Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday Sermon


For those who may not know what a word cloud is, it is (according to Wikkipedia) “a weighted list in visual design.” 

So what I did to create the cover of today’s bulletin was to cut and paste five documents—today’s collect, the psalm, and the three readings found in your bulletin—and then I put all of those words into a program called “Wordle” which then generated the “word cloud” that you see above.  Setting aside words like “the” and “and”—the largest words you see are the ones that came up the most, and the smaller ones, of course, came up less frequently.

Now that is not a method of studying Scripture that I learned in seminary! And it may not be a profoundly theological thing to do. 

And yet, as I thought about it, it occurred to me that Biblical scholars have sometimes engaged in what is called a “word-study.” You usually do a word-study by pulling out a concordance. So maybe this word cloud thing isn’t so far-fetched after all: maybe it’s just a modernized version of that old-fashioned word study which allows us to visualize the key words in a bunch of sacred texts. 

Sometimes Lent can get skewed. Some of us have some old tapes about what Lent is supposed to be about that we probably need to record over. So if the readings for today are meant to get us headed on the right path for the next forty days, then what might this word cloud reveal to us? 

What leaps out at me is that Lent is, first and foremost, not about us. Lent is about God. “Lord” and “God” (and to a lesser extent, “Father” and “Jesus” and “Christ”) dominate. Joel is blowing the trumpet to remind us that Lent is a time to return to God if we have wandered away. And that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” That is almost a formula in the Old Testament, especially among the prophets. There is no reason to run away from God; we are invited to run toward God’s loving embrace because God is gracious, and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  

It is for this reason that the psalmist invites us to bless the Lord and to bless God’s holy name. We began today at verse eight, but if you go back and look at the first seven verses preceding these you’ll find a whole bunch of verbs. We are called to bless God because God forgives, God heals and redeems and crowns and satisfies and renews; God executes righteousness on behalf of the oppressed. Oh yes, and because God is “full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.”

Christian faith is not about believing in some generic Creator-God. It is about entering a relationship of love with this particular God of the poets and the prophets, this God of love and mercy. It’s about putting that God at the center of our lives. This God forgives and heals and redeems and crowns and satisfies and renews. This God is revealed to us in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Jesus’ shorthand for talking about the kind of loving relationship we are called to with God is to call God “Father” – another name for God that appears in our word cloud, as we heard in Matthew’s Gospel. He uses the Aramaic word “abba” which more closely could be translated as “daddy” or “papa” than “Father.” It’s an intimate word of relationship; not a formal title of paternity. 

I don’t think “abba” is meant to limit God to being a male father figure. God is both male and female, and neither one. God is beyond gender identities, and yet the Scriptures tell us that we humans are created in the image of God, male and female. So while it’s true that if you did a word cloud of the whole Bible, “mother” would be in smaller font than “father”—it’s still important to note that it would most definitely be there.

Like a mother who cannot forget her child, God invites us not only into a deeper relationship of intimacy with God’s own self. But if God is our father and mother, then we are all God’s children. That is another word that comes up in our word cloud. It means that we are sisters and brothers to each other and we are called to live like we believe that. It means that love of God is not enough; Lent is also about love of neighbor.

You can play with this word cloud if you wish, as you say your prayers today and over the course of the next forty days. Words like pray and give and fast and alms and offering remind us of some of the best practices of Lent. We do these things in order to draw us closer to God and neighbor.

Words like earth and moth remind us that we do not have all the time in the world. We are dust and to dust we shall return. That is not a threat; it’s just the truth.  All of our stuff—even our most treasured possessions—will eventually be consumed by moth and rust. As someone has said, life is like the game of Monopoly. After all the excitement of winning, after all those houses and hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place, it all goes back into the box when the game is over. 

So, it is with us, too. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Be sure you are not putting too much trust in the stuff that moth and rust can consume, because where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. 

Only God is forever. We participate in the divine life, in forever, only to the extent that we keep God first. Lent is about remembering again to do just that; and reorienting ourselves to that truth. We are invited today, and over the course of these next forty days, to return to the One who loves us, who heals us, who forgives us, who renews us, who speaks up for the poor when nobody else will.

And that is what Lent is for.   

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