Wild and Precious: A Sermon
Wild and Precious
First Presbyterian Church
March 5, 2014
Welcome to Ash Wednesday, a service to begin the season of Lent.
Ash Wednesday has been observed for over 1,000 years. It started in the 10thcentury, that is the 900s and became official liturgy in the 13th century or the 1200s.
After the Protestant Reformation, the practice was not observed among those “protesting” churches. Many Protestants therefore are unfamiliar with Ash Wednesday.
When I grew up, I thought Ash Wednesday was something “the Catholics” did. Recently, however, Protestant churches have revisited this practice. When I say recently, I mean the last third of the 20th century. It is a new practice for Presbyterians.
Here are some facts and figures. Ash Wednesday occurs 46 days before Easter. It is a movable day and can appear on the calendar as early as February 4th and as late as March 10th. This year it is March 5th which is fairly late. That means Easter will be 46 days from now, April 20th.
Why 46 days? Six of those days are Sundays, the first through fifth Sundays of Lent plus Palm Sunday that is also called Passion Sunday. If you take away the Sundays you have 40 days. Lent is 40 days plus six Sundays long. If you decide on a rigorous practice for 40 days, you get Sundays off. Sundays are feast days, not fast days.
Forty days is significant. According to the gospels, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness fasting and praying. That story likely echoes the time the Israelites spent in the Wilderness after they escaped from Egypt. That was 40 years.
The story of Jesus spending 40 days alone in the desert also echoes Elijah who spent 40 days and nights fasting on Mount Horeb. When he was finished he made kings. Elijah represents the prophets. Prophets speak of the correct use of power.
Also Moses spent 40 days and nights on the top of Mount Sinai. When Moses was finished he came down with the Ten Commandments. Moses represents the Law, Teaching, Path, or Meaning.
Moses and Elijah are the Law and the Prophets. Meaning and Power. Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets. That is how these Bible stories work.
Jesus is led into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by the adversary. He is getting his mettle tested. He fasts and prays. In other words, this isn’t a party. This is a purging of the body, mind, and spirit. He is praying. He is seeking discernment. He is in a sense going to the gym to work out and get ready for the arena. This period of testing is to find out who he is, what he is made of, and where his loyalties lie.
Moses, Elijah, and Jesus all have a task, a mission, a ministry, and a purpose. These 40 day periods are times of definition. Who are you? What are you about? Are you ready to get serious? Are you ready to learn what it is you are going "to do with your one wild and precious life?" to quote Mary Oliver.
The model of the 40 days is Moses, Elijah, and Jesus each in his own wilderness. We are invited to participate in this important tradition.
There have been many traditions and practices associated with Ash Wednesday and Lent. People will “give up something” for Lent, such as candy or kissing or whatever. The reason is to make oneself conscious of the task. It is to focus one’s intention on this quest for discernment. Perhaps you don’t eat meat. Perhaps you eat more simply. Fewer entertainments might be on your agenda. This can all be trivial or it can be meaningful, depending upon one’s intent.
Some will add a discipline of a particular practice of prayer or of saving money for the poor or some other good cause. It may be a time for study, to learn something new about the world, God, and yourself. Again, the point of these practices is to focus one’s intent. Who are you?
During the season of Lent, those who were interested in becoming baptized in the church learned about the church and what it meant to be Christian in preparation for their baptism or the confirmation of their baptism on Easter. The church has often used this period as a time to make church members.
I would suggest that this time of Lent and this day, Ash Wednesday, is bigger than church membership, as important as that might be, or giving up stuff, or any of the practices themselves.
Ash Wednesday (and Lent) is an invitation to the examined life.
Socrates (or Plato) said
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Kurt Vonnegut picked up on that theme and said:
“Plato says that the unexamined life is not worth living. But what if the examined life turns out to be a clunker as well?”
It is always good on these days when ministers get serious and put on their robes and mumble holy things and do mysterious antics with sacred books, goblets and ashes to recognize that we are playing. We don’t know any more than the rest of you what the point of this whole business called life is. We give it a whirl anyway.
One of the things I like about Ash Wednesday is the ashes. They are dirty and burnt. They symbolize a couple of things at least. Ancient people put on themselves sackcloth and ashes to assist them in their grief and sorrow. Ashes are a sign of mourning and a sign of repentance.
Ashes are also a sign of our mortality and our impermanence.
Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
We are made of earth and to earth we shall return. That is the truth whether you are President Obama or the guy whose name no one knows who mumbles to himself as he searches the trash bins for food. For both it is earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
My great, great grandmother wrote in her daughter’s that is my great grandmother’s travel diary four words that were as square as scripture. She wrote these words in 1876 when my great-grandmother was about to take a journey from Lockport, New York to California. I have no idea what her mother meant or what their relationship was like, but what she wrote was absolute truth. She wrote:
This too shall pass.
That is the meaning of Ash Wednesday.
This too shall pass.
Whenever we think we can get above our raisin’.
Whenever we think we are some punkins as my mother liked to say.
Also whenever we think our problems and trials are too large and overwhelming.
Whenever there are things done that can’t be undone.
Whenever we have hit a dead end and are not sure where to go.
Whenever we think our life isn’t worth much or is worth too much.
This too shall pass.
And we are asked by all that is holy,
“So, now what, Beloved? What will you do now with your one wild and precious life?”
Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent is a time for you, should you decide to take it, to consciously and with intent enter the symbolic wilderness. Take some time with yourself and with God as you understand God and sort things out. Find a companion in a person or a book or a practice and find your thin place, that place where the divine and the mundane meet, and wrestle as Jacob did along the bank of the Jabbok.
I don’t consider days like this or religious seasons to be times to browbeat people into doing stuff. These days and seasons are far more sacred then simple morality plays. I have a feeling that Ash Wednesday will always be intense for me especially after holding the ashes of my son.
I don’t bring that up to call attention to myself. I say it to recognize with you that this life is short and unexpected and has enough sorrows to fill each day. If there is a should in any of this it is that we should be kind to others as well as to ourselves because we never know what the real wilderness may present to us.
In addition to the sorrows, there are also joys in these deserts we walk. An unexpected companion may walk with us. Or maybe it is a familiar companion who means more to us as each day passes. May you find yourself caught by surprise by your own laughter. May you find a melody that rings true. Even as your mettle gets tested, may some lightness of heart like a descending dove rest on you and may you hear clearly that you are wanted, chosen, and beloved. May you know that whatever you do with your one wild and precious life that it is precious and nothing can ever take that away.
Welcome to a Holy Lent.