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February 26, 2020

Ash Wednesday

Passage: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-2

The two things about which human beings tend to be most confident and also most wrong are, in order, righteousness, and what we need. Sometimes, of course, we are right, and sometimes we do know what we need. It’s just that we are also susceptible to error and also to resenting the implication that we might ever err.

Lent is a challenge because it presents a challenge to our convictions about righteousness and our own needs. Righteousness, because it is a forty-odd-day invitation to examine the ways in which we are not, ourselves, righteous; our needs, because it is an invitation to carefully distinguish between what is a need and what is simply a want, even a powerful one.

These problems boil down to the relationship between sin and finitude, which is what Ash Wednesday is primarily about. In a world with sin in it--and our world is one with sin in it; when people are suffering at borders and outside at night and at the hands of strangers and loved ones alike I think it is safe to say that--then our finitude itself prevents us from anything like perfection. We are not able to know entirely or to always choose well, despite our best efforts. There are hard limits on our insight, our energy, our willpower. It is simply how we are. We will emphasize one thing and forget another--we will pray and worship without working for justice; we will work for justice without praying; we will take time for ourselves and hide away from those who love us; we will place our trust in the things that we can see and hear and touch because they are available to us, finite creatures, immediately and tangibly, even though anything but God will, in the end, disappoint us. We cannot help it.

Our needs—for a sense of agency and meaning, for nourishment of body and spirit—are real, but our desires are disordered and we do not seek those things that truly satisfy. We seek public acclaim for religiosity over nearness to God, we seek the comfort of doing something over the knowledge that might arise in a quiet moment, we seek the attention or love or approbation of other people over finding peace with ourselves and our Creator. That is to say, we chase the fulfilment of wants as though they were needs, to the neglect of the need that underlies them. And the satisfaction we get from fulfilling desires over needs is simply licking chapped lips.

Then Lent comes and invites us to do something different. The discipline of saying no to ourselves is not, ideally, self-flagellation. It is pulling the plug on familiar noise in order to hear a much deeper and more lasting yes: the yes that is the most bedrock way that God relates to us, the yes of sins forgiven, needs met, weakness held, spirits really and truly fed. The rush, as it were, of living water which, having drunk it, we will never be thirsty again. We can neither liberate nor satisfy ourselves; what we require is much greater than our finitude can accomplish. But Lent, with its encouragement to fasting--which is not only about food; if you would like to talk about other fasts, please find me after the service--invites us to look our finitude in the face, to come into knowledge of the truth of ourselves, and to turn to God for forgiveness and sustenance because God’s nature is to forgive and to sustain.

Human beings live, by and large, in deserts of our own making, individually and collectively. We have built worlds that take from the poor to enrich the wealthy, that encourage each of us to pull away from others and their needs and even from ourselves and our own. To invite us, then, to spend forty-odd days in Almighty God’s desert seems at first an unacceptable addition of hardship to lives already hard. But it is there, away from the illusion of self-sufficiency, that we are actually fed. Amen.

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