February 14, 2018, Ash Wednesday YR B

Year B, Ash Wednesday
February 14, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was


“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Welcome to the observance of a holy Lent.  That line from St. Matthew’s Gospel. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” really sums it up.  From 2nd Corinthians, we hear about “being unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see – we are alive… as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”  Those are the fruits of having your heart and mind and body focused on those treasures in heaven.  To do that, though, to get our hearts and the rest of us pointed in the heavenly, eternal direction, we have a few housekeeping items in our earthly existence that we need to attend to. That is what Lent is all about.

Its right there in the BCP, on page 265 which we’re going to hear right after this homily.  We observe Lent “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”

That’s what we are supposed to do.  Examine ourselves, our situations, our human condition.  Repent, that is change the direction of our lives if our lives are askew.  Fast.  Pray.  Read Scripture.  Good churchy activities; hard to argue with or against.  But why is it important for us to do this each Lenten season?

We don’t make ourselves miserable for misery’s sake (you never need to go looking for suffering, it will show up on its own).  We don’t give up things or take them on for their own sake.  Yes, you maybe should lay off the sweets, the bottle, the screen, each other, whatever your special poison is, whatever pulls your attention from heavenly things to earthly ones, but any of those benefits are just a side effect, maybe healthy side effects, but just side effects.  All that we give up, all that we take on, it is not that they are good in and of themselves, it is what they do (or can do) to us.  And what is that?  Make us mindful.

The practices of Lent are practices of mindfulness.  Mindfulness is simply paying attention.  (As if there is anything simple about paying close attention).  We are bombarded with sensory inputs from outside of ourselves.  We are overflowing with thoughts, fantasies, ideas, images from within ourselves.  We have so much going on it is amazing that most of us can move a fork from our plate to our mouth without losing an eye, let alone living a life in right relationship with God in Christ in the deafening, blinding chaos that marks 21st century America!

Mindfulness is noticing.  It is paying attention.  It doesn’t usually mean active, directed focus of your attention or intention, but usually means not being distracted from what is most important, which is usually whatever is right in front of you in any given moment.  (And maybe being mindful, you might learn that the things in front of you are actually not important, not worthy of another single kcal your life’s energy.  A good thing to become mindful of).

All of the practices of the season: fasts, prayer, study, reading scripture… they are designed to remind you of where your treasures are stored, or where you want to start putting things up.  To remind you of what is most important.

So what are you doing for Lent?  What is going to help you be most mindful?  You are here.  That is a very good start!  Coming to all of our liturgies from now to Easter morning is an idea.  (You only need to choose one each Saturday/Sunday Feast of our Lord, God is reasonable).  I know a couple of people are giving up “high and luxurious beds” to sleep on the floor or a thin pad.  Someone is giving up caffeine (and is dreading it).  Memorizing the Mass, or portions of it: the Creed, the Collect for Purity.  We’re all giving up full text bulletins for the season. Someone had a new idea: emptying the larder.  Going through all your shelves and cabinets and either eating it all, figuring out what to do with that jar of kipper steaks you bought for some un-remembered reason, or giving away what you can’t or won’t use.  That is a good one.  Food occupies a lot of space in a lot of our lives.  We’re using the Lent poster to read the Gospel of St. Luke over the course of the season.  That is a good one for the whole family to participate in.  Anyone have any other good ideas?

Many of our practices work because they give us opportunities to remember what we are doing in real time.  So you are giving up coffee.  Or are getting up early to do yoga or getting yourself to church every Sunday in Lent.  When you feel that urge to stop at the café and pick up a quick cup of coffee, or you want to hit the snooze button rather than pull on your yoga pants, or you really, really would rather finish the paper than get dressed and drag yourself all the way to 39th and Hilyard: when you feel that pull, that urge, and you stick with your practice, what is happening? It is that very itch, that urge, that resistance to doing what you agreed to do, that is the feeling of mindfulness, that is the opportunity to remember God when so much else in our world wants you to think about anything besides that.  The pang of denial is the call to remember God.  That is some powerful medicine for those of us residing in this sin-sick world.

A few practical practice tips.  Only you know what is best for you, what will help you the most.  Be honest with yourself.  At the same time, some of our practices will obviously have impact on our families or those we live with.  A fast on setting the thermostat at 60 needs to be a household conversation. Like Jesus says, don’t take pride in your observance; it might just be best to keep it to yourself as much as possible.

If you haven’t figured a practice out it is not too late!  Don’t throw out the whole 40 days of practice opportunity just because you got off to a late start.  That is a common pitfall of spiritual practice.

The same goes with lapses.  When you lapse, which we all do, fine.  Or when you forget that you gave up coffee until reaching last sip of that vanilla double soy latte, don’t feel bad, don’t give up the fast as a failure, just notice it.  Notice why.  Notice how you felt as you ate that chocolate, or drank that glass of wine.  Notice it and get back on the path.  Being pure is not the point; moving towards purity is.

A final note.  In Lent we are called to repent, to change the direction of our lives.  Taking Lent to give up smoking or drinking or pornography or whatever addiction or potential addiction that threatens you is a fine idea and is the definition of repentance. I myself stopped drinking on Ash Wednesday four years ago.  The momentum of the communion of saints, that cloud of witnesses that are particularly visible this time of year helped me get through those first 40 days and strengthened me to keep that up for these past years.  And it is a good way to “try on” not doing whatever it is that you don’t want to be doing.  “You don’t want a beer?”  “Oh you know, Lent…”  you can reply.  You might just find that it is easier to say no than you think, but the force of 2000 years of tradition behind you can’t hurt.

Lent is the time for us to remember who and what we are.  Dust, yes; insignificant, inconsequential, utterly.  And just as utterly the beloved of God, the Ultimate Reality that brought all reality into being also knows every hair on your head.  And loves you.  Ahhh… that is so easy to forget.  May this holy Lent remind you of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  AMEN.