Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Behold! Now is the Day of Salvation - A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Christ Church Cathedral, Springfield
Thanks to the Very Rev. Jim Munroe, Dean of Christ Church Cathedral for his gracious invitation to me to preach and preside at the noonday service of Holy Eucharist with imposition of ashes. The diocesan offices where I now hang my hat are on the second floor of the cathedral; so this is where I work. So good to be with Jim and Canon Tom Callard and the cathedral congregation. The readings for Ash Wednesday can be found here.

It is such an honor for me to make that long and arduous trek down the stairs from the second floor today to begin this Lenten journey with all of you. I am so very grateful to my friend, Dean Jim Munroe for this invitation to be with you all today, my first Ash Wednesday in two decades without parish duties. So thank you for your welcome.

In today’s epistle reading, St. Paul offers to the first-century church in Corinth a verse originally offered to God’s people by the prophet Isaiah during the Babylonian exile (Isaiah 49:8). He says: “see, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation.

Personally, I prefer the older word “beholdfound in the Revised Standard Version rather than what we heard in the NRSV as to “see.” Behold is a far more interesting word! Behold is like a trumpet blowing. It’s more like “hey, look over here!”—as if Paul is almost shouting with jubilation because I think he is: Behold! Now is the acceptable time! Behold! Now is the day of salvation!

I wonder if this one verse might be enough to carry us through these next forty days—all the way to the empty tomb. Perhaps it is a prayer each and every one of us can offer as we begin each day of Lent, and then try to live at least that day more fully aware of the presence of God in our lives. It’s a verse that people in recovery can easily recognize because Now is another way of saying “let go and let God” and “one day at a time” and “easy does it.” So even if you can’t memorize the whole verse or where that it is found in both Isaiah and Paul’s Letter to the Church in Corinth, just try on this one word for the next forty days: Now.

Breathe in and out a resolve to live more fully into the sacrament of the present moment which is the only place, as it turns out, that life can be lived.

How would our lives be changed if we read and marked and learned and inwardly digested just that one word for the next forty days and then continued it into the fifty days of Easter? Three months of focusing on what Paul Tillich once called, “the eternal Now.”

We can get stuck in the past, can’t we? Not just the hurtful and maybe even traumatic stuff, but even the happy stuff, the stuff we remember through nostalgic eyes as the “good old days.” But what has been done has been done. And what has not been done has not been done. God grant us the grace to let it be! Behold! Now is the acceptable time!

“Tomorrow” can be as dangerous a temptation as “yesterday.” Sometimes we worry and fret, painting the worst case scenarios about the long litany of things that are coming our way. My colleague, Pam, reminds me that it’s a scientific fact that worrying works: because most of what we worry about never happens.  Even so, we are so often tempted to spend our time fretting and worrying about what tomorrow will bring.

And alternatively, our optimism about tomorrow can be equally problematic. We are tempted to think life will be great when we finally receive that degree, or get that promotion, or when we finally retire, or find that true love, or the children are born, or the children go off to college. Here we are, right in the backyard of the Prophet Seuss, who wrote about the waiting place. Remember?
Dr. Seuss Sculpture Garden, Springfield

          Waiting for the fish to bite
          Or waiting to fly a kite
          Or waiting around for Friday night
          Or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
          Or a pot to boil, or a better break
          Or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
          Or a wig with curls, or another chance.
          Everyone is just waiting.

To which Isaiah, and Paul, and the living God say: Behold! Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.
Since we cannot change the past and since we cannot control the future (or even one hair on our heads) what we can do with some intentionality is to seize this present moment and to live this day more gratefully, mindfully, and faithfully. We can open our eyes, and our ears, to the life that is given Now—to behold what is.

We speak about the wilderness as a primary image for Lent. We mean that literally, at first: the wilderness of forty years in the Sinai Desert where the Jewish people moved from slavery toward freedom. Remember that the manna that was given to them there couldn’t be saved up for tomorrow. It’s given as daily bread, one day at a time. And Jesus, after his baptism, went out into the Judean Desert for forty days before beginning his public ministry.

For us, the work of these next forty days may not be quite so literal but it is no less real: we are led, or driven, into those wilderness places of the world and of our own lives that we might prefer to avoid. After this sermon I will invite us all, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a “holy Lent.” That may not look exactly the same for each of us. Some of us will let go of some things – maybe chocolate, or maybe an old grudge. Some of us will add some things like daily prayer or making time to dwell in God’s holy Word, or to feed the hungry or visit the sick. But whatever practice you may undertake, I invite you to ask how it might change you. Not as something to “get through” for forty days, but as something that will help you get back on track and re-oriented to the living God. Because that is the ultimate goal of Lent.

It is so ironic to me how resistant we Christians are to change, when we are really in the change business. I can’t tell you what it is that needs to change in your life as you embark on this Lenten journey. To be honest I’m not even sure what it is that I need to change in my own life. Sometimes we get too caught up in things to see, which I guess is why we all need trusted friends who can occasionally hold up a mirror for us, in love.

I can’t tell you what you should give up, or what you should let go of in order to make time for something else. Some of us need to slow down, while others of us need to get to work. Some of us need to get serious, while others of us need to lighten up. Some of us need to begin to recognize the gifts we have and claim them, while others of us need a dose of humility and need to step back. Some of us need to speak up; others of us need to learn how to listen. The messages we take from this liturgy will be particular to the lives we are living. And they may change from year to year, or even from day to day in these next forty days.

We live in a culture that does its utmost to deny death. But the saints of the Church have always known that it is the fear of death that prevents us from full and abundant living. And that Easter faith inspires courage to face that truth without fear. They remind us that we deceive ourselves when we think we have all the time in the world, because the plain and honest truth is that we do not.

What we have is Today. There is no re-wind or fast-forward button for our lives. There is only Now.

So what I can tell you is this: we are all terminal. You don’t need a cancer diagnosis to be terminal. All of us have a limited amount of time on this earth to do the work God has given us to do. That doesn’t mean get back to work and look busy! It means that all of us are dust and to dust we shall return. And there is no negotiating on that one!

So the only question left is this: what will you do with your one, wild and precious life? What is it that will be different about the world—better about the world—because you have lived?

Remember that you are a beloved creature of this earth, holy dust created in God’s own image. And remember that one day you, too, shall return to the earth. May these words soak in as words of hope that call us back into our skin, back to the meaning of our Baptismal Covenant; words that call us to get busy living by living this day more boldy, and more creatively, and more interdependently.

Behold! Now is the acceptable time. Now.


  1. Now is the only time we have....and all times are Now to God....

  2. exceptional Rich, thank you.