Sermon for Year A, Ash Wednesday
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
March 5, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
At some point in your life, you have probably heard the following words,
Or perhaps said them yourself,
Or at the very least you have heard these words spoken in a movie or on TV:
“It’s not that I want you to _________, it’s that I want you to want to _________.”
As a child, the refrains are familiar.
“I don’t want you to pick up your room; I want you to want to pick up your room.”
“I don’t want you to do the dishes; I want you to want to do the dishes.”
“I don’t want you to make your bed or mow the lawn or do your homework;
I want you to want to do those things.”
Later on, it gets a little more sophisticated, but the logic is the same.
“I don’t want you tend to my emotional needs, my dear one, my lover;
I want you want to be a real partner with me in life, and not see me as a chore list.”
OR, “I don’t want you to figure out how to pay for college;
I want you to want to provide for your children.”
OR, “I don’t want you to drop what you’re doing in your life and tend to your ailing parents;
I want you to want for their best life and care.”
When these things are said without heavy judgment, bitterness, or disappointment,
It usually comes to the same thing --
Someone is standing at some distance from us, usually some distance well ahead of us,
And that someone is calling out to us, not merely to fix a situation,
But to really genuinely desire to change it. Someone wants to see the better you step up.
For the betterment of those involved.
Not because we have to; not because we are trapped or cornered into it;
But because desire is the better part.
Someone wants us to be the kind of people whose right action is based on right desire.
And being handcuffed into a situation, and being coerced until we act,
Is nothing compared to willingly, freely addressing it.
It feels more advanced, somehow; it feels more grown-up and mature.
Today, Ash Wednesday, there are at least three thruths worth acknowledging about this situation.
The first truth is that most of the time it is difficult enough
Just to keep seeking out the spiritual path without getting exhausted or feeling shameful.
The second truth is that even if we do keep to the path,
Our wanting to be there -- not just being on the path, but actually desiring to be on it --
Even if we do stay on the path, it is rare that we truly want to be there, or to stay there.
The third truth, which is different altogether and may be harder to see,
Is that because of the presence, work, and person of Jesus Christ,
We can honestly say that God understands the human predicament --
That we easily want those things that are naturally harmful to us,
And often find it difficult to desire those things that are naturally good.
And so we often embark on these forty days of Lent filled with the desire
To strike out on some path to self-improvement.
We must surely think -- or at least I often find myself thinking --
That if I can just act like a better person during this holy season,
Then perhaps the real-live desire to be a better person will naturally follow on.
In some circles, this is called “acting as if.”
We also know it as “Fake it til you make it.”
We presume, in Lent, that if only we have the desire to change, we will.
Of course, we throw God into the bargain, too,
And we use language that seems so final and so grand,
And the mental stakes grow higher.
From this standpoint, we’re setting ourselves up to fail,
Or perhaps to materially succeed now, then fail again after Lent is over.
It appears as a hopeless trap, and it begs the question: Why Even Try?
From this vantage, the disciplines of Lent arrive as a setup for disappointment.
And of course, it isn’t just Lent -- it’s life in general,
Though Lent, just like New Year’s Day at the gym, tends to magnify the problem.
This aspect of the human condition was well articulated by Saint Augustine,
Who said that the soul tends to seek satisfaction in the things that will not satisfy it.
Today we would say that this is observably, universally true,
And to back it up, we could simply use the words dysfunction, and addiction.
And what psychology calls Dysfunction and Addiction, the Bible calls Idolatry.
We are chronically, helplessly, and often hopelessly addicted
To investing time and energy into things that offer little or nothing in return.
Augustine said that the basic problem with being human is that we have “disordered our loves”
So that something else besides God -- anything else but God -- takes on the shape of God
And becomes an abyss into which we pour our lives.
Augustine knew about disordered love and the search for fulfillment.
His life was a desperate and often heartbreaking search for self-satisfaction:
A life of pleasure, power, esteem, and privilege --
A life of aimless philosophy, painful relationships, idolatrous and distracting religion.
It was not until he heard the voice of a boy to take up and read in Romans
About how the Gospel of Christ transforms believers,
And how in turn believers start to behave as a result of that belief, that he changed.
He read these words of exhortation:
“Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness,
Not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ,
And make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.”
In the end, Augustine understood his life as a kind of a confession and prayer before God,
And he prayed these words:
Fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te.
Don’t worry, I’ll translate! I just wanted you to hear the orginal language first!
You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.
Our hearts are restless until they rest in God, Augustine says..
We need make no other provision, Paul says.
To that, add this word from Richard Rohr.
He says, “You are the desiring of God.
God desires through you and longs for Life and Love through you and in you.
Allow it, speak it, and you will find your place in the universe of things.
He says, “Now let me tell you something:
You cannot begin to desire something if you have not already slightly tasted it.
Now make that deep and hidden desire conscious, deliberate, and wholehearted.
Make your desires good and far-reaching on this Ash Wednesday of new beginnnings.
You could not have such desires if God had not already desired them first --
In you and for you and as you!”
So what about self-improvement in Lent? What about fake-it-til-you-make-it?
What about the chastisement we all put upon ourselves
That if we only wanted to change, we really would?
What about the grand and final language of the church?
Today, this first day of Lent, this Ash Wednesday,
It is enough to simply desire God, in sackcloth and ashes,
And to know that you yourself are already the desiring of God.
Let all discipline, all study, all prayer, all forms of self-improvement
Flow from this one simple truth
Which is less about what we do and more about who we are.
Our restlessness is the desire for God.
Let your life this Lent lean in to that place,
And all will be well.