Thursday, February 14, 2013


Detail from the Lenten Array Frontal at All Souls by Davis D'ambly

A sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 13, 2013.  The lectionary readings are Joel 2:1-2,12-17,
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6,16-21, and Psalm 103.

Last night we gathered in the meditation garden to burn our leftover palms from last year’s Palm Sunday. The Church does this by what people sometimes call “ancient custom,” which really means, “No one can remember exactly when this started, but we have fun doing it, and so we think we’ll keep on doing it for a while.” And so, last night, we burnt our palms. We burned a lot of palms and a good supply of ashes was made. But it’s not so easy to burn palms. Once the fire dies down, the charred remains of the palms then need to be ground down. A mortar and pestle do the trick, but even then, it takes some elbow grease and some patience. Odd particles need to be picked out and thrown away.

It’s difficult to burn palms, to reduce them to ashes, but I think there’s a good Lenten symbol in that for us. Things can burn up, but they don’t easily vanish. Things can be ground down to almost nothing, but it takes a lot to pulverize them. And that’s why we need God.

It takes a lot to break things down to nothing, and this is especially true when we’re thinking about intangible things. Regrets, mistakes, memories, grudges, bad things done and good things left undone—all can seem to recede from memory, but it’s difficult to dissolve their residue. Sin persists. And though we may hear the words, we may see the priest make the sign of the cross, we taste the body and blood of Christ-- it’s sometimes difficult to actually feel forgiven.

But that’s just what we’re called to live toward—forgiveness, absolution from sin, resolution from wondering whether we’ve made the cut, freedom from worry. Salvation from sin.

We burned palms last night not to make the definitive ashes that would answer all our Ash Wednesday questions for this day and all time. But we burned ashes because we could, and because, joined with our prayers, our faith tells us that God sees what we do, and God understands what we hope and what we pray.

The Gospel today gives us some very practical words: Beware of practicing your piety before others. . . whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you. ..whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites . . . And whenever you fast, do not look dismal . . . Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth . . . All of these sayings remind us that the spiritual life is one that is to be lived into slowly, over time, as God calls us, step by step. Repentance doesn’t happen all at once; forgiveness doesn’t happen all at once. But there is time, which is the gift of life, and the gift of life evermore.

Every year about this time I re-read T.S. Eliot’s poem entitled Ash Wednesday. Each time I read it I understand it less, but in a way I think Eliot captures this dilemma of living between confession and absolution. Eliot writes

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks . . . .
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee.

A little like the Gospel, there is practical advice: sit still, to know the peace of God, pray to the Mother, the Father, our God all-loving. As we begin this season of preparation for the joy of Easter, may God grant us the vision of all our sins and regrets being burned to ashes, burned to ashes and blown away.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

No comments:


Subscribe in a reader

Religion Blogs - Blog Top Sites