Sermon 2/17/2010

Sermon for Ash Wednesday
February 17, 2010
Michael Coffey

The message from Jesus and Isaiah
is direct, and strong, and clear:
We dare not fool ourselves
with our religion.
We dare not let our rituals and prayers and doctrines
feed our self-absorption,
diminish our wavering compassion,
or turn us away from human need.
Jesus tells us in Matthew: do our religious ritual and devotion
without need for recognition or status.
Isaiah tells us that the only fasting and humbling thing
that God is interested in
is to care for human need.
We dare not fool ourselves
with our religion.

And yet, we do.
We let all the trappings of religion
become something about us and for us.
In the more obvious forms,
we end up with Christianity that is self-righteous,
or judgmental,
or a way to get material success and status,
or merely a means to heavenly glory for the self.
In the more subtle forms,
we start believing in our own humbleness,
or count up our good deeds and feel satisfied,
or become proud about our past and don’t see the present.

So, that’s just the way it is with us, with all people.
Our religious life is always a potential
for getting it wrong,
and moving ourselves to the center,
and finding excuses for ignoring injustice and great need,
and pushing God away, instead of drawing nearer to the mystery.

And yet,
our religious life done well,
and thoughtfully,
and open to self-critique and repentance,
is also a means to escaping our ego-driven needs,
and to renewal of life
and to fresh starts.

The Ash Wednesday ritual
has the means of renewing us.
Because the only thing that really speaks truth to us,
and resets our clocks,
and re-orients our compasses,
is the cold, hard truth:
You are dust.
It’s where you came from.
It’s where you going to.
Why do you keep running from it?
Why do you keep denying it?
Why are you so afraid of it?

To be sure,
this is a brutal ritual of honesty.
We don’t do it lightly or comfortably.
But we also don’t do it to be cruel,
or overly dark,
or merely morbid.
This marking with ashes in repentance and mortality
has been done throughout the ages
because it is the only truth powerful enough
to awaken us to the true life God has given us to live.
It was an entry point
for those about to be baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection:
It said: you have to die before you can truly live.

It’s much like the words Jesus spoke to his followers:
If you want to follow me,
you have to die to yourself,
and then you will really live.
If you want to follow me,
take up your cross,
embrace your own journey of suffering and death,
and then, strangely enough,
you will be free to live.

The heart of the spiritual journey
which Lent is always calling us back to
is to go through an encounter with our mortality
so we can live with true humility.
It is a journey packed with wisdom,
knowing that what renews us in mercy and compassion,
and leads us to acts of love and seeking justice,
is an encounter with our own humanity.
It is our true, small, fearful humanity
that unites us with all others
and awakens us to hear and see
the suffering and hunger and tears of others.

Once we face what we are so afraid of
in being human,
and we discover that in God
none of our fears are really so fearful,
we find a new and living energy in us
that seeks to give life to others.

That’s the strangeness of it all.
This deep, rough encounter with mortality and humility
leads to true life, and renewed love for others.
We can wish it were easier,
or the path we have to take was smoother and straighter.
But only when we enter the reality of ourselves,
our true humanness,
our true small and mortal selves,
can we find life itself.

Then the Word of God in the prophet
becomes obvious and joyful and empowering to us:

6Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
9Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.

What we all are seeking,
in many different ways,
is a true, integrated spirituality
where we can live life fully
and find purpose and meaning
in giving our lives for the world’s good.

Often we feel far from that kind of spirituality,
and we feel the pain and lostness
of our more ego-driven selves.

The remedy to this religious and moral dilemma,
in the long tradition of religious ritual and practice,
is to take the journey of humble mortality
so deeply and seriously,
that there is nothing left in you to focus on,
to feed,
or to fool.

The spiritual disciplines of fasting, praying, and giving to the poor,
when we don’t turn them into self-serving practices,
help empty us and turn us outward to others.
And let’s face it.
We are really in need of emptying ourselves,
We are too full and too satisfied.

We are here, I think,
really and honestly,
not so much to fill up,
because we are a people already filled up.
We are here to empty ourselves,
emptied by utter truth and daring honesty,
emptied by the strange grace that is our mortality,
so we can be filled by God’s compassion for others,
filled by the new life of Christ
that only comes through death and resurrection.


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