A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church – Atlanta
February 21, 2007
Ash Wednesday - Year C
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Each morning at six o’clock my alarm goes off. We all know the routine. I reach over and hit the snooze button. I may go ahead, turn it off and get up or more likely lay there and doze off for it to sound again; hit it again and eventually get up. Now, sometimes I am already awake before the alarm goes off. But the alarm is important; it let’s me know it is time to get up, get ready, eat breakfast, feed the cats, get to the gym and on to the office by 8:30 ready for work. The alarm is an important reminder – not to ignore it or panic from it – but to be reminded that it is time, it is time to wake up.
Today on this Ash Wednesday in the cycle of the Liturgical year the alarm goes off once again: “Blow the trumpet in Zion” says the prophet Joel in our first lesson, “Sound the alarm on my holy mountain… Even now says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.” “The day of the Lord is coming.”
Each year we come to this place where we are reminded to wake up, where the alarm is sounded, “Even now says the Lord, return to me with all your heart.”
It is hard to believe that we are already here – Ash Wednesday – Lent, a season of prayer, fasting and self-denial. It seems like we have hardly had a chance to rest, to catch our breath since the feasting and celebration of Christmas. But it is here, the alarm has sounded, to wake us from our sleep. And I know I need the reminder, the alarm to wake up, to rend my heart and not my clothing, to examine what I treasure and where my heart is.
In a moment we will be invited to the observance of a holy Lent. We will be reminded that the early Christians used this time, these forty days, to prepare for Easter with penitence and fasting, to prepare those who were to be baptized, and to bring back to the church those who had fallen away. And through it all the whole congregation would be reminded of the need for repentance and transformation. We will be invited to the observance of a holy Lent by concrete measures – by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. We will be invited to be deliberate in using this time in looking in at ourselves about what is not consistent with what and who God calls us to be and to change, to allow ourselves to be transformed by God’s grace. To be deliberate in setting side time for our ongoing conversation (with or without words) with God. To be deliberate in paring down enough of food and drink and things in our lives to be able to wake up – to be led by the Spirit into the desert, into the wilderness – and to hear what God might be saying to us, what God might be doing in us, what God might be calling us to do and to be. To be reminded that I am flesh – remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return – to be reminded that I am mortal, that this mortal flesh does not stretch on forever. Where and how can I clean house, sweep out the cobwebs and pay attention to the important things?
One of the things I have sometimes done to mark the beginning of Lent is to clean out the refrigerator. I say that because it sometimes seems like a reflection of my life. It just collects things over a period of time, that aren’t used anymore, won’t be and just take up space. Clean out all those little bits of things that I used once and will probably never use again or it’s grown old and moldy or whose expiration date is long past. Clean it out. Wipe down the shelves, the drawers. Clean it all out, down to what is needed and consistently used. Give space for something new to happen.
What needs to be cleaned out in our lives? What areas do we need to attend to? What thing do I feed in my life, give energy to, that keeps me from being in the place in my heart and soul and mind and body that I know and I want to be in? Where have I drugged myself, numbed myself with illusions, busy-ness, desires of the culture, of the world that keep me from seeing clearly? What injustice or slight against me do I carry and nurse that has grown heavy, burdensome and robs me of joy? In what person or persons have I refused to seek and serve Christ? To what and to whom have I hardened my heart, steeled myself against, who needs the love of God in Christ that I could offer but don’t?
There is a story of the desert fathers where Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said: Abba, as much as I am able I practice a small rule, a little fasting, some prayer and meditation, and remain quiet, and as much as possible I keep my thoughts clean. What else should I do? Then the old man stood up and stretched out his hands toward heaven, and his fingers became like ten torches of flame. And he said: If you wish, you can become all flame.
For what do you wish? What are you looking for? A little fasting? Some prayer? A little Lenten practice? Do you wish to become all flame? Do you want to wake up? Where is your treasure? Where is your heart?
On Monday, the report from the Primates’ Meeting in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania was published. Some of you may have read it in detail, others of you may not have heard of it at all. But I feel the need to mention it as we enter this season of Lent and to ask you to keep it and the process in your prayers. Most of the meeting and the report dealt with the requests of the Windsor Report of 2004. On clarifying the response to Windsor the Primates requests that the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church by September 30, 2007 make an unequivocal common covenant that the bishops will not authorize any Rite of Blessing for same-sex unions in their dioceses or through General Convention and confirm that a candidate for Episcopal orders living in a same-sex union shall not receive the necessary consent unless some new consensus on these matters emerges across the Communion. Our bishop has responded by saying “I caution everyone not to assume that our initial reactions are going to be helpful for the long haul. Only after time passes and conversations continue will the meaning of the document for our life together begin to come more precisely into focus.” Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has issued her statement from the meeting, calling for a “Season of Fasting,” She writes: “While those who seek full inclusion for gay and lesbian Christians, and the equal valuing of their gifts for ministry, do so out of an undeniable passion for justice, others seek a fidelity to the tradition that cannot understand or countenance the violation of what that tradition says about sexual ethics. Each is being asked to forbear for a season.”
It is difficult for me for it not to feel like the burden is placed upon gay and lesbian persons once more to be silent.
We do need to pray for the communion and for unity and how we will be church together but I must add that I cannot ask you to “fast” this Lent from justice, to “fast” from speaking truth, to “fast” being the people of God who we believe God is calling us to be. The sacrifice we are called to is to take up our cross and follow, to speak truth to power, to lose our lives for the sake of the gospel; never to sacrifice others to appease power.
Bishop Andrus of California issued this statement in response to the meeting: “The inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the full life of the Church is a matter of justice: as we are all part of the world, and the kindom of God is like a net laid over that same world. All on the earth are connected by this net, whether perceived or not. Actions of justice and injustice reverberate throughout the whole, promoting either integrity, remembering, and shalom, or diabolic isolation. Our task in the church is not actually to include or exclude anyone but to show forth an intrinsic co-inherence that simply is, created and sustained by God.”
This Lent is an opportunity not to beat ourselves up or to practice our piety before others in order to be seen by them but the opportunity to see things differently and live differently and be transformed, to become all flame, knowing that the last word for us is not our own failed efforts or the failed efforts of religious institutions but the incredible love and grace of God forever calling us to God’s own self and making possible the transformation to the divine life we are intended.
 Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers, Yushi Nomura, Image Books, New York, 1984, p. 90.
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