Ash Wednesday March 1, 2017
Central United Methodist Church, Muskegon
Text: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21; II Corinthians 12:1-10
It is an honor to be here with you this evening. Thank you for the invitation. Thank you for being here.
This particular night in the Christian calendar is unique, and, from the perspective of the wider culture, it is a both odd and unaccounted for. You won’t find any “Ash Wednesday” cards at the Hallmark store, or displays of Lenten prayer beads or ashes in a necklace. Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, is steeped in ritual, and for some even in the Christian faith, ritual can seem cold and stiff. Many of our fellow Christians do not mark this night, but we ought also to note that for many in our own tradition, worshipping on Ash Wednesday does not have deep roots. In the 1945 Book of Worship for The Methodist Church, there is no ritual or order of worship for Ash Wednesday at all. In the 1965 Book of Worship, a copy of which I was given when ordained an elder, there was an order of service for Ash Wednesday, but it did not include ashes.
I did not know that, though, in my first appointment. I had not yet received the Book of Worship, so I decided we should have an Ash Wednesday worship service, and I was going to make it new. I had read about a ritual that involved people writing on pieces of paper hopes, disappointments and confessions. These were to be burned, and cooled with water, the ashes then to be impressed upon the forehead. Here’s what I can tell you. Glossy office paper, burned in a coffee can and then drowned in water does not make for good Ash Wednesday ashes. Some of us left that service looking like a bulletin board with singed sticky notes. I’ve stayed with more traditional ashes since.
Whatever its history, whatever the reticence among our more non-liturgical sisters and brothers, there is something very special about this night, and about the season that begins this night. In these forty days, excluding Sundays, we prepare for Easter. We are invited to self-examination, to repentance, to re-commitment. These forty days are meant as a time for renewal and renewed development in God’s grace. In that spirit, I want to this evening, invite you to a liminal Lent.
Liminal Lent? It sounds rather like something you might purchase at a frozen yogurt shop. It would have to be green, wouldn’t it?
Liminality is a concept used to speak about what happens in rituals. Liminality is a concept I encountered doing my doctoral work. Where else would one find such a word except in academia? An anthropologist (Victor Turner) used the term to describe a phase in rituals that marked rites of passage. Rites of passage can often be described in three phases: separation – a journey into the wilderness, a coming together in worship with ashes perhaps; liminality – the transition phase when re-orientation might happen, when one gets in touch with something deep and profound; and aggregation – a coming back together into community. The liminal phase are those moments where we are open to deepest transformation, those moments when something new is most likely to touch us. The anthropologist went on to say that there are places of liminality in culture beyond ritual moments.
I think that there is a profound liminal dimension to Christian spirituality, that is to life lived in the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God and the power of the Spirit. The liminal dimension to Christian spirituality is when we come to touch and be touched in the depth of our souls, when we come to understand that there are essential paradoxes to living in the grace of God. The liminal moments in our lives in Jesus Christ are those moments when we touch those essential paradoxes and negotiate and renegotiate how we hold those poles of the paradox together, when we weave and re-weave those poles of the paradox.
So I am about as far away from the grittiness of ashes in our fingers and on our foreheads as I can be, but I hope you will bear with me just a moment more at this abstract level. The liminal dimension of Christian spirituality is coming to touch the essential paradoxes that are part of the life of following Jesus, and recognizing that we are always renegotiating and re-weaving those paradoxes. So what do I mean by essential paradoxes? Parker Palmer in one of his earliest books, a book that has more recently been reprinted, writes about The Promise of Paradox. Palmer defines a paradox as “a statement that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.” He goes on to say, “the opposite of a profound truth may be another profound truth” (xxix). Not all contradictions are paradoxes, but being able to embrace true paradoxes is “a life skill for holding complex experiences” (xxx) The promise of paradox is “that if we replace either-or with both-and, our lives will become larger and more filled with light” (xxix). Palmer argues that it is “one of the great gifts of the spiritual life, the transformation of contradiction into paradox” (6). Another author who has been a gift to my journey of faith, the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister, writes, “Confronting the paradoxes of life around us and in us, contemplating the meaning of them for ourselves, eventually and finally, leads to our giving place to the work of the Spirit in our lives” (15).
An invitation to a liminal Lent is an invitation to rediscover the paradoxes that are at deep places in our life with God in Jesus Christ, and an invitation to reweave these paradoxes.
Ash Wednesday is the perfect introduction to a liminal Lent for in it we find ourselves right in the midst of a profound paradox about our lives. One traditional ritual phrase when ashes are imposed on our foreheads or hands is “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” We are tonight reminded of our mortality, of our bodily existence and of the limits of bodily existence. The writer Ernest Becker put it this way: (The Denial of Death, 26): Man is a worm and food for worms… housed in a heart-pumping, breath-grasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways – the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. You are dust, and to dust you shall return. Welcome to Ash Wednesday.
