Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday Sermon

Lord and Master of my life!take away from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant. Yes, O Lord and King! Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother (or sister.)For thou are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen
This prayer is called the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian. It takes us back to the roots of our Christian heritage, or at least as far back as the fourth century, which is a while ago. I commend it to you as we journey through this holy season of Lent, perhaps even as a prayer you use at the beginning or end of each of these next forty days.  

Ephrem (or more accurately the translator of the prayer) uses two rather old-fashioned words here: sloth and chastity. You don’t tend to hear a lot of sermons in The Episcopal Church on either one of them. But let’s have at it…

Sloth is one of the seven deadly sins. It sounds like such an old-fashioned word that perhaps many of us don’t immediately even identify as a sin that we ought to be asking God to deliver us from. We feel so busy after all, so over-extended and perhaps even so exhausted. Surely we cannot be guilty of sloth, can we?

But the true meaning of sloth isn’t exactly laziness. It literally means “spiritual or emotional apathy or carelessness. You and I are called to be passionate about our lives, and compassionate to others. For Christ’s sake. We are called to be faithful stewards of our time and our talents and our treasure, as gifts from a generous God. To be careless with our lives, or apathetic, is to be slothful.

Thomas Aquinas defined sloth as a “sluggishness of mind which neglects to begin good.” That may be a definition we can work with. The challenges we face in this world, as a nation, and even in this congregation seem huge and perhaps overwhelming to us. It’s tempting to sit back and hope someone else with super powers will take care of things and set things right. We can get busy with so many distractions to keep us from doing the work that God has given us to do, focusing on the urgent but not very important and neglecting the tasks that matter. We can be tempted to sit around with John Mayer, waiting for the world to change, rather than taking up our crosses to follow Jesus and in so doing to become the change we seek in the world. To at least take that first step toward the good, toward becoming repairers of the breach.

Now is the acceptable time, St. Paul says. Now is the time to begin to do the good we can do, the good we are called to do. Because we don’t have all the time in the world on this earth, we remember today that we are dust. Which is just another way of saying let every day count and that we can only live this one wild precious life we have been given one day at a time.

As I try to pray Ephrem’s prayer, which I first discovered a few years ago, it seems to me that he is identifying faint-heartedness, lust for power, and idle talk as bullet points about sloth. As examples of how sloth plays out. Sometimes we are just too timid or too afraid to act. Sometimes we are too focused on ourselves. Sometimes we are too busy with trivialities. But all of those things can keep us from keeping first things first and from doing the work God calls us to do. We come here today, stepping back from our fast-paced lives to get some clarity as we begin this journey together, as we move one step at a time toward the Promised Land – toward the renewed life that Christ offers each of us.

Ephrem prays that God would take away sloth, and replace it with a spirit of chastity. That word, too, requires some further defining. Our fixation on sex makes us hear that word far too narrowly, as if chastity were only about sex. But again, the much older meaning of chastity is purity. As Jesus once put it, blessed are the pure of heart. Katharoi kardia in Greek. Katharoi can mean pure but also clean and even clear. We seek a kind of clarity, I think and we know it when we see this in others – those who mean what they say, and say what they mean. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “the essence of chastity is not the suppression of lust, but the total orientation of one's life towards a goal.” (Letters and Papers from Prison.)

What would it look like for us, all saints, in this next forty days, to totally orient (or re-orient) our lives toward the goal of loving God and neighbor? To claim and to reclaim our orientation to the Baptismal Covenant? If we define chastity in this way, then we begin to realize that Ephrem’s prayer isn’t some quaint relic from a distant past. We ask God to take away apathy and give us clarity of focus.

What he is praying for goes to the very heart of what ails us and of what this holy season is for: true repentance and amendment of life. Not paralyzing shame or fear, but new and contrite hearts that lead us toward true north. Lent is an invitation to re-orient our lives toward God. Only in our turning (and returning) to God are we are able to discover (and rediscover) who we are and what the Lord requires of us. As we move from apathy toward a more purpose-driven life can we begin to claim the gifts that this Lenten season offers to us.   

What are the marks of this chaste life? Ephrem asks for three: humility, patience, and love.  Humility is what this first day of Lent is all about: a reminder that to be human is to be formed of the humus of this good earth, to which we will all one day return. We are creatures and not the Creator. We cannot do it all and we aren’t asked to! It is the height of arrogance to think it is our job to bring peace on earth and good will to all. That job is already taken! But it is our job to bring peace and good will to our own homes and to our neighborhood and to this Christian community. That is not work delegated to the clergy or the wardens or the vestry. Every member of this parish is called to do what we can. With humility.

Because we cannot do everything, we must do something. But it takes time, so we need patience. Like good old Johnny Appleseed, our work is to plant seeds, knowing full well that we may not live long enough to enjoy the fruit that grows from the seeds we plant. Jesus was a first-century Middle-Eastern Jew, not a 19th century American from Leominister. So he talked about mustard seeds rather than apple seeds. But it’s the same wisdom. We plant the seeds of peace and justice, hoping that our children and children’s children will reap what we have sown. We take the long view. We don’t get stuck in our fears of the present moment.

And it is all done in love. If there is not love, it is not of God. It’s that simple. If we do not love our neighbor whom we see, how can we pretend to love the God we do not see? Our neighbor is close by. We show love by how we speak to one another, how we care for one another – in this congregation and around the neighborhood.

Ephrem prays and I invite you to pray over the course of these next forty days that God would take from us a spirit of sloth and give to us a spirit of chastity. But there is one more very important petition in this Lenten prayer. He reminds us that we aren’t called to confess other people’s sins in Lent, but to look in the mirror and take our own spiritual inventory. I know it is way more fun to confess other people’s sins, I enjoy that too. It’s just so much easier to do. But this is the hard work of Lent: to look in a mirror. Lent is a gift because it gives us an opportunity to work on our own stuff, with God’s help, and to ask for the help and support of the community along the way.

Sometimes it is easy to know our own sins. We speak spiteful words when it would be better to bite our tongues, and we know it immediately. We act out of an old wound and take it out on someone who isn’t really to blame.

But sometimes we are blind to the real hurts we cause. I think this is because we know our own motivations and usually we don’t mean to cause someone else harm. But it is na├»ve to think that we don’t. We didn’t mean it and I’m really sorry if you were hurt by what I said or what I didn’t say. But get over it already!  

Conversely, if someone hurts us very badly, it is all too easy to attribute the worst of motivations to that person: clearly they acted to inflict pain on us. In fact, they may well have acted out of their own pain or ignorance and blindness. This is not to excuse them. It is simply to say that holding people accountable for their actions and presuming to understand the motivations behind those actions are two very different things.

If we aren’t careful we can maximize the sins of others and minimize the sins we commit. I think that Jesus, in his humorous but insightful way, is saying just that when he says that we spend way too much time finding the splinters in other people’s eyes when there is a beam in our own to take care of. Lent is the time for us to stand in front of a mirror and find those beams in our own eyes. So Ephrem prays simply that God would help him to see his own mistakes rightly and not to be so hard on others.

It seems to me that if we can make this prayer our own for the next forty days, then this will be a holy-enough Lent. Less apathy. More of a sense of purpose. Less time spent on trying to fix other people and more time working on getting our own act together.

Always with God’s help. Blessed be God’s holy name.