are going to be dust.

12715285_10101107105583378_7085126143383140490_nMaybe it’s no wonder that this isn’t the service that draws the big crowds. Easter and Christmas make sense to us, but this day? Not so much. And every year, no matter what church I’ve been at, I always overhear people who say they won’t come to this service.

And that’s okay. But I always feel a little sad about that because the truth is that Ash Wednesday, as much as it makes us hear a hard truth, also teaches us something beautiful. Ash Wednesday, like the Apostle Paul, says that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God.

And if you are really listening closely, it also tells you this: we are more than we think we are.

The one from whose love we can never be separated is the one who created us, and it is to that Creator that we will someday return. When you think about that, that is an amazing comfort. It’s a reminder that “in life and in death we belong to God”, and there can be no better source for hope or joy than God.

But this is about more than just where we are going. On Ash Wednesday we must not dwell on death but instead embrace this life too. And so, on this day we are reminded most of all about two things: whose we are, and how to live in this world knowing that.

In that sense Lent is about something that might scare us even more than the thought that one day we will be dust. That something is “humility”.

Humility isn’t an easy thing for us to think about. We hear it and we conflate it with humiliation, or a brutal way of putting someone in their place. In that light we might think that this whole ritual tonight is a kind of religious humiliation where we are told we are dust and physically marked as such.

But this is humility, not humiliation. And those are two very different things.

Far from ripping us down, true humility is about being what some would call “right sized”. It’s about knowing that, to be sure, we are not God. But it is also about knowing that we are loved by God and marked as God’s own children. These ashes are not marks of shame; they are marks of our own identity.

They are also signs in a world where out-of-control egos reign supreme, and where people will rush to tell us exactly what we want to hear, that God loves us too much for that. God won’t let us settle for what gives us happiness for the moment. God wants us to have real, sustaining joy.

The crosses are our signs that we are not our own, but we aren’t for sale either. We belong only to God, and we trust only in God’s promises. Beyond that, they signify that we are here not for our own agenda, or even a party or group’s agenda, but only in order that we would find God’s agenda for us and for all of God’s children. The ashes are a reminder of who we are, and who and whose we serve.

Like I said, none of what I’ve just told you would ever win an election. A cross of ashes is never going to replace a catchy campaign pin. But then again, we’re being called to something a little bigger here. Something that existed before any of us, and something that will go on long after. That may not be the words that we want to hear, but they are the words we need to hear. And they are the words that can begin the process of transforming us this Lent, if only we will let them. Amen?

Ash Wednesday: Sermon for February 13, 2013

(Note: this sermon contains pieces of my Ash Wednesday essay “It’s Not About Me” found in Huffington Post and previously on this blog.)

ashwednesdayIf you go to a bookstore, and you look at the religion section, and especially the Christianity section, you’ll see a theme. Yes, there will be Bibles and other holy books, but more often than not, the section will be overrun with books all purporting to do one thing: to make your life better.

I don’t begrudge that. I think that if faith helps you to lead a more meaningful, more joyful, or more peaceful life then that is indeed a great thing. But, I’ve often wondered whether those of us who are both Christians and people of great privilege, and most of us who are Americans are, sometimes start to see our faith as one more element in our “be a better me” plans. Like a diet, or an exercise regimen, or get out of debt quickly program. I sometimes wonder if our faith becomes one more fashionable accessory, a key to a good life for us and us only only.

I think about that a lot during Lent, especially during the time when we are asked to decide what sort of Lenten observance we will take on this year. And, like many of you I think about “giving up” something: meat, or caffeine, or Facebook. And I’m not saying those may not be valuable things to give up for some. Only you can be the authority on what you struggle with the most. But Lent leaves me wondering if “giving up” is what it’s really all about.

When it comes down to it, Jesus only needed two sentences to sum the law up for his followers. First, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength”. And second, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”.

Those of us who try to be disciples of Christ are really good at trying to add our own words or interpretations to his, but in the end Jesus really made it pretty clear. If you want to follow him, and if you want to be a Christian, then your only job is to love.

Love and ashes don’t often go together in our minds. But this time of year, it’s the ashes that remind me of what Jesus tried to teach us about love.

