An Ash Wednesday sermon preached by the Rev. Kit Lonergan on February 22, 2012
Christ Church Andover
February 22, 2012
Ash Wednesday Readings
A few years back, my now-fiancé Chris and I went to visit his family in Ohio on the way to a friend’s wedding. We stopped in Columbus, Ohio for a few days to spend time with his brother and sister in law, and Chris’ other favorite person in the world, his nephew Grady. Grady was about a year and a half old, starting to gain traction on words and meanings. He would yell “bunn-nny!” and then point at the fence in their backyard, where, we guessed a bunny had come and gone. There were slow bits of other words too that we heard, or thought we heard. We tried to teach him a few, but if they weren’t directly involved with animals or the family dog, he quickly lost interest.
On our last day with Grady, he and Chris were playing with toys out on the lawn. Chris grabbed a toy and hugged it to himself, shouting “It’s mine! You can’t have it!” At the moment that Grady’s eyes lit up with a new word, his parents shot Chris the ‘don’t say it again’ look. “Mine!” Chris shouted, not seeing them. “Mine!” Grady echoed. “Mineminemineminemine!”
We had spent hours trying out new words, but the only which stuck was the word “mine”. We left Columbus having spent the remainder of the visit using the word ‘share’ and ‘ours’ as many times as we could, but it was of no use. Grady puttered around pointing at things and claiming them ‘mine’ with glee.
It seemed preternaturally easy for a child to pick up the word and sentiment of the word “mine” so quickly and so addictively. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at that engagement of ownership even at such a young age. As people older than toddlers, we all of us here find that we too are enamored with the word and concept of ‘mine’—that we are the owners, controllers, creators even, of the world around us. We fall into believing that all around us is ours—for the taking, using, destroying, manipulating and so forth, even if it is done with the best of intentions. We believe that we are our own, that our lives are ours for the creating and making and dictating. That we are the ones to care for first; that we are a bootstrap people, made on our own, made in our own image, made for our own success and pleasure.
And then today, we are reminded, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Ash Wednesday is the day when we are reminded that we have been created from the dust of the earth, brought to life by the breath of God coursing through us. Dust, created from the earth, created by a Creator God out of God’s abundant love and joy in sharing God’s own power. Dust, scooped up and brought close to the Holy One, to be face to face with God, to indeed have been closer to the Creator than we have ever been before. Breathed into with the breath of abundance, the breath of creativity, the breath of life and love. Inanimate until endowed with the same Spirit of God, shared graciously, fully.
There is no ownership of our own to claim in that event. And Lent is here to remind us of that.
We are God’s own, but we forget it. We rebel in our own overt or passive aggressive ways. We find ourselves too important, too necessary to remember from whence we came, and from the One who created us.
Lent is not about a second chance at already broken New Year’s resolutions. Those, too, are about our own needs and improving ourselves. They are ‘us’ oriented. They are ‘me’ oriented. Lent is about repentance—which literally means a turning around and moving the other way. This is our time as faithful, and less than faithful, Christians to turn around; to let go of the impulse to point at things, including ourselves, and yell ‘Mine!’ It is the chance to turn around, to turn towards God and point at ourselves and yell to God, ‘Yours!’
This season of Lent can often be tied up in guilt or in needless giving up of things—things which don’t take us away from God in the first place. Instead, we are challenged by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew today to give up the things which take God’s place. If something gets in our way, we are to acknowledge it and let it go. We are to ask forgiveness in ways we have never done before— a confession and forgiveness which help us to start that journey of looking carefully into our own hearts, into our own souls during this time, to discover just which gods we do worship. It might be our finances. It might be our need and desire for success only. It might be our addictions. It might be our inability to say no, or our reluctance to say yes. It might be our fear or our power which we wield over other people. Our idol god might be our busyness. It might be appearance. It might be comfort and routine. It might be avoidance of pain or change. It might be our fear of asking for help, or our hesitation of offer gratitude. It might be that we consume much and serve little. But it will inevitably be the thing which you look at with the most desire instead of God and deem ‘mine’.
Lent is not a time to give up the things you love. It is a time to recognize the things which strip you of the abundant life and promise of life which we were given when we were only dust in the hand of God. You alone will know what those things are. And Lent is not a test of holiness, it’s not about “keeping Lent” in order to keep it. It is not a race to be run with a prize at the end of the forty days and nights. Lent is a God-offered gift of wilderness time. It is a time when we are encouraged to examine ourselves because that is what journeys require. They require attention, and focus, and most of all, the ability to see where we have stepped wrongly; to reorient ourselves to our hoped-for destination, and to take stock of where we are. Lent is often seen as a punishment, but I can’t see it that way—Lent is a time of grace made known in forgiveness. We learn to confess, to apologize, to recognize, just as a child learns, when we have erred. And because we can repent and try again, we are offered the beauty of forgiveness and renewed Spirit by the God who first breathed life into our dusty frames.
Today, just as in baptism when you were marked as Christ’s own forever with the chrism, you will be marked as Christ’s own again, but in ashes. They are the sign of redeemed sinners. They are a sign that we have fallen short of our promises we made or made on our behalf at baptism, but the sign too that we wish to reclaim them. They are a sign that we are pilgrims on a journey—that success in Christ does not rest on our being perfect, but in our ability to return to God when we inevitably fail. They are a sign that ultimately, we belong to someone else; that we are not our own masters. That we are ultimately dust, animated by love, by promise, and by the inexhaustible font of hope that we will experience in the Resurrection at Easter.
So we are invited to this holy Lent. A time for wilderness. A time for confession. A time for repentance and re-orientation. But know this: just as Jesus was in the wilderness, tempted by Satan and surrounded by the wild animals, Jesus was also ministered to by the angels. Throughout this Lent, God is never absent. Because we sin does not mean that we are abandoned and forgotten. Because we are sinners, God is ever more praised by our ability to recognize that sin and make our free will choice to move in the other direction, towards God, towards reconciliation. Open yourself and your journey to God this season. Tell your creator, who knows more about you and your heart and your journey than you could ever fathom, all about your desire to return to God and the challenges you face in making that turn. And God will look at you, and love you, and claim you then as ‘mine’.