Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Homily for Ash Wednesday

Ancient words and you will feel the cold ashes touch our skin: "From dust you come and to dust you shall return."  It’s another way of saying, “Welcome to the human race.”
We are formed from the dust; God shaped us from the earth.  Humility and humus come from the same root.  Yes, we are spirit too, God forming us from the earth and blowing into us God’s own breath.  But we are always dust, creatures who live by the mercy of God.
Lent is not the same as the pagan ritual enacted every New Year’s Day, January 1, called New Year’s Resolutions. New Year’s Resolutions are about our hope in our own willpower: Lent is about our need of God.
Will Campbell once quipped: "I thought about giving up chewing tobacco, but I decided against it because I didn’t want to become a slave to my own willpower!"
Lent is not about willpower; it is about the acknowledgment of my humanity and mortality, my weakness and brokenness, and therefore my need of God and need of grace.
I have two opposite emotions every year as I come to this season. The first is that finally this year new life and resurrection will come, that Easter will happen to me, and that the new life of spring all around will not mock my inner condition. The second is the despair that I’ll try again to be this perfect Christian I want to be, and once again I will fail.
But Lent is not about willpower; it is not the heroic striving to overcome our humanity. It is the gentle acknowledgment of our humanity and of our need of God. It is not about mastery but about mystery, not about self-salvation but about the kind of salvation God wishes to bring.
So as we begin this season, let it be a time to be gentle with yourself and to call on God to come help.
But, when you hear the ancient words and you feel the cold ashes touch our skin: "From dust you come and to dust you shall return" understand this not only as a greeting--but also as a blessing, a sending off, a bon voyage.  The words are not only a “Hello” but also a “Good-bye.” 
Lent is often the season in which we “give up” something.  Mystics call the process by which we overcome the attachments which bind us "detachment." How does this detachment happen? Is it the Buddhist path of "the elimination of desire" or the Puritan hope in the repression of desire or Freud’s sublimation of desire? All religions and philosophies deal with the issue.
Constance Fitzgerald has described the Christian answer as "the transformation of desire." It is a process she calls "affective redemption," the redemption of the heart. In this process desire is not suppressed or destroyed but, in her words, "gradually transferred, purified, transformed, set on fire."
Such was the hope of George Herbert’s poem (Love II):

Immortal Heat, Oh let thy greater flame

Attract the lesser to it: let those fires

Which consume this world, first make it tame;
And kindle in our hearts such true desires,
As may consume our lusts, and make thee way.
Then shall our hearts pant thee; then shall our brain
All her invention on thine Altar lay,
And there in hymns send back thy fire again.
according to Thy steadfast love; 
according to Thy abundant mercy 
blot out my transgressions. 
Wash me “throughly” (KJV) from my iniquity, 
and cleanse me from my sin. 
and cleanse me from my sin. 
Psalm 51:1-2

The transformation of desire: it happens sometimes dramatically, other times gradually as grace make its way in our lives. It is the way of the awakened heart.
Do you remember the story Jesus once told of the tax collector who prayed?  He had become a bad man, a truly bad man.  He’d betrayed his own people, out of greed perhaps, or from a need for power.  It may have started as a little sin, a small corruption, but by the time he makes his appearance in Jesus’ parable he is in over his head.  He’s in a job, in a place he hates, but doesn’t know what to do.
Jesus says of him: he “stands far off.”  He will not let himself ever get close to the others in the temple.  He hopes no one will notice him back against the wall.  His prayer is short, eight words short:
“O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  He beats his breast, a physical form of prayer from one whose heart is wrenched and broken open.  He is a an example of the prophet Joel’s admonition “to rend your hearts.”  
It is more than a set piece of liturgy absently said: “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.”  It is what T. S. Eliot called “the purification of the motive / In the ground of our beseeching.” He’s reached his end.  He’s hit bottom.
You can almost hear David’s psalm.  Did he know it?  Had he learned it growing up?
Have mercy on me, O God,

Note that at this point all he’s done is make this prayer.  There’s no demonstrated change of life, no offer of reparations for those he’s cheated -- as in the story of Zaccheus, the tax collector.  No, this tax collector simply pours out his heart to God and asks for God’s mercy to come and forgive his sin and change his life.
He could have been making a cheap confession, counting on cheap grace, but we don’t know enough to judge.  Do we ever know enough to judge?
Now, here is Jesus’ surprise conclusion to the parable: “I tell you, this man went down righteous to his home.”  God and and heaven were all rejoicing.  The bad man has begun his journey of righteousness.  By grace he’s found the path.  He had begun his Lenten journey.  With a smudge of ashes on his forehead, he turns and walks toward resurrection; he moves toward Easter.
For Anne Lemott the gospel came in this paradoxical and saving truth:  God loves you exactly as you are -- and loves you too much to let you stay that way.  Hear the paradoxical and saving truth of the gospel:  God loves you exactly as you are (dust, ashes)--and loves you too much to let you stay that way.  “Welcome to the human race.”  “Bon Voyage.”

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