February 26, 2020
Joel 2.1-2,12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6.1-6,16-21
Ê I once had a parishioner tell me that they were not appreciative of me preaching to them about sin during Lent.
That elicited one of those looks I occasionally give—a look of absolute bewilderment at what people sometimes say to me.
Some of you have received that same look.
“I’m sorry, Father,” this person said to me, “but what do you know of about my sins and the kind of sins I have to deal with in my own life?
“You’re a celibate male priest of all things! You don’t know the struggles I go through as a married person, as a parent, as a person who struggles with real temptations and real frustrations and real marital issues, for example.”
Granted, yes, I am that now-very-rare, almost extinct dinosaur of being a celibate Anglo-Catholic priest in the Episcopal Church (there aren’t a lot of us out there, let me tell you). After all, we all know how celibacy has taken a huge beating because of some horribly abusive clergy who hid behind their celibacy to do horrible, very non-celibate abuse. As you know, I also don’t make any apologies about any of that, but to say that, because I’m celibate, I somehow don’t understand others’ struggles, or, worse, that because I’m celibate I somehow seem “removed” from everybody else’s struggles, shocked me.
I responded to this person the only way I knew how to.
I said, “You do know that I am a sinner too, right?”
I understand that this might not be something parishioners want to hear. They don’t want to hear that their priest is a sinner just like them.
But the fact is, we all are sinners. That’s what Ash Wednesday is all about. This is our time to admit God and to one another,
“I am a sinner too.”
We’re all in this boat together. It might be different for you as opposed to someone else who is here tonight.
But each of our dealing with our own sins, in our own ways. That doesn’t mean we say that so we can then whip ourselves, or bash ourselves or be self-deprecating. We say it as a simple acknowledgment of our humanity before God, our imperfection.
That is exactly what we do tonight and for these next 40 days.
During Lent, we will be hearing about sin. We will be hearing about repentance. We will be reminded of the fact that, yes, we have fallen short in our lives.
And tonight especially, we will be reminded that one day, each of here tonight will one day stop breathing and die. We are reminded tonight in very harsh terms that we are, ultimately, dust. And that we will, one day, return to dust.
…sometimes we need to be reminded of these things.
Because, let’s face it. We spend most of our lives avoiding these things. We spend a good portion of our lives avoiding hearing these things. We go about for the most part with our fingers in our ears. We go about pretending we are going to live forever. We go about thinking we’re not really like everyone else. We think: I’m just a little bit more special than everyone else.
Maybe…maybe…I’m the exception.
Of course we do that.
Because, for each of us, the mighty ME is the center of our universe. We as individuals are the center of our own personal universe.
So, when we are confronted during Lent with the fact that, ultimately, the mighty ME is not the center of the universe, is not even the center of the universe of maybe the person who is closest to me, it can be sobering. And there we go.
Lent is about sobering up. It is about being sober. About looking long and hard at the might ME and being realistic about ME. And my relationship with the God who is, actually, the center of the universe and creation and everything that is.
It’s hard, I know, to come to that realization. It’s hard to hear these things. It’s hard to have hear the words we hear tonight as those ashes are placed on our foreheads,
“You are dust and to dust you shall return.”
You are dust.
I am dust.
We are dust.
We are ashes.
And we are going to return to dust.
Lent is also about moving forward. It is about living our lives fully and completely within the limitations of the fact that are dust.
Our lives are like jazz to some extent. For people who do not know jazz, they think it is just free-form music. There are no limits to it.
But that’s not true. There is a framework for jazz. Very clearly defined boundaries. But, within that framework there is freedom.
Our lives are like jazz as well. Our mortality is the framework of our lives.
We have boundaries.
We have limits.
And I am going to talk about those limits during this season of Lent. I am going to be talking throughout these forty days about a term one of my heroes coined. That hero, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the great Jesuit priest and paleontologist, talked about something like passive diminishments.
Passive diminishments, according to Chardin, are simply those sufferings in this life that we cannot avoid. They are the limits in our lives—the hard boundaries of our existence that we cannot avoid.
I’m not going to go into them too deeply tonight. But I will during the Sundays of this season.
Tonight, though I will say this:
Within those limits, within the boundaries of those passive diminishments, we have lots of freedom. And we have the potential to do a lot of good and a lot of bad. Lent is the time for us to stop doing the bad and start doing the good. It is time for us to store up for ourselves treasure in heaven, as we hear Jesus tell us tonight in our Gospel reading. It is time for work on improving ourselves. And sometimes, to do that, we need to shed some things.
It is good to give up things for Lent.
I know this is a dumb thing to admit, but I am giving up sugar again for Lent. And caffeine again too. I actually went back on caffeine while I was on vacation just so I could give it up for Lent. (Stupid). That’s how bad it is when you give up so much in your daily life. I’m vegan. I don’t drink alcohol. I’m celibate. What else can I give up?
The reality however is this:
Yes, we can give up sugar or caffeine or meat or tangible things that might not do us good. But let me just say this about that.
If we give up something for Lent, let it be something that changes us for the better.
Let it be things that improve us. Let us not only give up things in ourselves, but also things around us.
Yes, we can give up nagging, but maybe we should also give up those voices around us that nag. Or maybe confront those voices that nag too much at us.
Yes, we can give up being controlling and trying to change things we can’t. But we maybe also try hard to push back and speak out against those unreasonably controlling forces in our own lives.
Maybe Lent should be a time to give up not only anger in ourselves, but those angry voices around us.
Lent is a time to look at the big picture of our lives and ask: what is my legacy?
How am I going to be remembered?
Are people going to say of our legacies what we heard this evening from the prophet Joel?
“Do not make your heritage a mockery…”
Am I going to be known as the nag? As that angry, bitter person? Am I going to be known as a controlling, manipulative person who always had to get my way? Am I going to be known as a gossip, as a backbiter, as a person who professed my faith in Christ on my lips, but certainly did not live it out in my life?
If so, then there is no better time than Lent to change our legacy. That is our rallying cry during Lent as well.
Let us choose to be a good, compassionate, humble, love-filled follower of Jesus. That is the legacy we should choose during this season, and from now on.
After all, we ARE ashes.
We are dust.
We are temporary.
We are not immortal.
We are bound by our passive diminishments.
But our legacies will outlive us.
In fact, in many ways, they are, outside of our salvation, ultimately, the most important thing about our future.
Let us live in to the legacy that will outlive us. This is probably the best Lenten discipline we can do. Most importantly, let this holy season of 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 the 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.
It is time for us to take full advantage of it.