But there is something else about us. We are capable of being caught up in visions and revelations. We can be “caught up into Paradise” and hear things “that are not to be told.” This was Paul’s experience. Ernest Becker recognized that, too. (The Denial of Death, 26): The essence of man is really his paradoxical nature, the fact that he is half animal and half symbolic…. We might call this existential paradox the condition of individuality within finitude. Man has a symbolic identity that brings him sharply out of nature. He is a symbolic self, a creature with a name, a life history. He is a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity, who can place himself imaginatively at a point in space and contemplate bemusedly his own planet. This immense expansion, this dexterity, this ethereality, this self-consciousness gives to man literally the status of a small god in nature…. Yet, at the same time… man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-grasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it.
The story of our faith is that God took dust and breathed the very breath of God into it – human being. We are dust and spirit, dust and the very image of God. A few years ago I began using another ritual phrase when I imposed ashes, “You are dust and stardust.” Somehow those two need to be held together. In a world where there is an excess of shame, to only tell people that they are dust leaves out part of the essential paradox that is life in grace. A liminal Lent reminds us of our mortality, our finitude, and of our capacity for vision, for goodness, for imagination and contemplation. Sometimes we lean too much one way or the other, get stuck in self-hatred or forget our limits. Lent is a time to renegotiate and reweave.
Here is another paradox essential to our life in the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God and the power of the Spirit: humility and heroics. Lent has often been framed as more about humility, about our very real need for repentance and caution about our tendencies toward self-importance. The traditional gospel reading for this evening is Matthew 6 where Jesus warns about blowing our own horn spiritually. When we give, don’t even let our hands know what they are doing. When we pray, go to our rooms. When we fast, wash up and smile.
I have come to think of the essence of humility in this way, as a gentle strength that helps us approach the world and other people with openness and curiosity – knowing that in this wonderfully complex world there is always more to learn, and honestly acknowledging that sometimes we get it wrong. Humility is not about groveling and thinking badly about oneself. The lack of humility is not evidenced by feeling good about what one might accomplish, or taking delight in progress made or knowledge gained. The lack of humility is evidenced by a lack of wonder and curiosity. The lack of humility is a failure of imagination. The lack of humility is less about making oneself too big than it is about making the world too small. Humility is openness, the capacity to wonder and question and be curious, the ability to laugh at oneself. It is not the opposite of a heroics that delights in work well done, in knowledge gained. We know we are weaving the paradox of humility and heroics well when we touch righteousness, when we live righteously without becoming self-righteous.
One last paradox for this evening: optimism and pessimism. When I was a young man, I heard people say that you get more conservative as you get older. I remember an international relations professor mentioning that in a lecture. At the time I was none too pleased. It probably had something to do with my own limited understanding of the meaning of conservative, but even more objectionable to me was the idea that someone was predicting the course of my future development. I didn’t care for that. I have also come to think that maybe what the persons who said that were really trying to say is that one becomes more pessimistic as one grows older. There is some truth to that.
When I was younger, there was a President who at the University of Michigan spoke about working toward a Great Society. Social theorists wondered what people would do with all the new found leisure that would be made possible by labor-saving technology. Great strides were being made in civil rights. Looking around, we have not created the Great Society, nor did we seem to win the war on poverty. Technologies have not created greater leisure, but instead have often led to lower wages and fewer jobs. Issues of hatred and bigotry and exclusion have proven to be tenacious, and that is deeply discouraging. There are real grounds for pessimism.
Yet as followers of Jesus, we are not left in Good Friday despair. For followers of Jesus, there is always Easter, even in the midst of Lent. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote: An adequate religion is always an ultimate optimism which has entertained all the facts which lead to pessimism. ("Optimism and Pessimism"). The poet Wendell Berry chimes in: “Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.” When we hold this paradox together we are wide-eyed and open-hearted, we feel the hurt and despair of the world and joyfully work for a better one, we know our own failures and live joyously in the forgiveness of God.
I invite you to a liminal Lent, a Lent where you touch the deep paradoxes of life in the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God and the power of the Spirit. Touch that liminal dimension of life with Jesus. Ask how well you are keeping the poles of these essential paradoxes together: dust and stardust, humility and heroics, pessimism and optimism. I invite you to a liminal Lent, to digging deep inside your heart, mind and soul, and here’s another paradox. As we do this inner work, we are better able to reach out to others for we have a better way of life to share. As we do this inner work we are better able work for a better world, for what is our vision of a better world but another paradox, that place where, according to Psalm 85: “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; justice and peace will kiss each other.” Justice and kindness embracing, a liminal text.
Let me wrap up with a final liminal text, the end of Matthew 11 as rendered by Eugene Peterson. Walk with me and work with me…. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace…. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. Unforced rhythms of grace, that’s liminality, finding those rhythms of life in the Spirit that keep together dust and stardust, humility and heroics, pessimism and optimism. Absent those rhythms, we trip over ourselves along the road, and we do that. Lent is an invitation to find those rhythms again, to touch the liminal dimensions of our lives and be changed.
I invite you to a holy and liminal Lent. Amen.