“From dust you have come, to dust you will go.” If you had the courage to come to an Ash Wednesday Service, you would have heard those words spoken over you as you were marked with a cross. I say courage because it takes a certain amount of audacity to come to a worship service where you are reminded of your own mortality.
My family was unable to attend the Ash Wednesday Service this year. Maybe that was for the best. I have always found it challenging to place ashes on the forehead of my children while reminding them of their own death. It is difficult to places ashes on any child. If your child came to my station during Ash Wednesday, I placed the cross on their forehead with the words, “You are loved by God.” On this Ash Wednesday, because of recent events, I would have found it even harder to tell them, “Remember you are dust…” It seems they get that message loud and clear from the world.
You are loved by God. If there is any week that our children needed to be reminded of that truth, it is this week. We are mortal but we are not hopeless. We are broken but we are not unloved.
The word Lent is an old Saxon word meaning “spring.” It is not in the bible but the theme of Lent as a season of devotion and self-reflection is found throughout the pages of scripture. Moses fasted for 40 days when he talked with God on Mount Sinai[i]. Elijah fasted for 40 days on his journey to meet God at Horeb.[ii] After his baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, Jesus was led into the wilderness and for 40 days he was under intense temptation to become something other than what his heavenly Father intended.[iii]
Ash Wednesday is the starting point into Lent. The purpose of Lent is to give us an opportunity to clean out the clutter in our lives, rearrange our priorities, and find space for new life when it comes at the end of the forty days. A lot of people give up certain things – chocolate, caffeine, social media, fatty foods, or negative talk. Fasting is the religious way of talking about it. Another way of understanding the spiritual discipline of Lent is rediscovering the power of “no.” “No” stands in the way of immediate desires. It is disruptive to our wishes and dreams. “No” means withholding something that we want.
We want what we want for a reason, and “no” always runs contrary to those wants and desires.
During Lent we practice saying “no” so that we can enjoy a greater “yes.” So, what do you need to say “no” to today in order to enjoy a greater “yes” tomorrow? Think about it this way: Give up what is necessary so that something good may be added.
It is so easy to say “yes.” It is easy because we like our lives full. We like to be busy. It makes us feel important. It drives us to be successful. “Yes” feels the vacuum of loneliness. “No” creates space. The mid-20th century Catholic theologian Hans Ur von Balthasar saw the work of Jesus as remaking the self by unselfing it. Jesus opens up a “vacant space” in us for the Spirit of God to renew us.
If our lives are filled with to-do lists and projects and deadlines and wants and shoulds, then there is no room for the Spirit of God to work on renewing us in His image. Lent is giving permission for God to “unself” us and create space for the Spirit to work on renewing our self in the image of Christ.
A self full of itself is a conflicted self.
You may not realize it but you need this. How many times this week did we say, “I decided to do good, but I didn’t really do it; I decided not to be bad, but then I did it anyway?” I know I need to exercise, but I was too tired when I got home. I know I shouldn’t go over to his house, but I went anyway. I know I should not have gossiped, but I said it anyway.
The Apostle Paul understands your pain. Listen to the way he describes it:
For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7:14-20)
Why do we find it so hard to live up to our own expectations? We want to do good, but we fail to do it. We desire to live right, but give us a week and we have slipped.
At the end of his life Jesus is praying in a garden. He knew that soldiers were on the way to come and arrest him. He tells Peter to stay awake and pray. Peter falls asleep. Jesus gets upset with him, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”[i]
I get it. Don’t you? I am willing but find myself weak when it counts. We are driven to despair by our conflicted self. We come to church and make promises and then we fail to live up to those expectations. The gap between willing and doing is universal. It not only affects us as individuals. It has damaging consequences on a society.
God created a garden for humanity but we have turned it into a war zone. We talk a good talk but we take no action. We say this will be the last one but we do nothing to ensure that it really is. We send our kids off to school with words like, “Remember your lunch money, remember your mama loves you, and remember to turn in your homework.” But if we keep talking without acting, we might as well add, “And remember you are from dust and to dust you shall return – possibly today.”
When the people of God talked about offering prayers and fasting, God replied, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?[i] The prayers God hears are those that beat to the rhythm of justice. The fast God notices is the ones that gives up hate and violence.
As a society we seem stuck in the gap, the gap between knowing what is right and actually doing what is right. Violence disrupts. Lives are taken. Fingers are pointed. Blame is cast. Hands are washed of blood. And the cycle of death gets put on repeat. Are mass shootings a gun problem, a mental illness problem, a public safety problem, or a heart problem? The answer is “yes!” As long as we continue to remain divided and refuse to move the conversation past heated debates, it will remain a pride problem and we are all guilty.
As followers of Jesus, we are to be about living the ways of the Prince of Peace. Our moral framework is loving our neighbor. As Jesus followers we make decisions that seek the welfare of my neighbor. When it comes to mass shootings in the United States what decisions need to be made that respect the sanctity of life and show love to my neighbor? In other words, what actions do I need to take that will demonstrate that I am living out the prayer, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven?” We are not going to get it perfectly right. We will fail. But the good news is that Jesus has come to meet us in the gaps, the gap between what we know is right and not living up to it. Jesus has come to meet us in the gap between our failures and God’s desire for our life. Amen.
Next week we will discuss how Jesus is in the business of redeeming failures.
(Sermon preached at Gainesville First United Methodist Church)
[i] Isaiah 58:6-7
[i] Mark 14:37-38
[i] Exodus 34:28
[ii] I Kings 19:8
[iii] Matthew 4:1-11