Rend Your Hearts

+ A homily for Ash Wednesday at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on February 26, 2020 +

Text: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Audio: LINK

As we gather on this solemn night, I am struck by the strangeness of this occasion.
In a world so mired in death and despair, in a country divided and on edge, under a cloud of uncertainty about the future and the climate and even our health, doesn’t this night seem just a little bit…absurd?
I mean, with all that is hanging over us, why on earth would we gather on this night and repeat that yearly ritual.
Why would we dedicate an entire evening to confess our most grievous sins, to mark ourselves with ash and profess our mortality, to recognize our brokenness?

84535499_1016588715383456_1249470088793292800_oAsh Wednesday and, really, the entire season of Lent, has taken on a mantle of despair and gloom, hasn’t it?
It seems as if it has become almost a way to deny ourselves joy so we can really earn it when for Easter comes around.
It’s like what I say when I sometimes joke how we Cascadians earn our perfect summer weather by enduring months of gloomy rain.
We make it seem as if denying ourselves that piece of chocolate will somehow make it taste all the sweeter on Easter Sunday.

But I wonder if the reason we gather on this night year after year is because this is more than some masochistic ritual.
That this is more than a time to sit in despair and gnash our teeth.
That we have come to do more than rend our clothing in lament.
Because I don’t know about you, but the gloom that surrounds us, the ill tidings we see on the evening news, the incessant trolling on social media, that all seems so big, so abstract, so unchangeable to me.
It seems like no matter what I do, it goes on the same.
That no matter how hard I try, so little changes.

But when we come here this evening, we come for something different, don’t we?
Perhaps we are here to lament the world, but it’s more than that.
It’s to confess our sins, to profess our mortality, to recognize our brokenness.
This is about seeing where we have strayed, where we have harmed each other, where we have participated in systems of oppression, and to make a change.
heartsTonight we hear a call from the Prophet Joel to rend our hearts, not our clothes, to recognize our shortcomings and failings so we can return to the Lord our God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
This night is a call from our God to return to God.
God Godself is calling us back, my friends.
God is calling us home.
Calling us to return to our source of life and love.
Not so we can be punished, not so we can be chastised, but so we can repent and be transformed.

All too often, repentance is seen or heard as a chore or an obligation, maybe even as a threat.
Repent-1-696x522We can hear the command to “repent” and hear an implied follow-up: “or else!”
But this is an invitation, my friends, to take stock of our lives.
This is a pure and free gift.
This is an opportunity to sit here in the presence of God, in the presence of each other, and humbly acknowledge the ways and places in which we have fallen short.
To take a good hard look at ourselves and recognize our failings.
But not to leave it there—not to stay in despair or lament or shame, but to use our repentance to transform our lives.
To make apologies.
To make amends.
To make changes in our lives so we can go forward renewed and changed.

For centuries now, Lent has been a time of preparation, a final journey towards the flowing waters of Easter for those who were preparing for baptism.
Sometime later, Lent was expanded as an opportunity for all Christians to join the pilgrim band as we renew our baptismal identity and deepen our commitment to the promises made in those waters.
Tonight is the invitation to start that journey once again.
Tonight is a chance to recognize our brokenness and remind ourselves of our mortality.
Tonight is a chance to remind ourselves that we are not God and to be pointed to the one who is.
Tonight is a call to draw deeply from the life-giving waters of this font and to dwell richly in the abiding and steadfast love of God.

This night, this season, is not intended to beat you down, my friends, but to bring renewal to your life like spring that is starting to bloom around us.
To honestly look and see where we have failed in loving our neighbors, loving our God, loving ourselves, as God has first loved us.
To admit that we have failed to follow Christ as diligently as we could and neglected to serve the world following his example.
To recognize the places where anger and malice and jealousy have seeped into our lives.
To acknowledge how busyness and complacency and routine have distanced us in our relationship with God.
To see how we have knowingly and unknowingly participated in and benefited from the systemic sins of racism and sexism and queerphobia and xenophobia.
To confess how we have participated in the Earth’s destruction.

But this is also a time when we remember that our mortality, our brokenness, our ashes, are not meant for our guilt and shame, but are used to point us to our God who is already pouring abundant grace and mercy and love into our lives.
This is a time to remember that God has already chosen us, chosen me, chosen this group of broken people to be God’s partner, to bring God’s good news and enact God’s transformation in our world.

Tonight we acknowledge our sins, yes, but we will also hear God’s abundant and complete pardon of our transgressions.
We are invited to leave those sins, leave that brokenness, leave the idea that we can do it by ourselves, to leave it all behind.
To leave it all at this font where it will be washed away.
This is a time to do a little spring cleaning in our lives, beloved, to simplify our lives for this journey we are starting together towards the Paschal Feast of Easter.
To unload our burdens for this pilgrimage to the heart of God, the source of our life and all love.
And though we travel this road together, we are not going on a search to find God, for God is here.
We do not travel to prove ourselves on some quest to earn God’s love, for God already loves us beyond our comprehension.
A woman receives ashes at  Saint Patrick's Cathedral on Ash Wednesday in New YorkFor just as we will be marked with the ashes of our mortality this night, we will also celebrate the hope and assurance of this meal of life.
Just as our foreheads will be smudged with our sin and shame, we remember that the holy oil in these ashes we are anointed as God’s prophets, as as holy messengers of God and enactors of God’s reign.
Just as our brows will be marred with the cross of Jesus’ death, we can ever abide in the assurance of that same cross which was marked on our forehead in our baptism as we rest in the hope of the cross of Christ’s resurrection.

And so, my friends, as we start this journey tonight, as we prepare to travel this road together, please allow me to offer a blessing written by Pastor Jan Richardson:

Rend Your Heart
To receive this blessing,
all you have to do
is let your heart break.
Let it crack open.
Let it fall apart
so that you can see
its secret chambers,
the hidden spaces
where you have hesitated
to go.

Your entire life
is here, inscribed whole
upon your heart’s walls:
every path taken
or left behind,
every face you turned toward
or turned away,
every word spoken in love
or in rage,
every line of your life
you would prefer to leave
in shadow,
every story that shimmers
with treasures known
and those you have yet
to find.

It could take you days
to wander these rooms.
Forty, at least.

And so let this be
a season for wandering,
for trusting the breaking,
for tracing the rupture
that will return you

to the One who waits,
who watches,
who works within
the rending
to make your heart

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