March 5, 2017: May God’s words alone be spoken, may God’s words alone be heard. Amen.
The day before Ash Wednesday, ENS (Episcopal News Service) posted a story about a group called Parity, who decided to mix glitter with the ashes – introducing what they called Glitter Ash Wednesday. They didn’t give them to everyone, it was your choice to receive them or not. The idea, according to their website, was to show support for LGBT people. While there were some who thought it a neat idea, needless to say, the backlash by most was fierce – and much of that from LGBT people. I have to say that as one who openly, and strongly, advocates for LGBT justice from this pulpit, I was one of those people, even though I happen to know the person behind the glitter. As one comment to the article read “As a gay man, a Christian, and an increasingly annoyed Episcopalian, let me state clearly: This is the worse idea I’ve heard in a very long time.” I have to agree – not only because of the glitter itself, which I believe misses the point of the sacrament, but that there are now some with, and some without. Since this is “Read Across America” week, which occurs near Dr. Suess’s birthday, think of the glitter ashes as being a bit like the starbellied Sneeches and the plainbelly Sneeches.
The reason I am bringing this up now, even though we are past Ash Wednesday, is that we are now on the first Sunday of Lent. And after seeing this whole thing spring up, and folks battling it back and forth, it got me to thinking that perhaps, in our effort to want to be forward thinking and justice minded, we have gotten a bit off track. You see, as I say every year on Ash Wednesday, the ashes themselves are already a mark of justice – they are the great equalizer – everyone gets the same mark – that is part of the point. So the idea is that it isn’t pretty, but a symbol of mortality.
You see, we begin Lent with a stark reminder that in this life, no matter if we are rich or poor, gay or straight, no matter our race, our culture, where we live, or where we came from – one thing is certain – we are born, we will live, and we will die. Or, as we all have heard said…we can only be sure of only two things in life – death and taxes. The ashes we receive on our foreheads are not meant to be a sign to anyone but ourselves – a reminder of our own mortality – our mutual need to be sure to do something with that time between our birth and our death as best we can.
You see, that is why those ashes, those bleak and dark ashes on our forehead, are such a powerful symbol all on their own, because they remind us that death will come – “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And in Lent, we face this mortality together as we walk with Jesus to Jerusalem, to the cross. In Lent, we quiet down, become intentional in practice and devotion, and we do something we usually don’t do.
For some it’s that giving up of something enjoyable, as a way to understand what is really important. For others it is taking on a practice – perhaps of charity, or good works, or advocacy for a cause. Whatever it may be, it is our mindfulness time, when we come home, when we return to God, from wherever we may have wandered – intentionally or not.
And the church does somethings they usually do not do. So, you may have noticed, on this first Sunday of Lent, that we began with the Great Litany, chanted in procession – or as some might call it – the world’s longest church parade. But it doesn’t stop there – we see even more changes in the liturgy and in the church itself. Gone is the singing of the Gloria, gone are the flowers, the silver and gold chalices, candlesticks and other Holy Hardware, and the use of that A-word we sang so loudly just last Sunday. Like the ashes we receive on Ash Wednesday, this service, and all the services in Lent are markedly stark and not business as usual. And that is because, as we walk to Jerusalem with Jesus – we are entering into our wilderness time – a time when, if we are intentional about it, we can strip away the distractions around us, to get to something, something so important, something so needed for us and for the world… to really come to know who we are, who God is, and what we are to do with that time between our birth and our death other than just pay taxes.
You see, Lent is about relationship – relationship with ourselves, with one another, and most especially, with God. Maybe that is why some folks find Lent difficult. With everything stripped away, the silence of the starkness can be deafening – there is nothing to distract us from ourselves – and that can be a difficult path to walk for some. Maybe that is why we hold on so tightly to all the gadgets that fill our world with sight, sound, and interruptions. But everyone needs Lent, even if we don’t realize it…even Jesus needed it.
In the gospel, we hear the story of Jesus in the desert, a place he was led by the Holy Spirit after his baptism, a place where, after a long while, he began to discern what this life he was to lead was about – who he was…and it was that knowledge that led to what we hear about – the tests or temptations. And this gospel narrative always reminds me of another story.
You see, there is a Tibetan story that tells of a meditation student who, while meditating in his room, believed he saw a spider descending in front of him. Each day the menacing creature returned, growing larger and larger each time. So frightened was the student, that he went to his teacher to report his dilemma. He said he planned to place a knife in his lap during meditation, so when the spider appeared he would kill it. The teacher advised him against this plan. Instead, he suggested, bring a piece of chalk to meditation, and when the spider appeared, mark an “X” on its belly. Then report back. The student returned to his meditation. When the spider again appeared, he resisted the urge to attack it, and instead did just what the master suggested. When he later reported back to the master, the teacher told him to lift up his shirt and look at his own belly. There was the “X”.
