Come Alive for Lent

A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Sean Lanigan on Ash Wednesday

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Today I don’t really want to talk all that much about Ash Wednesday. Because the point of Ash Wednesday is not really Ash Wednesday itself. Rather, the point of Ash Wednesday is that it’s the starting line for a season that most of us have quite a lot of trouble figuring out how to observe…if we even bother trying at all—the season, of course, of Lent.

During my childhood, I gave up something new each year for Lent. And I got craftier and craftier as I got older, eventually realizing that if I gave up something that my parents couldn’t monitor, then I really didn’t have to actually give it up. Of course, my mother tried to limit our intake of sweets year round, and even moreso during Lent. But other than that restriction, I more-or-less figured out a way to game the system.

And so, Lent became my yearly season of lying and deception. Because I was never very good at self-denial. I didn’t really see the point. I didn’t see how eliminating some delicious food or some entertaining activity would really bring me closer to God. Rather, the usual impact was that I felt hungry or bored, and more than a little bit deprived. So every year when Lent came around, I very clearly remember my sister and I whining: Lent??? Again???

Ultimately, Lent just didn’t seem like a very spiritual thing… it was simple more fuel in the fire of my mother’s attempts to make my sister and I morally-upright, well-regulated, self-disciplined children. And maybe it had a little something to do with sharing in Jesus’ suffering as well. But just a little.

I read a very good essay a few years ago, an essay I shared with those of you who came to Sunday@10 last week. This essay has really helped me to reframe the spiritual purpose of the tradition of taking on a Lenten discipline. The essay is called “Making Lent Difficult,” and it’s by Ted A. Smith, from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

In the essay, Smith recalls his own teenaged attempts at Lent. He explains: “My Lenten disciplines became like New Year’s resolutions: promises to live a little more the way I knew I should live all the time. Undertaken as booster shots for everyday ethics, Lenten disciplines would be “fulfilled” if they turned into durable habits that would inform the rest of life. Lenten disciplines like these aimed for sustainability. Sustainable Lenten disciplines anticipate an Easter in which those disciplines will continue. They hope for a resurrection life—of whatever shape and content— that is continuous with an improved version of this one.”

Now, as you might guess, Smith was never particularly satisfied with this approach to Lent and began to doubt it even more as he moved into adulthood. And so, Smith surmises: “Surely Easter hope is [hope] for something more than a better performance of our present obligations, more than a new year in which we keep our resolutions. It is hope for a new heaven and a new earth, for new life on the other side of death. What kind of practices could bear witness to that hope? What kind of Lenten disciplines might help us prepare to receive an Easter that is something more than [an] extension of everyday disciplines?”

Smith’s questions are good ones, I think. Because I think that all too often, we limit the horizon of possibility of God’s action in our lives and in our world. We easily forget that God is in the new-life business, rather than in the self-help business. We forget that God is trying to shake things up and turn them upside down… not just to improve them by measured degree.

And so, as a result, Smith commends to us the practice of an UNsustainable Lent. He puts it this way: “The logic of an unsustainable Lent is implicit in the best understandings of fasting. We fast not because food is bad, but to live into the truth that we do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

We fast, as the Benedictine Damasus Winzen wrote, not to train the will but to manifest the power of the new creation. The purpose of fasting is not to help us fast more, or more perfectly, but to prepare us to receive the Easter gift of being sustained by food and more than food.

Fasting, then, is not an obligation that can be made applicable to all times. It is not a form of healthier eating or ethical eating. It might even involve practices that are imprudent or unhealthy—practices that we really should not continue beyond a limited season. In this respect it is unsustainable, and so it points beyond itself to an Easter fulfillment that is more than more of the same.”

More than more of the same! Isn’t this what we’re all yearning for? Not just something a bit better than the present, but something altogether new? Something beyond our wildest expectations? And this is exactly the business God is in, I think. The business of giving not only new life, but a new world, even a new creation. God’s business is the business of making all things new, again and again and again.

But being made new is rarely a painless process. And being made new often requires some letting go of what is in order to allow what might be to emerge. And what is can often be quite difficult to relinquish, no matter how unsatisfactory. Because it is familiar and comfortable and often good-enough.

So Smith’s essay goes even further, suggesting that Lenten practice can involve us in an experience of intensive re-creation. He posits: “Unsustainable Lenten disciplines are born of recognition that…the powers and principalities of this world work their ways not only in things we might name as bad but also in ideas, practices and institutions that are good. If Lent is a time of loosening our grip on the goods offered by the powers in the hope that the grip those powers have on our own lives will finally be broken, then Lenten discipline involves something deeper than giving up bad habits. It involves a letting go even of the good we are called to do so that it can be received again as gift.”

Hear that last sentence once more. It’s a good one. “Lent involves a letting go even of the good… so that it can be received again as gift.”

I think this is so important. Because if you’re anything like me, Lent often feels like anything but a gift. I’m used to a Lent filled with striving. Or filled with guilt because I’m not striving hard enough.

But what if Lent is actually nothing more than an opportunity to start again? To re-receive all that we are and all that we have as gifts? To be reminded that we are dust, and to dust we will return. And with the loosened grip made possible by the fact of our mortality, by the fact that we are not God and don’t have to try to be God—to inquire about what is really necessary. About what is really of worth and value. And then to pare our lives down to the basics, and learn to receive all over again. Learn that everything is gift. Gift upon gift upon gift.

In our Hebrew Scripture reading today, the prophet Joel urges us to rend our hearts. To have our hearts broken wide open to the world and for the sake of the world. And what better time than now? What is more needed now than soft, open, tender hearts that are ready to receive all of life as gift… a gift to be treasured and a gift to be shared. Because once we’ve learned to truly treasure, of course, sharing often happens quite naturally and spontaneously as grace continues its habit of overflowing. It becomes almost impossible not to share once we’ve discovered that everything is a gift to begin with: that we don’t really own any of this, that we don’t need to control or hoard, and that there is enough and more than enough. And that we are enough. Enough.

And so I invite you this year not to a Lent of drudgery and obligation, not to a morose or miserable Lent, but to the joy of Lent…to the gift of Lent. I invite you the joy of letting go of what is unnecessary. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. I invite you to the joy of finding what remains at your center. And then to the joy of offering yourself––offering your very self to the world as a gift.

The world needs that gift. The world needs your gift. The world needs, more than anything, people who have come alive.

Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

And do you not know…do you not know what God can do with dust?



The Rev. Sean Lanigan

The Rev. Sean Lanigan is the Associate Rector of St. Peter's Church.

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