February 18, 2015


Sermon for Year B, Ash Wednesday
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
February 19, 2015
St. Thomas Episcopal Church

Today, of course, is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.
Lent is six-and-a-half weeks, forty days of penitence, fasting, amendment of life,
 Prayer, and even closer study of God’s holy Word
 For those who follow Christ.
On our end of the bargain,
 It’s about the four disciplines of love:
   Forgiving, letting go, moving on, and loving the world anyway.
On God’s end of the bargain, it’s about enjoying closer relationship with us.

I take this time seriously; I pray you do as well;
 I’ve shared with you some of the disciplines I personally wish to follow this Lent,
   By God’s grace may actually be able to maintain,
   And not merely maintain, but draw strength from, pray over, learn from,
     And change my ways accordingly.
Again, by God’s grace and with God’s help.
I hope and pray I can do this not only because I am visible among you as a leader,
 (And leaders are examples in community)
   But because -- well, to be perfectly blunt,
     If you’re going to sell soap, you have to take showers.

The point of all this is not self-improvement, although self-improvement is a nice side-benefit.
There are lots of solutions for how to do better in life,
 And the church doesn’t have to be responsible for all of them.
The point of Lent is to name and overcome every obstacle that keeps us from loving God.
As hard as that sounds, it nevertheless remains our goal.
To name and overcome every obstacle that keeps us from loving God.
We won’t do this perfectly; in fact, we are practically doomed to fail miserably;
 And it won’t take us to some magical land of happiness and personal fulfillment;
 The Gospel -- the good news about God in Christ --
   The Gospel is not about endless victory, delight, and exuberance.
It’s about transformation, love, honesty, compassion, and service.
So, we will end up where we always end up when we take the Lenten journey --
 At the foot of the cross.

In all this, there is no bargaining out. There is no squirming away.
Lent takes us where it takes us, teaches us what it teaches us:
 Life shaped by the cross, not by glory.

The ashes you will receive and wear for a time are the perfect symbol of all this.
Applied directly to the body, they cannot be simply removed like you would remove clothing;
 They cling tight, and some work is required to wash them.
They are dark and cross-shaped; they reflect the reality
 Of living as sinful creatures on a life-journey towards God.
They are made from the same palms we waved on Palm Sunday of last year
 To greet Jesus as he entered Jerusalem a hero,
 Only to be betrayed and handed over to become a state-sponsored execution.
Those palms are a symbol of our complicity in violent systems
 And the ease with which we look away when it is easier to pretend to ignore slaughter
 Than it is to point it out, step in, or stop it.

Ash, too, is the product of a complete burning.
It means the end of the natural life of a thing.
Your life is worth everything in God’s eyes and in God’s economy,
 But that doesn’t mean your human life will be without end.
Shakespeare wrote that all flesh inherits a “thousand natural shocks.”
 We wither and die, all of us, someday, and pass on into whatever it is God has for us next.
For now, you, and I, these bodies of ours -- we are finite creatures.
We come from dust and so one day shall we be dust again.
This is to be embraced from a faith perspective:
 I’m not God; I am simply one of the beloved of God;
  What awaits me when I die is God’s business and judgment.
So. We continually place ourselves into God’s gracious care and keeping.
What more can we do?

Finally, sisters and brothers, this image from Syncletica, one of the mothers of the church
 And a real source of deep wisdom for anyone serious about walking that path to God.
She lived in the fourth century; was the child of parents who had great wealth;
 Was reputed to have been a great beauty;
   But finally she spurned all available definitions of success and gave everything away
   In order to go and live in the desert, and there she found the heart of God.

She said,
 “When you have to fast, do not pretend illness.
   For those who do not fast often fall into real sickness.
   If you have begun to act well, do not turn back through constraint of the enemy,
     For through your endurance, the enemy is destroyed.
   Those who put out to sea at first sail with a favorable wind;
     Then the sails spread, but later the winds become adverse.
   Then the ship is tossed by the waves and is no longer controlled by the rudder.
   But when in a little while there is a calm, and the tempest dies down,
     Then the ship sails on again.
   So it is with us, when we are driven by the spirits who are against us;
     We hold to the cross and so we can set a safe course.”

Let this grace be a sign for Lent:
 Not only do we steer inevitably towards the cross during this season,
   But in fact we lash ourselves to it the entire time, each and every day,
     And steer ourselves by it accordingly.
The cross is the goal -- the object on the far horizon --
  And it is the mast we tie ourselves to
  In order to keep from getting tossed over while navigating stormy seas.
And it is the rudder by which we steer.
And is the north star that guides us in the night.
The cross of Christ is everything.

May we find strength and sustenance from these words this Lent, this Ash Wednesday;
 And may God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be our constant companion. Amen.

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