Rev. Adrianne Meier
February 17, 2021, Ash Wednesday
St. Thomas Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana
A Glimpse at the Edges of Life
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Matthew 6:1-6, 16-2 NRSV, emended – [Jesus said to the disciples:] “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
The marketing guru Seth Godin once asked how we might treat the last generation on earth. What would we say to the youngest student in the school? Would we make excuses, refuse to invest in their education? Godin asks, “Would we let the last generation grow up in poverty, or would we do everything we could to ensure that this one last time, we did it right?” We so often tie this day, Ash Wednesday, in personal piety. Individually, we seek the ashes that blacken our forehead, each of us calling to mind our own frailty, our own mortality. But what if we considered the demise of our community, our country, our civilization? What would we keep because it is right – because it is exactly who we are? But what would we change? Confession is the first step in such a change.
Confession calls for an examination of conscience – one deep enough to recognize it isn’t just what we do that causes others pain, but often that which we neglect to do. Once examined, confession flowers into forgiveness and reconciliation, paths to possibility. We often act as if confession is only a rear-ward looking act whose purpose is to soothe our souls. In reality, it is forward-facing, a relational act, a participation in the coming kin- dom of God.
In our status-driven culture, confession doesn’t seem to hold much value. We much prefer a life lived without regret because “we are who we are” and “anyone who doesn’t like us can leave.” Confession doesn’t hold much value, because to confess means we were wrong and that we need to be forgiven. But, Lyman Lundeen, who taught at the seminary in Philadelphia in the 70s, once wrote, “We fight to justify ourselves and look to find someone to verify our status. Forgiveness offers another route. It takes guilt and loss seriously and opens up the future to new possibilities. Even if only one person forgives another, the power of change is far greater than all attempts at self-justification and mutual admiration. By taking loss or guilt seriously, forgiveness shares in the suffering of the other person, making risk bearable and the future hopeful.” Having no regrets means we either care very little for others or we never take any risks in relationships to others and our community. We can dig our heels in, shouting “no regrets” with our fingers in our ears, or we can confess our shortcomings, our failures, our neglect, and accept forgiveness. Confession gives us another way.
If we are to make a true confession, as we hope to in a few minutes, taking the time to examine ourselves is critical. Ignatius of Loyola taught his disciples to recall their previous day, to mentally walk through it, to look for where God was in the day. Horses that work in the city wear blinders, shields over their eyes that keep them from seeing behind them or to the sides, so they won’t be spooked by the busyness around them. Too often we walk through life like a horse with blinders, we are calm, but at the cost of being unaware and ambivalent to the world around us. Close your eyes for a moment and think about your morning commute – whether it is the hour drive into Indy or from coffee pot to newspaper at the kitchen table. What is on the periphery of your vision? What are you not noticing most of the time? Is it your kids whom you rush out the door? Is it decrepit buildings that are clearly places someone lives? Who harvests your coffee? Is that newspaper printed on virgin wood? Obviously, this is a path that can lead us to hopelessness. But that isn’t the point. Thomas Merton once said, “Only the [person] who has had to face despair is really convinced that he needs mercy. Those who do not want mercy never seek it. It is better to find God on the threshold of despair than to risk our lives in a complacency that has never felt the need of forgiveness. A life that is without problems may literally be more hopeless than one that always verges on despair.” In this case, our examen hopes to keep us in touch with the despair of the world, to decenter our thinking from ourselves. The point of examining your life isn’t to give into hopelessness, but to see how God works on the edges of life, giving hope in the midst of despair, forgiveness from failure, life from the midst of death.
So what if you took just one thing, one of these things you’re tempted to just pass right by without thinking, and took the time to make it the center of your thoughts? What if you were to take it on as your Lenten devotion? What would you need to give up in order to give this thing the attention it is due? How would you speak of it to God? What would you hope for? Now we are getting somewhere.
Lent is fasting, and prayer, and almsgiving – acts of service. And Lent begins on this evening with reminders of our shortcomings, our failures, the consequences due our actions, reminders of our mortality. Ash Wednesday urges us to examine our conscience in order that we may confess “what we have done and…what we have left undone,” restore our relationships with neighbor and world, and look with hope for the kin-dom inaugurated by Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.