So this is a bit out-dated, but it’s my sermon from Ash Wednesday at UCSD:
God of Reconciliation, restore us to unity with you and with one another, that we might practice your ministry of reconciliation in the Ashes of our broken world. AMEN
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the time in the Christian year when we remember the brokenness in our lives and in our world. We walk through the desert time of fasting and penance, preparing to be witnesses to the Resurrection of Christ.
Christians from the more liturgical traditions mark the season by “giving something up” for Lent. Oftentimes people give up chocolate, meat, or alcohol. My roommate Paul once gave up In and Out hamburgers. He said he chose In and Out burgers because he loved them so much, and that every time he craved those juicy patties, that toasted bun, and the amazing mixture of special sauce and grilled onions but couldn’t have one it would remind him of why it was important to sacrifice for God, and what God’s sacrifice meant to him. My other roommate and I ate a lot of In and Out that Lent. We would go through the drive-thru on the way home and eat it in the living room in front of Paul. I want to say that we were trying to help him remember the importance of sacrifice, but we were probably just being jerks. I gave up meat for Lent once, basing my reasoning along the same lines as Paul’s, but I’m pretty sure I mostly wanted to sample the romance of being a liberal vegetarian without the long term commitment.
Our Gospel reading today admonishes us not to be boastful in our fasting, not to allow others to know of our almsgiving. If we see our Penance as Performance, we will lose all benefit for our actions. Our sacrifice will mean little to God, and even less to us.
One Lent I decided to take something simple on instead of giving something drastic up. I was an RA in the freshmen dorms right near a footpath that passed along the bottom of a canyon next to my college. I decided that three times a week I would run, but not only would I run. As I ran I would listen to recordings of old hymns or sermons from Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on my mp3 player. You can see what a Church nerd I am. When I finished running I would sit on a bench that looks over the canyon out to the ocean, stretch out my legs, and pray.
One of the beautiful things about going to college here in San Diego is that, even though Lent generally falls between late February and early April, most mornings are warm and sunny and you can run with your shirt off. Listening as the sun poured down on my shoulders I let myself go into the rhythm of the running. My feet pounding the dirt path carried away the concerns of the day and allowed me to enter a space of contemplation. I thought about what the sermon was saying, about the beauty of the day; I felt the wind as it passed over my naked skin. Afterwards as I sat on that bench I would allow myself to just be in the presence of God.
Those were some truly miraculous moments. Somehow the running allowed me to quiet all of my other thoughts and just focus on the words of the sermon or of the hymns. Afterwards as I cooled down I could feel the impressive weight of quietness, like that feeling you get when you walk into a huge cathedral and the power of the cavernous silent space enters your mind and helps it to be quiet as well. The discipline of running gave God a space to inhabit in my life.
I think the discipline worked because it was new. I had never been a runner. It took that beautiful path in the canyon that Lent to teach me to enjoy running. Really it was less about running and more about doing something new, something that could be apportioned out of my normal life and reserved for God. I had carved out short periods of my morning in response to faith. And as if in response, God was born to me in those moments, incarnate in the quietness I felt as I sat on the bench looking out at the ocean, real in ways I had never experienced before, impressively present.
Father J.J. O’Leary, a Jesuit priest who used to teach down the road at USD preached perhaps the most memorable homily in my history of Ash Wednesdays. A prolifically brief homilist, his reflections seldom lasted over five minutes, something I can’t promise you this afternoon. J.J.”s homilies commonly concluded with the direction to “go into your hearts” and consider something.
That Ash Wednesday Fr. J.J. said simply that when we give something up for Lent, God doesn’t want us to give up things that make us happy. If we enjoy chocolate or a martini at the end of a long day we shouldn’t give them up. God wanted us to give up something that made us sad. He then invited us into our hearts to consider what that might be.
The poetic truth of Father J.J.’s sermon really impressed me. Disciplines are not meant to be muscular expressions showing what ascetic lives we can live, how much we can give up. Lent is not the Christian version of those late night ESPN shows where freakishly large Scandinavian men lift boulders and drag Volkswagens trying to show one another up.
Discipline, the act of following Christ, is nothing short of submitting portions of our lives to the transformative power of God. It is all about God’s ability to change us, and not at all about our ability to change ourselves.
This change God desires not only for us, but through us for the whole of creation. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa says, “God has a Dream.” God’s dream, God’s vision for a world where the hungry are fed, the left out are included, those who receive discrimination are counted as blessings, God’s hope for the world: The Kingdom of God must be realized.
God invites us to work toward this Divine Dream knowing that we will never offer perfect lives, perfect charity, perfect organizations, or universities, much less perfect churches. God invites us into God’s transforming work with the promise that the very ministry we offer the world, will continue to transform our lives, and to shape us.
In our reading from Corinthians we receive a charge. “So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us.” We are ambassadors for Christ. Today we dirty our faces and hands with the ashes of our world. We resolve to enter in to that messiness, seeking to hand over our lives to the one who desires to transform us, that we might work with God to transform the world.
So what ashy part of our world, of God’s world, will you enter?
What part of your life will you hand over to God?
Blow the trumpet, sanctify a fast. Not for the sake of performing a duty or boasting of a sacrifice, but so that we together might invite God into some small space in our lives, so that Christ can invite us into the work of God’s dream. Amen.