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Sweep It
A sermon preached by the Rev. Kit Lonergan on Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Christ Church Andover
Ash Wednesday, Year A
March 5, 2014

Click for the readings for Ash Wednesday.

It feels as though I have gone through several incarnations of Lenten observances in my lifetime. There were the years when I would give things up for Lent—often I would give up dessert or candy; I gave up soda for a few years; later I would give up coffee and television. One particular year in college, I gave up cheese. It was that year when my best friend remarked that even though she was Jewish, she was pretty sure that Lent was not a ‘diet for Jesus’. That was the last year of giving things up for a while.

Some years I would take on certain spiritual practices. There were years of trying out mindfully eating, using that experience as a meditation. I took on saying grace before meals another year. I tried out a Lenten period of not consuming—that is, I wouldn’t purchase anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary.

Last year during Lent, I was in my first trimester of pregnancy, and I spent my entire Lent trying to hide it from people as well as live into that new reality at the same time.

This year, my practice is not as straightforward, and I have Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury to blame (or thank for it). Because this is what he says about Lent:

It's important to remember that the word 'Lent' itself comes from the old English word for 'spring'. It's not about feeling gloomy for forty days; it's not about making yourself miserable for forty days; it's not even about giving things up for forty days. Lent is springtime. It's preparing for that great climax of springtime which is Easter - new life bursting through death. And as we prepare ourselves for Easter during these days, by prayer and by self-denial, what motivates us and what fills the horizon is not self-denial as an end in itself but trying to sweep and clean the room of our own minds and hearts so that the new life really may have room to come in and take over and transform us at Easter.

“To sweep and clean the room of our minds and hearts so that the new life really may have room to come in and take over and transform us at Easter.” When Williams says things like this, it almost makes me want to go back to giving up coffee for the next forty days. But ultimately, he is right. Lent is about noticing what is getting in the way of our relationship with God and putting those things aside, first temporarily for these forty days, and then hopefully for good over time. Imagine sweeping clean the rooms of our minds and hearts. Imagine it! There are places we don’t want to look, to peer into, cobwebs and dust that we have spent good, long time trying to hide, stacks of things hidden away that we hold onto, just because. What would you find if you were to sweep and clean the room of your mind and heart? What hidden treasures would you recall, perhaps redeem, from the dark corners? What things do you not need any longer, which no longer serve you, which, perhaps, even hold you back or weigh you down? What gets in the way of loving and living in the full realization that we are beloved of God and yet regularly ignore that love, that redemption, that grace and that forgiveness which is the hallmark of our faith?

Today we remind ourselves as a faith community that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Ash Wednesday is our visceral reminder that we are finite creatures; we are born, and we, at some point, will die. It is a day to confront and consider, prayerfully, our mortality, and Lent is the time we are given to process how we wish to proceed in light of that knowledge. What is of ultimate value? What is of ultimate importance? How can we pare down all that we turn to to distract us from this certainty?

In January, there was a poignant piece in the New York Times Sunday Review by a 36-year-old oncologist, who had just himself been given a diagnosis of terminal cancer. In his piece, he tells of how his patients, and now him, could become obsessed with statistics and the age old question, ‘How long do I have?’ He writes,

The path forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d just spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d have a plan (write that book). Give me 10 years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The pedestrian truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day? My oncologist would say only: “I can’t tell you a time. You’ve got to find what matters most to you.”

I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.

Our reading in Joel reminds us: “Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…” Today is the day when we are reminded in ashes that we will die. And today is the day when we recall that it is only through death that things live and grow and become once more. When Williams reminds us that we too could use a cleansing, a sweeping clean and clear of our hearts, he reminds us that facing our mortality is unsettling, but as in the Times piece, there is no other way to live. We search for life bursting through the fog of death. We clear out the brush, the dead branches and leaves to make way for the new. We enable ourselves to listen to God without the stuff of distraction in our way. And by cleaning it all out, we actually allow ourselves to experience, to enjoy, to bask in a life freed from the weight of sin, and grounded in love.

So I invite you this Holy Lent, take out your brooms, take out your mops, your cleaning cloths, your sponges, our swiffers or whatever else you have at the ready, and sweep. I invite you to sweep away.


Last Published: March 12, 2014 1:20 PM