Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday, 2014: An invitation to "greening"

Lectionary: Joel 2:1-2,12-17; Psalm 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

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

Welcome to our church and to the season of Lent - my very favorite liturgical season. I’m going to begin by telling you a story about my dear departed dog, Ollie.
Ollie was a mixed breed dog, and it wasn’t a good mix.

I loved loving Ollie, but he had quirks which sometimes made loving him a bit… challenging. Ollie wasn’t a very smart dog, for one thing, and he got in trouble a lot, because he also was not a very good dog. When Ollie got in trouble he was put in time out, which meant he had to go to his crate for a period of time (that was his punishment), then he could come out.

Over time, when Ollie did a bad thing he just went ahead and put himself in time out he knew the drill. So we’d come home from someplace and Ollie would put himself in time out and we’d look around to see what he’d done. As time went on, Ollie would put himself in time out and walk right out again. He knew we’d forgive him, so he didn’t bother spending any real time in time out he just got it over with.

I tell you this story, because that’s how so many of us treat Lent. But that isn’t what Lent is about. We aren’t putting ourselves in a perfunctory time-out only to emerge knowing we’re forgiven, then go on as usual.

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

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. There I said it, we practice Lent so that we can be changed by God.

The word “Lent” means spring and the season of Lent is a short, finite bit of time we set aside to allow new life to be formed in us. Our 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 – our souls and bodies, which will receive the seeds of this new life.

Medieval mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, talks about the “greening” of our souls which is, I think, a good image for our discussion of what Lent is and isn’t. I picture Hildegard’s concept like this: we go about our lives basically unaware that the demands and influences of the world cause the soil of our souls to slowly but steadily dry up. The soil of our soul 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 moisten ourselves. There is almost a desperateness in this moment of revelation, a deep knowledge that without moistening, 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 the Creator reach into the soil of our souls, breaking through the dry surface, to the moister soil beneath. 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) that have entered into us.

Then when the Creator is satisfied that the soil of our soul is ready, those great hands of Love moisten our soil from the well-spring of life, Jesus the Christ. Then God kneads the soil some more, and kneads and kneads it, ensuring the life-giving water reaches and moistens all the dry parts. This nourishing divine massage is transforming and we are changed from dry dirt to nutrient rich soil. Into this soil the Creator places the seeds of new life for us, sweeps the surface of the soil smooth, sprinkles on a bit more life-producing 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, the voice of our Creator who gently awakens 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 live a new day. It is an invitation to let go of the old day, the old ways… it is an invitation to change.

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.

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 making a bit of a sacrifice.

That’s why, when we give alms during Lent, we are consenting 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 acting to answer their cry for help. Sacrificing our comfort during Lent we make time and find real ways to draw near and welcome their story into our awareness and them into our lives.

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 Almighty 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 just go through the motion of a Lenten time-out. Let’s go deeply, faithfully, fully into the dust and invite God to work the miracle of greening our souls. Amen.

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