You see, meditation, like the desert, strips us down to our bare naked selves, and it is then when we can begin to really come to understand who we are…and it can scare the crap out of us. In the case of Jesus, as I have said before there may not have been any tester, or devil character at all, but something far more frightening than any of that…Jesus himself.
See, stripped away from everything, he began to see who he really was – laid bare of expectations, disciples, family…and even food, Jesus realized his real nature, his divine nature, and the power that he had.
And power can indeed corrupt absolutely.
There was an interview this week with former President George W. Bush, in which he was asked about his views on an independent press, and he said “I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy…we need the media to hold people like me to account. I mean, power can be very addictive and it can be corrosive and it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power, whether it be here or elsewhere.”
And so, in this desert experience, Jesus had to face his own demons – he needed to do this – because once his ministry got underway, those voices would return – he had to understand who he was, God’s child – called to love and serve – to be centered, grounded in that fully human side – before the distractions of what would be his very busy life – a life in which some would want to worship him and others would fear him – would encircle him and tempt him again.
“Or, as the theologian Karl Rahner put it, “In this desert of solitary prayer, Jesus is tempted. If we look more closely at these three temptations…we see that in all three the devil seized on the apparent discrepancy between what Jesus knew about himself and what he was so immediately experiencing. Jesus knew that he was the Son of God. On this the devil – however we are to conceive him – fastened. If you are the Son of God, he says, then you should not be hungry, you should not be unheeded, you should not be powerless…. And what does Jesus do? He once again abandons, so to speak, his awareness of his divinity and takes his place on the side of the poor, the abandoned, and the weak.”
And what then does all this mean for us?
Lent is our desert time.
Lent is when we are given that opportunity to strip away and to see for ourselves the nakedness of our identity – to come to see who we really are – and the power that is there – to confront it – to see the spider – to stand up to the tester – to know who we are – beloved children of God called to love and serve.
Now, some may wonder how being loved by God, being God’s beloved child, called to do good work in the world – how that could possibly be scary, or a thing that we might run away from. Perhaps we wouldn’t. But look what the narrative from Genesis is telling us.
In the story of Adam and Even and God in the Garden, once they come to eat of the tree of knowledge, once they realize who they really are – they realize just how naked it makes them in the world. And that scares them. They can’t just blissfully walk around the garden anymore – they know the power they have being made in the image of God, and as a result they try to hide from it, and from God.
In the past, and still true for some today, this is called the fall, but most scholars interpret this metaphorical narrative as being the moment when our relationship with God changed for the better. In “A Rabbi Reads The Bible,” Jonathan Magonet posits that the Fall may have been more a Push, and inevitable growing up into a different relationship – and that can be one that will frighten us – being outside the shelter of the garden. And “Perhaps,” as he says “it is the fear of that freedom that has led human beings so often to impose their own chains, often religious chains, upon themselves and others, rather than face the […] demands such a challenge imposes.”
Or, put it another way…how many of you have had THAT dream…or nightmare really…you know, the one where you are walking down the street, or perhaps presenting at a conference, or whatever – some public thing – and then you realize…you are buck naked. Ever had that dream? Oh come on…of course you have…well, anyway – I have.
They say it is about whatever insecurity is plaguing your weary mind as you sleep, which causes you to be stripped – quite literally – of all that protects you. Now when we wake up, we realize it was only a dream…I certainly hope so anyway. The fantastical part of it isn’t real – but the rest is still there.
And yet, the paradox of all of these things – the gospel narrative, the story in the garden of Eden, the story of the meditation student – is that if we only would come to know ourselves a bit better, to confront our nakedness if you will, we will be able to leave the proverbial garden we use for protection, leave the desert of fitful dreams, and see that it was our very identity that we feared most. Staring it squarely, understanding our identity as children of God, made in God’s image, incredibly powerful people who are called to model Christ in the most powerful way possible – by loving and serving others – grounding ourselves in this identity and not running from it – it is then that we truly begin to live the life we were born to live. Think about that – you are each made in God’s image! Take a moment and say “I am made in God’s image.”
No, this is not the time for glitter in our ashes, because glitter is a distraction, a cover of what is real, and now is the time we need most to be our naked, dusty selves. Now is the time for to see ourselves for who we are – children of God, made in God’s image – powerful creatures who can do miraculous things, if, and only if, we understand our nature, and stay grounded in our identity. Because if we don’t, there is far more harm that can happen in the world than whether or not we are found marching down 5th avenue without a pair of pants.
Lent can be for us, if we let it, an incredibly life changing experience – for us, and for the world. I pray we live intentionally into it, for we have but one opportunity to be what we were formed from dust to be, before we return to what we once were. Or in the words of Henri Frederic Amiel, which is often used as a benediction, “Life is short, and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us. Oh be swift to love, make haste to be kind.”
On Ash Wednesday, you were invited into a Holy Lent. I pray you accept the invitation. May you be blessed in all that you discover, in all that you become.
For the audio from the 10:30am service, click here:
 Karl Rahner 1904-1984 from the sermon for First Sunday in Lent (A) as quoted from The Great Church Year.