March 6th, 2019 Ash Wednesday
March 6, 2019
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
The Ash Wednesday liturgy, and the following season of Lent, calls us to pay attention to two categories of our existence that most of us try very, veryhard to ignore, that is our hypocrisy and our mortality. The human condition is tragic. It’s not all bad, far from it, actually. In the very truest sense, we spend our lives immersed in God’s love, surrounded by the rest of God’s creation, which is also bathed in the radiance of divine love. That is good, very good. The tragedy is that we don’t see it, and that the structures of human society encourage us (sometimes very intentionally) to not see the simple brilliance of everything. Our minds are clouded with thoughts of ourselves, and the tribes we gather round us and value over and above others equally loved by God. We feel lonely, broken, abandoned, depressed, anxious, scared, all the while the commonwealth of God is right here! And collectively!!! We might be sinners, but to destroy the world takes a committee. Moral man, Immoral society as Niebuhr put it. When we get together and collectivize, we maximize our combined effort and minimize our personal responsibility until no one is responsible for the evil of the whole. (That’s the purpose of a limited Liability corporation, to limit liability, limit responsibility and accountability). The tragedy is that as soon as we relax our grasp on the world as we want it to be and accept the world as it actually is, the commonwealth would be clear. Monkeys are trapped in India using a coconut shell tied to a stake and baited with rice. It has a hole drilled in it, just large enough for the monkey to fit their little hand in to. An open hand. When she grasps a handful of rice, it won’t fit our of the hole. She is stuck. The thought of letting go of the rice never crosses their minds. Such is our attachment to the world. It traps us.
This attachment is revealed in our hypocrisy. We are all hypocrites. We proclaim we are one way, we present particular facets of ourselves to the world, but on the inside, or in our hidden actions, we are something very different. Jesus was very suspicious of the pious and upright. The Ash Wednesday gospel is always this cautionary passage from St. Matthew. Jesus calls out the hypocrites who give alms in order to appear to be all the things alms giving implies, not to actually be those things. Same thing for those who pray to be seen praying and fast to be seen fasting rather than those who do these things for the practice’s sake, for the sake of their relationship with God and neighbor. Hypocrites!
Now being seen giving, praying and/or fasting isn’t our poison here. I haven’t had to counsel anyone that they are giving too extravagantly for the wrong reasons. But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t hypocritical. No, no, no… we are. Most of us want our government to take more responsibility for things such as the environment or the mental health and addiction crisis that is filling our streets with broken people unable to help themselves. Anyone thinking of putting a little extra in your tax payment this year to ensure government coffers are full enough to pay for things we believe in? Or even pass up deductions we “deserve”? Or pass up earnings from the securities of corporations who do evil in the world? Or maybe you are a delight at work and church but are mean at home? Or drunk a lot? Here’s one of mine… with Windy working at Egan, her ability to homeschool is in question. So we are trying to figure out if my salary as a priest and her salary as director of a homeless shelter system will allow us to pay for private school for our daughters. Ouch.
Our hypocricy is tragic because we are loved as we are. We don’t need to act as if we are loveable, as if we need to do anything to be loved. By grace we are loved, we are capable of perfect right relationship with everything, that is our default. It is so much of what we do that is the deviation. In Lent, we have the opportunity, we are invited, we are encouraged to examine our lives, to contemplate how you measure up to the ideal Christ presents to us. This is not an invitation to guilt or shame, but for repentance and amendment of life. None of us measure up. AND all of us are forgiven of this when we repent, when we try to turn it around. We’re all hypocrites to some degree. This is a season to work on that.
As Lent highlights our attachment to the world through our hypocrisy, it also highlights through how we deal (or don’t deal) with our mortality. We are going to die. Death is not the end of the story, resurrection is, but death is the end of this chapter for all of us. The imposition of ashes, given with the words “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” is a stark reminder of this fact.
What does it mean to consider that you will die? To think that within a couple of generations maybe your name will be remembered? Maybe. I know my great grandparents names, well, one of them. What does it mean to contemplate that those who you leave behind will grieve, will be heartbroken, and will go on living. I was sitting with someone as they died a few years ago. The family was there. This death was not a tragedy, it was a natural movement, accepted by all. It was a stark moment as we occupied a thin space between the seen and unseen around that bed. It was a profound time. And it was just another Tuesday afternoon for everyone else. Cars passed by outside. Folks went to the grocery store, doctor’s appointments, went about their work routines. Not much changed in the big scheme of things on that day, and it was monumental in the lives of all of us around that bed.
We are each inconsequential in the big scheme of things. A mote of dust, immeasurable in the scope of the universe. And we are integral to the fabric of existence. Though our passing is barely noticed by the world, God weeps with those who weep for us. God’s arms are opened for those who mourn. God’s love remains unwavering, unchanged even as we change from glory into glory. Would your life be different if you believed that? What would it look like if you loosened your grip, if even just a bit?
Life is not always as we might have it; if it were up to us. But it is not up to us, the big things: when we are born and to whom, whom we bring into the world, when we die and how. None of that is up to us. If we put our stock in false realities, in the world as we would have it, not as it actually is, if that is what we treasure… that is what we get. If we treasure a fantasy, our reward is an unreality. If we resist the natural progression of life, we will cling desperately to it, a struggle miserably in resisting the course of nature, or God’s will. If we resist seeing who we actually are, continuously refusing to examine the contents of our hearts and the quality of our characters, we will continue to cling to a false vision of the self. That false self will get us to try to be what we want to be rather than be what we actually are, and our lives will be dissonant in our hypocrisy. Let’s not do that, ok?
Lent is a time to consider the facts and the mystery that is God that undergirds our existence and saves us. Saves you. Saves you from the abyss that seems to loom, pressing in on all sides. So you, yes you are invited to the observance to a holy Lent by God and God’s church. “…by self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy word.” Welcome to another Lent. It is dark out there, and there is a light. Come towards it. AMEN.