Ash Wednesday comes early this year, and with it comes the beginning of Lent, the season when we disciples turn our hearts towards Christ and seek to reconciled to him. And while the stores start stocking plastic eggs and Easter baskets, we do something that is completely counter-cultural: we go to church, and we smear ashes on our foreheads, and we remind one another that everything we know is only temporary.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

What used to be a heart-stopping reminder for me has instead become a moment of refocusing. In the big scheme of things who we are as individuals is finite, and fleeting. But who we are together, and who we are to God, is what matters, and what truly defines us, even when we are gone.

In Lent we remember the great truth: it’s not all about us.

I was thinking about that this week. Like many of you, I was stunned to hear the news of the Pope’s resignation the other day. I didn’t know Popes could resign! But the more I read about his decision, the more I understood it and respected it. We may not be Catholics, but we can learn a lot from other Christians, and I think we can learn a lot from him too. When it became clear to him that because of health he could no longer function in his role the way the position demands, he stepped aside. He made it not about him. He made it about the church, something bigger than him.

That speaks to me in Lent because each Lent I feel myself called back to community, both human and divine, by that message: it’s not about me. And when that calling comes, so does the reminder of those two commands of Christ: love God, and love others as you love yourself.

This is why I think that if our Lenten discipline is only about us, and what we will allow ourselves, we miss the point. Instead, what if we embraced Lent as an opportunity to show our love for God and others? We spend so much time focused on ourselves and on our own importance, but what if we used these forty days focus on something else? What if we took those days and dedicated each to reminding ourselves that it’s not about us as individuals, but it’s about God, and it’s about all of us together?

This Lent I’m giving myself a challenge. I’m calling it my Lenten “It’s Not About Me” Challenge. Here’s how it works: Each day I want to do at least one thing that either strengthens my connection with God, or shows my love for my neighbor.

That might sound like a lot at first glance, like it’s just creating one more piece of work in our already crammed schedules. But what I’m advocating isn’t about creating additional burdens. It’s about being more conscious of what we are already doing, and using our time in a way that connects us with others and with the Holy other.

When we start doing that, the daily walk turns into an opportunity for prayer. The trip to the grocery store yields a few more cans of soup for the food pantry. The extra hour of sleep on Sunday morning is turned aside for a chance to join your community in worship. And a few extra dollars turn into donation that makes a difference. We don’t have to turn the world on its axis. We simply have to turn our attention outward, and make the small things matter in big ways.

This is my challenge to myself, and no one is obligated to join me. But, I am asking you to consider what you will be doing differently this Lent, and asking how it is that what you choose will show your love of God, and will show your love of neighbor. Not because it will make you a better person, but because it will be a tangible reminder of Christ’s love for others.

I’ve had plenty of blessings in my life, and plenty of grace from God. I hope you have too. And in the end Lent can be a journey of recognizing those blessings, and blessing others. Because it’s not a journey that’s about me, or you. It’s a journey that’s about God. And we are invited. And that’s the best invitation that you can ever receive. Amen.

Not About Me: Day One (A Journey Through Lent)

379246_10151246708651787_459997397_nI received ashes about an hour ago. My partner was on her way to Boston to assist in Old South Church’s Ash Wednesday observances, but she ashed me first. Later today she will be joining other clergy and seminarians as she stands in front of the church and offers ashes to the busy pedestrians on Boylston Street. And now I’m sitting here in the office of my small town church in Vermont, ashes on my forehead, waiting to see if any parishioners who can’t make our evening service will drop by for ashes.

Our contexts today are very different, but our hopes are the same. Maybe the people we touch with ash will stop for a minute, reflect on the day, and feel the tug on their hearts from God that comes every Lent, beckoning them back to the divine relationship.

We impose the ashes on one another with the the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And Lent is all about returning. Not just back to dust, but to what makes something extraordinary out of that dust. Lent is all about returning to the creator, and returning towards the way that God’s son showed us. A way of love. A way of reconciliation. A way of hope. A better way.

Today I’m starting my Lenten discipline in the form of a challenge to myself. I’m hoping that in Lent my thoughts and my actions will help return my attention to God, and to God’s people, again and again. I invite you to join me, in whatever way works for you. Even if you have been away from church, or away from faith, for sometime, it’s not too late.

God will always welcome your return. So, why not today?