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Thursday, February 10, 2005

Imposing Artifice

A sermon preached on February 9, 2005, Ash Wednesday
at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, St. Joseph, MI
Some time ago a young priest wanted to make a point about the power of ashes as a symbol. He wanted a great deal of ash, so rather than just using a small bowl filled with the stuff, he took a coal shovel full of it and dumped it in a pile before the altar. “WHUMP!”

The sexton had been looking on from one of the side aisles. He knew of course it would fall to him to clean this up after the service. As the dust and ash settled in a heap, he shook his head and declared, “That’s a terrible imposition!”

All joking aside, [and I hasten to point out that that was a joke] we might see the ashes of Ash Wednesday, or perhaps even the season of Lent itself as a “terrible imposition”.

We’re just clicking along in a new year, life going fairly smoothly, when we are brought up short by a season of prayer, repentance and self-denial. This year it might seem especially so, since Ash Wednesday comes so early. In my home, it is generally my wife who broaches the topic of what disciplines we will engage during Lent, and nearly every year, my response is the same: is it that time already? Lent can seem like a terrible imposition.

What might seem like a particularly awkward imposition is the constantly reiterated theme of sin and repentance. We take some measure of pride as Episcopalians in not being “Hellfire-and-brimstone” in our preaching, in not constantly fulminating against the sin du jour. And yet to have a day when we pray a litany of penitence, and a season with sin and repentance as major themes might make us feel uncomfortably disoriented. It might seem like an imposition from outside. But this has actually been a part of our tradition since the beginning.

Generally speaking, Anglicans see sin as seeking our own will, rather than God’s will. When we do this, strike out on our own, we end up being estranged from God, and it distorts our relationships with other people. We even end up being estranged from our true selves. Sin is not just a matter of peccadilloes or transgressing obscure dictates; it is a breach in relationship which goes to the heart of who we are. It hinders relationships with God and our neighbor, and considered as a whole, it is the reason that so much of the world is out of whack.

God, in his grace, came to us in Jesus Christ and opened for us the way of life. It is because of Christ that we might be – as Paul implores the Corinthians in quite strong language – reconciled to God. It is in that turning, that re-turning to the Father that we are restored, that the relationship is made whole. And as that primary relationship is restored, so also, gradually, are our relationships with those around us restored. And so too, as the love of God in Christ fills us, do we find that we come to ourselves, our true selves. It turns out that this talk about sin and repentance isn’t a terrible imposition at all, but something which arises out of the heart of our being, and restores a relationship which draws us into the heart of God.

Anglican tradition has often seen the Christian life as a repeated pattern of repentance and praise of God. There is wisdom here in these two core practices. Confessing our incompleteness and our stubborn wandering from God returns us to him who made us good and redeemed us in love. It also gives us humility: not the humiliation of shame to be sure, but the humility of a creature who realizes that he or she is not God, but must rely on the One who is. And it is in that second movement in which we praise God that we come into contact with that One who is God. It is in our expression of love and gratitude to God through worship that we grow in that relationship with God.

Particularly in its themes of sin and repentance, Lent calls us to certain things which might seem like an imposition. But this actually opens up for us opportunities to leave behind the ruptures of our inmost being and grow in our relationship with God. As we sojourn together this Lent, let us take the opportunity given to us to slow down and take stock of our lives and our relationships. Let us slough off the hard old carapace of sin and return to God. And let us allow the Spirit to continue to mold our lives to engender in us the life of God.

Friends, as we do so this year, I believe we will find that, in one sense, the ashes are an imposition; but in every sense, Lent is an opportunity.

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