Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday

February 18, 2015

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6.1-6,16-21

+ Occasionally, I find myself obsessed about certain news stories. I think we all do this at times. We find ourselves trying to find out any and every aspect of a particular news story, waiting for emerging details. Well, I’ve recently been obsessed about such a story. Many of you know about it all ready. It’s been going on since December.

In December, on Dec. 27, actually, the newly-elected Bishop Suffragan (or Assisting Bishop) of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, Heather Cook, was involved in a horrific car accident.  She struck a cyclist, a husband and father. He struck the windshield of her car. She then drove away from the scene. The cyclist died at scene. Forty minutes later, she returned and was arrested for DUI and manslaughter.  It was discovered that she had a blood alcohol level equivalent to ten drinks. Now, that in of itself is horrible and terrible. But, it seems, she was arrested for DUI in 2010, also with an even higher blood alcohol level, as well as possessing marijuana paraphernalia. This DUI was not revealed to the Diocese of Maryland when she was elected last fall.

It seems that every few days new details of this horrendous story comes out.  The fact that her boyfriend, a defrocked Episcopal priest, paid a portion of her $2,000,000 bail. The fact that the Bishop of Maryland revealed that she was actually drunk at her consecration s Bishop in September. That fact that the Presiding Bishop probably knew about her being drunk and still consecrated her. The fact that the Standing Committee of the Diocese has called for her resignation (which still has not happened).  The fact that Presiding Bishop has now restricted her as Bishop. Etc etc.

It’s an ugly story. This story speaks to us in a particular way as we enter Lent. When we look at the shortcomings and failings of others, sometimes—I know we hate to admit this—I hate to admit this—but sometimes, sometimes, we sort of, very secretly, delight in these things.

We say things like, “Oh, how the mighty have fallen!”

Or, “Mmmph, I guess Bishops aren’t perfect after all.”

Or, what I’ve had to hear ad nauseum in the days afterward from several clergy, “There but for the Grace of God go I,” a phrase about which Sandy Holbrook and I had an interesting discussion once after I used that same phrase referencing another situation.

We delight in the shortcomings of others partly because it makes us feel a little better about ourselves.  But, that begs the question then: how should we feel? How should we feel about this situation?  We, of course, should feel horrible. We should feel anger. We should feel sorrow for that poor man who died and for his family. But we should also feel pity too.

Yes, it’s easy to demonize Bishop Cook. It’s easy to set her up as an example of all we dislike about the Church or the policies of the Church or whatever grudges any of us might have toward Bishops and clergy (yes, let me tell you, there is a lot of anti-clericalism in the Episcopal Church, which does run counter of the inclusiveness of our Church).  But underneath it all, Heather Cook is a human being like all of us—a human being with a horrible illness—an illness that killed a person and could easily have killed Bishop Cook and others.  That’s not an excuse. I am making no excuses for what Bishop Cook did. But it is a fact.

We are all fallible. We all fail—and fail miserably—at times in our lives.  And when we do, it is painful. It hurts. And others get hurt too.

This time of Lent is a time for us to face those failings in our lives. I think that’s why some of us kind of resist Lent when it comes around again. But, recognizing our failures—and other’s failures, as well—for what they are is a way forward. We are all fallible human beings. We will continue to fail at times. We will never, on this side of the veil, be perfect. And if perfection is our goal, we have already set ourselves up for failure. But failure too should not be the goal.

Striving to learn from our failures is the goal. Changing and growing and moving beyond our failures is our goal. A successive evolution from failure to redemption is our goal.

Lent is a time for us to think about our failures, to ponder them, but not to revel in them. And it certainly is not a time to beat ourselves up over them.

