Thursday, February 7, 2008

A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

6 February, 2008
(Intended to be preached at St. George's, Middlesex Centre, but the service was cancelled due to a winter storm).

Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 103:8-18; 2 Cor 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

(isa 58:6)

Today, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of Lent, a time that the Christian church has set aside for spiritual disciplines such as fasting, self examination, and meditation. As for fasting, I think any of you who went to the Grace Church pancake buffet are probably ready for a little fasting! As for self-examination and meditation, I’m not very good at it, I’m afraid. When I was in seminary, I fell asleep and began snoring loudly during a meditation workshop, something those around me never let me live down.

Back in January I was driving home from the hospital in Strathroy, and had a chance to hear some of CBC radio’s excellent show on religion and spirituality, Tapestry. This particular show was an interview with the Buddhist leader and teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rimpoche, who happens to live in Halifax, and who, as you might expect for a Buddhist holy man, knows a thing or two about self-examination and meditation.

During part of the interview, the host, Mary Hynes, was talking about some of the problems that many people have with meditation (even when we can stay awake). As she noted, most of our thoughts tend to revolve around “me, me, me, me, me, me, and, what about me?” I think most of us could agree that “me” is the subject of our conscious thoughts, even if we’re not meditating but just using our minds in our day to day lives.

Mary Hynes then read an excerpt from the Sakyong’s writings that dealt with our “me” preoccupations. “Here is the basic landscape we are living in. If the basic goal in life is to give me a good time, it won’t work out. Why? Because the lay of the land is birth, aging, sickness and death. That is the game plan for me.” Hynes added that she found this thought so shocking that it made her “gasp out loud” when she first read it.

If you’re a veteran of Ash Wednesday liturgies, the “birth, aging, sickness, death” game plan isn’t so shocking. The brush of ashes across our heads, the murmuring reminder that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, reminds us that our goals for “me” must ultimately be unsuccessful, or, at most, short-term. In my case, all my efforts to prepare for my first marathon this May, that article on core strengthening and sixpack abs I read in Runners World, those new shoes I want, all of these things are a mere delaying action against the “birth, aging, sickness, death” game plan. Ash Wednesday gives us more honesty than we find practically anywhere else in the world, as the profusion of plastic surgeons these days suggests. The question any sane and reasonable person might ask, however, is how can we live with this honesty? What are we supposed to do when confronted so bluntly with our mortality? What are the choices between living in denial and embracing a grim asceticism?

In his radio interview, Sakyong Rimpoche spoke of how Buddhism holds two truths simultaneously. The first is the reality that all life is transitory (the “birth, aging, sickness, death” game plan), which alone would be scary and depressing. The second reality is that life is an infinitely precious thing, if we choose to make the most of every waking moment we are given. If we can get beyond our preoccupation with “me” and our selfish expectations that everything should naturally go our way, then we are liberated and able to think more sympathetically about the conditions and needs of the people around us, since we’re all in the same boat. In other words, getting beyond “me” allows us to think and act compassionately.

It has long been fashionable to turn outside the Christian faith for insights from Buddhism and other spiritual traditions, but I found the Sakyong’s comments helpful to understanding the meaning of Ash Wednesday. Why, for example, does Jesus command his followers to pray in secret (Matt 6:6) and not to celebrate their acts of piety and charity in public? (For Anglicans, by the way, if we were to literally follow this command, we would have to place a washcloth and mirror at the church exit, forcing us to give up the “cool factor” of wearing our smudged cross on our foreheads as long as possible).

I think that Jesus makes this command because he knows, as does the prophet Isaiah in our first reading, how easy it can be to practice religion in a way that merely validates “me, me, me”. Isaiah is writing to a comfortable Jewish ruling class who practice a false piety. On the one hand, they never miss a fast day or a religious festival, and yet they selfishly live off the efforts of those they oppress. As the prophet says, real fasting would be “to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin” (Isa 58:7). When people get beyond the pull of “me, me, me”, including judging their own piety against the perceived shortcomings of others (“the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil”), then they will experience a liberation that allows them to see the “kin” around them. This liberation allows God’s light (a favourite theme of Isaiah) to shine through God’s people: “your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday” (58:10).

Light in the midst of darkness, hope in the midst of ashes. Like the teachings of our Buddhist friends, Ash Wednesday challenges us not to ignore the darkness, prevents us from hoping for the best and pretending that the worst won’t happen to us. Tonight we hear the worst case scenario, that we are dust and we will return to dust, and yet those words, with their allusion to the creation story in Genesis (“then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Gen 2:7) remind us that we are created. We are the handiwork of a loving and purposeful creator, and there is a purpose to life, if we care to see it. God’s handiwork is all around us in the form of our fellow creatures, and God has called us through his Son to love them as we love God – and as we love ourselves.

May we go forth tonight knowing that we have been given the precious gift of life, and in the short time that we are have to enjoy these gifts, let us use them so that God’s light is seen in the darkness, and so that the gloom around us seems like the bright light of noon. Amen.

©Michael Peterson+ 2007

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Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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