Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017
Cathedral Church of St. Paul
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling
Isaiah 58: 1-12
Psalm 103: 8-14
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Let us pray: Dear God, help us to remember that we are mortal, and that each day is a gift of life. For eternal life through Jesus, we thank you. Amen.
Amy Cook, Missioner for Education, Formation, and Discipleship in our diocese, has provided a resource for us to use during Lent. It’s called “Living Well through Lent 2017” and it provides opportunities for personal or small group reflection. This year’s booklet has a subtitle; it’s called Listening with all your Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind. It is based upon the commandment found in the book of Deuteronomy, and in Luke’s gospel, in which we are called to “love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength , and with all our mind.” Listening I can do. Loving is another matter.
Way back in January, right after the 1st of the year, the Rev. Scott Gunn, executive director of Forward Movement, wrote something entitled “New Year, New Start.” He remarked how our new year’s resolutions often start out well enough, and then disappear by February. He suggests that (quote) “every day is a good day for a do-over.” Today, moving forward, I think that Lent gives us 40 days and 40 nights of “do-overs.” Lord knows I need them.
Scott offered a picture of a winding road, saying how we often find ourselves veering off the path, and into the brush. Yes indeed. I veer off that path more than once a day. Distracted by thoughts of this or that, I don’t watch where I’m going. This past Monday, thinking about my week ahead at our Cathedral, I started crossing Tremont Street, only to find myself running halfway across the road due to the honking horns; the cars were barreling down upon me. Texting while driving, checking the latest “bing” on our cell phones, or even talking or eating while driving is not only unlawful but dangerous. I confess, I’ve had some near misses. Last year, on my way home from our pre-Lenten clergy retreat, I was peeling an orange and gently ran into the car in front of me. As for my emotional life, I can veer off that winding road very easily. Death, and I’ve known three unexpected ones this week, can send me off the path and into the wilderness very quickly.
Scott reminds us of our baptismal covenant in which we make promises to God and to one another. It’s good to be part of a community of faith that weeps and celebrates with us at any given time, with a community that forms and shapes us throughout our lives. In the second promise of our covenant, we are asked, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.” Scott emphasises the word “when.” It’s not “if” we fall into sin, but “when” we fall into sin, will we repent and return to the Lord. We respond willingly, “I will, with God’s help.” Repentance, like confession, means thinking again, and Lent is our time to do that: to think again about how we live, about how we listen, and about how we love.
I love the fact that the word “evil” is the word “live” spelled backwards. And “Living Well through Lent” means to listen with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength to God. In her Ash Wednesday reflection,The Rev. Lisa Senuta writes, “Listening is more than hearing…. when we are listening for God.” The invitation to listen may come in various ways: a car honking at us, someone asking us to “put down the phone”, a look that kills, tears of hurt, words of anger, and of course the hardest thing of all, when we can no longer listen at all. Remember? Are you listening? You are dust!
Last Sunday, at our Cathedral IN Formation program, Ann Page Stecker talked about Lent as a liminal time -when thresholds are crossed, interstices are revealed, and ecotones are honored. Liminal times are neither earthly nor heavenly, we’re kind of in this world but not of it. We’re aware of being is spaces that are both sacred and secular. Thresholds, like doorways, invite us to go back from where we came or to go forward into a new space. An interstice reminds us that there are spaces that intervene on our continuous pathways, like weeds that grow in the cracks, or those resting places along the way. An ecotone is the wildlife that you might find on the edge of the pathway before the desert begins. Just off the beaten path, there is great diversity in God’s creation. As we shared parts of our stories in the context of these particular words last Sunday, I heard a constant reminder. We all have choices: to live and to love, or to hate and to die; to repent and forgive, or to hold on and resent; to spiral up or spiral down; to go backwards or move forward, or maybe even just stay where we are.
The Rev. Lisa Senuta reminds us that (quote) “the deepest form of listening is not with our ears - it is with our heart. We are listening below the noise, under our busy thinking planning minds, and between the words we are hearing, thinking, and saying. The Bible says to listen with the ear of the heart.” (end quote) And there in the heart is our treasure, where God resides and is listening to us. “Do not accept the grace of God in vain,” warned St. Paul to the Corinthians; for God says “at an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”
After our scripture readings, we often say, “Listen to what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.” In today’s passage from the prophet Isaiah, God’s Word to us is plentiful, and challenging. Despite our fasting, we still “quarrel, fight, and strike with a wicked fist.” Lord knows we are fighting many battles, both literally and figuratively everywhere! So today, God asks us for a different kind of fast, not from food or drink, but from fighting.
We are in a liminal space during this time of transition at our Cathedral, and in this season of Lent. I’ve asked our Sunday morning community to take on the spiritual discipline of listening during this threshold tiime. I’ve invited people to consider their own winding pathways as we walk the Way of the Cross together.
Our ancient ruins have been rebuilt with our Cathedral renovations. We hope our Cathedral will continue to be a house of prayer for all God’s people. We want to raise up the foundations of many generations for our future. We have attempted to repair the breaches between our multi-cultural communities, and to restore some life to people on the streets and in our neighborhoods. We have loved well.
Understandably, we are tired, spread thin, and scared. I think it’s time for us to step back into that liminal space, where we can listen to God in the silence, and in our hearts. During this season of Lent, I have asked our community to step off the beaten path, and to commit with me 5 minutes of silence every morning, and 5 minutes of silence every evening. Alone, in silence. Listening to God. With the ears of our hearts.
The Rev. Lisa Senuta claims that (quote) “silence is God’s primary language. Yet, it is quickly becoming an endangered part of our world. We now live among infinite distractions that keep us from simply being in silence. The life-giving ways of God are discovered in silence. Even in ten minutes alone in the quiet, we can find what we need and want: a spacious sense of hope, interior strength and resiliency, wisdom beyond information, and peace beyond understanding.” (end quote)
Jesus invites us into that space of grace today. Let’s go into our secret rooms and pray. In silence. Let’s listen with the ears of our heart because, as Jesus said, that’s where our treasure lies. Listening to what the Spirit is saying to us, the “Lord will guide us continually, and satisfy our needs in parched places, make our bones strong; and we will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.” Perhaps by Easter we will also find ourselves no longer distracted by many things, but back on the path of righteousness and peace: loving God, ourselves, and others with stronger hearts, souls, and minds. Amen.