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Lent: A Different Kind of Feast: Ash Wednesday

Wednesday, March 6, 2019, 7:00 PM at Holy Trinity:
Isaiah 58:1-12
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Imagine having to pull off a huge birthday party. And this is good, it’s a joyful occasion… but you’ve gotta get everything ready. The guest list, the invites, booking the venue, decorating the place. Ordering the food, making the food. Allergies need to be taken into consideration. Eventually eating the food. A fancy cake from Dairy Queen. Maybe you have to organize a music list, or activities, a clown, or something. You have to write a speech, or you have to ask others to. The inevitably tear-jerking PowerPoint slideshow to the soundtrack of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” (I’ve never seen that before…) And you’re not sleeping at night because earlier you’d remembered something you’d forgotten… only to forget it, and now you’re trying to remember it… You worry and worry, about that, and about the whole thing.

Eventually, you get to the day of the party. You pick up the pick-ups, you receive the deliveries. You co-ordinate the people helping you out. The guests arrive, and everyone mingles, or dances. (The introverts’ heart rates are rising.) You’ve gotta be ‘on’ and wear a mostly fake smile. Against the wall there’s finger foods, the main course, the dessert, and for some — the bar. You survive the speeches. The slideshow has everyone weeping. It’s 1:30 in the morning and the guests finally clear out. (The introverts can relax.) And then an hour or so of tidying up.

Your head hits the pillow at 3:00 AM. After what feels like five minutes your alarm rings; it’s 7:00 o’clock, time to get up. And you have to do the same thing again. Today, and the next day, and the day after that. Like that Bill Murray movie.

Now, I’m not describing hell, don’t worry. But what I am describing… is life. And how it feels sometimes. Or a lot of the time. All of the planning, and worrying. Dealing with all the different people, and personalities, and histories. The shimmer and sparkle of the decorations, masking the blandness of the room. All the food — good food, bad food, too much food. But behind all of this, the overwhelming sense of it all falling on you.

So imagine the relief you feel when one day, your alarm wakes you up at 7:00, but just as you’re about to get ready for another burdensome day of planning, you get a call, and the voice on the other end of the line says that you don’t have to worry about the hall. You don’t have to worry about all the preparations, and all the stuff. No, this time around people have decided to meet on a few blankets on the grass in the park. And it’s a brown bag lunch. Meet there, bring a sandwich, go home, put your feet up.

This is kind of what the approach of Lent has felt like for me. Now, it can sound serious. It can seem glum. A peanut butter sandwich doesn’t compare to a fancy banquet. And banquets aren’t necessarily bad. But there is grace in this season of Lent. Because you can only have so many banquets in a row — especially if you’re the one planning them. All we really need is a sandwich. (And I think that’s a Biblical image, of people sitting together on the grass, sharing bread.)

So we have this season of Lent. And our Church very gently “invites” us — and maybe this is put more gently than it could be — but our Church invites us to observe a holy Lent “by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.” The Church isn’t saying that joyfulness, and fun, and food, and money are bad in themselves. As a matter of fact, these things can be good. But there exists this season of intentionality, where we might set some things aside, or make some changes to make sure that there’s balance in our lives, and we’re living in right relationship with our stuff, with other people, with God, and maybe most challenging of all, with ourselves. Lent is a time to return to the basics (that image of the peanut butter sandwich). A time, as Joel will say, to remember “our need for repentance, and for the mercy and forgiveness” at the core of our faith.

So it only makes sense that Lent begins on Ash Wednesday with the stark reminder that the ashes point us to: that we’re flawed and that we’re frail. That message isn’t going to win us any popularity awards. And it seems so strange that the Christian faith, with all our talk of everlasting life, and fullness of life, and “now and ever shall be,” that today, we come forward — willingly — to WEAR and to HEAR the message: “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

But I’d suggest that there’s even grace in that. Because when we hear and accept that message of our frailty and our flawed nature, we might start to open ourselves up to the reality that ‘resurrection’ isn’t about us keeping things together. There’s nothing natural in us that can effect it. It’s not a party that we can plan and pull off on our own. It’s not something we can worry or will into existence. Not if we take seriously those words “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Not if we take seriously Jesus’s weeping at the grave of his friend Lazarus. But that’s where there’s grace in this strange day of ours. We admit our mortality, and open ourselves up to the miracle of resurrection. It’s not something that just happens; it’s something that God, we believe, will make happen. It’s not our party to plan; it’s a gift that’s given to us through Jesus. He’s the host. (He’s the host at our meal, every Sunday; the priest leads the prayer, but it’s Jesus who hosts.)

So may tonight’s service, with the imposition of ashes; and this season, with whatever practice or discipline you feel called to observe — may it be an experience of grace for you. A return to the basics of your faith, and who you are. A lump of clay, yes. A pile of ashes, maybe. But dirt and ash that’s been moulded by God, and animated by God’s life-giving breath.

As St. Paul counselled: “As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing… as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”


© 2019 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter