Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Ash Wednesday, 2019: Divinely massaged soul-soil

Lectionary: Joel 2:1-2,12-17; Psalm 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

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En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

I’m want to share a story with you about my dear departed dog, Ollie. Ollie died a few years ago at the young age of eight (8), after having caught and eaten a mouse that had eaten rat poison.

Ollie was a mixed breed - dachshund and Jack Russell terrier, and it wasn’t a very good mix. I loved Ollie, but he must have gotten the DNA bearing the most difficult qualities of each of those breeds, and it made him… challenging.

Ollie was not a very good dog and he was doxie enough to make training him difficult. So, Ollie found himself in trouble a lot. When Ollie got in trouble he was put in time out, which meant he had to go to his crate until he could relax. Ollie knew when he’d done a bad thing, so he rarely disobeyed when he heard the command: “Ollie, go to time out.”

Over time, when he’d done a bad thing, Ollie just went ahead and put himself in time out. He knew the drill. When we’d come home from being out, sometimes Ollie was already marching himself to time out and we’d immediately look around to see what he’d done.

Eventually, Ollie would put himself in time out and walk right out again. He wasn’t really repentant and knew we’d forgive him anyway, so he didn’t bother spending any real time in time out. He just got the procedure over with.

I tell you this story because that’s how so many people I talk to treat Lent. But that isn’t what Lent is about. Lent isn’t just going through the motions of a perfunctory time-out without really repenting.

So what is Lent about? Well, let me start by saying what I always say: we don’t do Lent, God does it in us.

When we practice Lent we are responding to God’s invitation to us with an invitation of our own. We are inviting God to bring about that most feared, oft-avoided reality: change. We practice Lent so that we can be changed by God.

The season of Lent is a short, finite bit of time we set aside to allow new life to be formed in us. Our traditional Lenten practices of prayer, abstinence, and almsgiving represent our invitation to God to not only plant the seeds of new life in us, but also to change the very nature of the soil, that is, ourselves.

Medieval mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, talks about the “greening” of our souls which is, I think, a good image for what Lent is. I picture Hildegard’s concept like this:

We go about our lives basically unaware that the demands and influences of the world have caused the soil of our souls to slowly but steadily dry up. Our soul-soil hardens and cracks like a dried up river bed in a drought.

When we practice Lent we enter into a period of self-examination that brings to our awareness just how dry we’ve become – a revelation which brings with it the realization that we are unable to irrigate ourselves. There is almost a desperateness in this moment of revelation, a deep knowledge that without this irrigation, our souls will completely dry up and turn to dust.

But our faith assures us that it is from the dust we were created in the first place. So we trust… and we wait… 40 days, and 40 nights.

At some point, the hands of our Creator reach into the soil of our souls, breaking through the dry surface. The Almighty kneads and kneads the soil of our souls removing any hardened bits in there (like anger, judgment, hatred of self or other) and other miscellaneous trash (such as addictions, a hunger for power, elitism). Then our Creator moistens our soul-soil from the well-spring of life, Jesus the Christ, and God kneads the soil some more ensuring that the nutrient-rich, life-giving water reaches all the dry parts.

Into this divinely massaged soul-soil the Creator places the seeds of new life for us, sweeps the surface of the soil smooth, sprinkles on a bit more life-giving water, and asks us to wait while the seeds within us take root and grow.

This is Lent.

When we are ready to offer our invitation to God, the traditional practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving offer deeply meaningful as well as tried and true ways for us to practice a holy Lent. When we make time to pray during Lent, we are responding to the Holy Spirit who is already calling to us, gently awakening us from our world-induced sleep. By our prayer, we consent to open our eyes and see the face of Love looking back at us, inviting us to let go of the old day, the old ways, and live into the new life God is planting in us.

When we fast during Lent, we are actually and symbolically emptying ourselves of all that already fills us, including the need to be full and satisfied. When our stomach is empty, it cries out to us to fill it. Most of us here have the privilege of knowing that we can eat, and so we can choose not to eat for just long enough (which is what 40 days means) so that we experience emptiness in our bodies and in our souls. (Note: if you're taking meds or have diabetes or something else that prevents fasting - don't! It isn't about that, and you don't get demerits or score any points for fasting).

Only when we have emptied ourselves can we be filled by God.

Fasting also provides a way for us to experience solidarity with those who truly hunger. When we remember how real and compelling hunger is, we are moved by compassion to do something to relieve it – even if it means we must sacrifice our comfort to do so.

Which leads to the practice of almsgiving, which represents our consent to intentionally enter into a new relationship with the poor. Within each of us is the capacity to judge, blame, and avoid those who are needy or suffering. This protects our comfort and relieves us from responding to answer their cry for help. Giving money to the poor or food to hungry enables us to welcome their story into our awareness and them into our lives in a real and sacrificial way.

In a few moments, we will remember both the limits of our mortality and the limitlessness of God’s love by marking the sign of our salvation - the cross of Christ - on our foreheads with the dust of ashes, traditional symbols of repentance and humility before God. This action is our acknowledgment that God is as the Scripture says: full of compassion, slow to anger, and forgives our sins. God cares for us deeply, intimately, with a sacrificial love that knows no bounds.

So please, let’s don’t do Lent like Ollie - let's not just go through the motion of a Lenten time-out. Let’s go deeply, faithfully, fully into the dust of our souls and invite God to work the miracle of planting seeds of new life in us. Amen.

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