Tonight, Ash Wednesday, is a time for us to think about that ultimate moment in our lives, that puts all of our failures into keen perspective. Tonight is the night to think about the fact that we will all, one day, die. In this service we are reminded in no uncertain terms that one day each every person in this church this evening will stop breathing and will die.  Our bodies will be made into something that will be disposed of—either by being cremated and being buried in the ground.  But, all of this can—and more importantly, should—be something in which we find ourselves opened up to a new understanding and new perspectives on the world and our relationships with God.

That essentially is what Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are all about. It is a time for us to stop, to ponder, to take a look around us and to take a long, hard, serious look at ourselves, our failures, and our relationship with God. It isn’t easy to do.  It isn’t easy to look at where we’ve failed in our lives in our relationship with others. It isn’t easy to look at ourselves as disposable physical beings that can so easily be or burned to ashes or buried.  It isn’t easy to imagine there will be a day—possibly sooner than later—when life as we know it right now will end.  It isn’t easy to shake ourselves from our complacent lives. Because we like complacency. We like predictability. We like our comfortable existence.

However, we need to be careful when we head down this path. As we consider and ponder these things, we should not allow ourselves to become depressed or hopeless.  Remembering our failures is depressing and can trigger depression or despair.  Our mortality is frightening.  Yes, it is sobering and depressing to think that we, at this moment, find so normal and comfortable will one day end.

But this season is Lent is also a time of preparation.  It is a preparation for the glory of Easter. It would be depressing and bleak if, in the end, all we are known for our failures.

My prayer for Bishop Cook is that this accident, this death, is not what she will ultimately be known for. In the midst of this horrendous situation, Bishop Cook’s story is not over. There are opportunities, as impossible as they might seem in this moment, for her to rise above this horrendous situation. One day, when she passes from this world, there will be references made to the horrible events of December. But hopefully, there will also be references made to how she rose above it, how she overcame her illness, how she found redemption in her own life and how she was ultimately sustained by the love and compassion of her God.

That is my hope. Yes, maybe I am the eternal optimist. But that’s also what it means to be a Christian, even in the midst of Lent.  Yes, we will hear, in a few moments, those sobering words,

“You are dust and to dust you shall return.”

And those words are true. But, the fact is, ashes are not eternal. Ashes are not the end of our story. Ashes are temporary. Resurrection is eternal.  Our life in Christ is eternal.  Our failures are temporary. Our life is eternal in Christ.  All we do on this Ash Wednesday is acknowledge the fact that we are mortal, that our bodies have limits and because they do, we too are limited.

There is a beautiful poem—one of my all-time favorites-written by probably one of my favorite poets, Robinson Jeffers.  In many ways it has a very healthy attitude to the body and the death of one’s body. Jeffers wrote this following the death from cancer of his wife, Una, in September of 1950.   The poem is titled “Cremation”

It nearly cancels my fear of death, my dearest said,
When I think of cremation. To rot in the earth

Is a loathsome end, but to roar up in flame — besides, I am used to it,
I have flamed with love or fury so often in my life,
No wonder my body is tired, no wonder it is dying.

We had a great joy of my body…

“We had great joy of my body.”

Hopefully, we can say the same of our bodies when the time comes for us to put our bodies aside.

So, it’s not a matter of denying our bodies or seeing our bodies as sinful, disgraceful things. The same can be said of our failures. Our failures make us who we are. We are not defined by them. But we are formed in the fires of our failures and shortcomings.  It is not a matter of dwelling on our failures in this life. Rather, it is a time for us to look forward, past our failures, to resurrection, to renewal, to rebirth.

As we head into this season of Lent, let it truly be a holy time or preparation for resurrection. Let it be a time in which we recognize the limitations of our own selves—whether they be physical or emotional or spiritual.  But more than anything, let this holy season Lent be a time of reflection and self-assessment. Let it be a time of growth—both in our self-awareness and in our awareness of God’s presence in goodness in our life.

As St. Paul says in our reading from this evening: “Now is the acceptable time.”
“Now is the day of salvation.”

It is the acceptable time. It is the day of salvation.  Let us take full advantage of it.

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