Ash Wednesday Sermon

February 22, 2023
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

In Makoto Fujimura’s recent book, Art and Faith: A Theology of Making, he writes, “The essential question is not whether we are religious, but whether we are making something.” [1]

And as I consider these words, I see in them the perfect insight for us, as a church, as we enter into another season of Lent.

Lent, and the tradition of Lent in western culture, is absolutely “religious.” The way it’s been understood and practiced reeks of religiosity: these pious little legalisms, this primitive notion that by denying ourselves little pleasures – or even doing severe acts of penance (or whatever) – we will somehow be able to sooth an otherwise angry God. It’s “religion” at its worst.

And so, for many of us, we’ve largely given up any serious commitment to the Lenten traditions because they seem so ridiculous.

To our loss.

This is why I appreciate Fujimura’s insight: The essential question is “Are we making something?” And what he goes on to say is what we are making is culture itself. He calls the vocation of the church, “Culture Care.” Is the way we live in this society, a joining with the Spirit of God in such a way that the culture itself begins to exhibit the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control.

Hardly words we’d use to describe our culture.

But certainly, words we’d use to describe the Kingdom of God.

So certainly, words to direct us in what we’re all about.

But, of course, it seems so audacious, to presume such power to influence, especially as individuals. “Good God, I’m not Nelson Mandela. I’m not Mother Teresa. I can’t do that. I can’t change the world.” Fair enough. By such a standard, no, you probably won’t.

But we aren’t alone.

A household can be and do more than just a solitary person. And a church, a community of people joining together with integrity and intent, well, that’s different. It actually is conceivable. This work of “Culture Care” is a viable objective for St. John’s to shoot for, particularly as we identify with the broader church. Gig Harbor itself can be changed. It can be infused and exhibit the fruits of the spirit because of the way we choose to live in it.

But that, of course, will require much. It will require that we, ourselves, are changing and committed to changing.

This shouldn’t surprise us. The gospel has always been demanding. It has always required much. “Lay down life,” says our Christ. “Take up your cross and follow me.”  No wonder we prefer religion, when all religion requires of us is to “lay down your chocolate. For forty days. Not counting Sundays.” Religion is rules. And rules can be followed.

Following the way of Christ is everything. It wants all of us.

Which means the gospel has always been understood as a lifestyle, a rhythm, of repentance. It is an ongoing process of honest reckoning, of deepening self-awareness, of humility, of confession, of receiving grace and compassion, and of re-orienting ourselves (again!) to a truer, straighter path.

And this is no easy work.

To change – to become other than we are – is really hard. Everything in us wants to revert to what we know, to the patterns we’ve established, to the vision and version we believe of ourselves which, beneath the surface, is often quite corrupt.

So the invitation of Lent is to use this season (these forty days), as an opportunity to focus our attentiveness and our wills towards this vision of who we want to be, not only as individuals, but as a church. Who do we want to be? And not for the church alone, but for the good of this world! Who do we want to be, such that this culture might be, God’s new creation, where the fruits of the spirit grow plumply on the Tree of Life, on you, on me, on our neighbors, every one?

And are there disciplines we can choose and grasp hold of (forty days is a reasonable commitment!) – disciplines that could help, help shift who we know ourselves to be: children of God, image-bearers of God, stewards of this, God’s beloved world?

Very soon in the liturgy, I will invite you “to the observance of a Holy Lent.” And this invitation will list the standard disciplines the church has perceived over the centuries to be reliable paths towards the holiness we desire:

  • Self-examination and repentance
  • Prayer, fasting, and self-denial
  • Reading and meditating on God’s holy Word

Often, at this point in the service, I feel a bit uneasy, that we’re just parroting these words without any intent or facility to do anything with them. And for many of us, it’s because we don’t get it. We don’t know how to regard them as anything other than that barren, oppressive “religion” that we and this world are so ready to be done with. And even when we do try (out of duty, if nothing else), we often stumble into Easter with this kind-of limp offering, “Well right, Jesus, I did it. I didn’t drink for forty days. So… do whatever you want with it.”

So at St. John’s, we’re trying something new this Lent. We’ve taken each of these three categories and found ways to do them together, with the hope that – together – they will be useful, they will prove valuable, to help shift us, just a little turn, towards a truer path of being like Jesus.

  • On Mondays in the Hunt Chapel, Cynthia will lead a guided self-examination that leads to repentance. And forgiveness (!) It will follow the same theme from the General Confession that was introduced the day before in the Sunday service, with the hope that it will really be useful, that it will be a way to make an honest reckoning of your sorrows and regrets and to know God’s grace and – in a sense – to be healed and set free.
  • On Wednesdays, our “fast” will be in the form of a modest meal, our “prayer” will be a form of evening prayer, and “self-denial” will be explored in a series of testimonies. Each week, a different parishioner will share a story of their experience with self-denial and what made that worthy, how that experience helped shape them, and this world, to be more in keeping with the fruits of the spirit.
  • And then on Thursdays, I’ll lead a Bible study. We’ll use a form that’s very simple, very meditative, as a way for the Spirit to speak through the text and to meet us where we are and for us to respond to what we hear God calling us to do or to be.

You can come to one of these weekly gathering, or all of them. You may choose something entirely different. But the spirit we want to foster is this:

Because we desire to care for this culture in such a way that it may take on the fruits of the spirit, we want to become more than we are. Which means we must change. Which is hard. And we will resist it. So we give ourselves to this work, to these disciplines of Lent, for love of this world and as an appeal to God to meet us in our intent.

And in the wisdom of this Lenten tradition, we begin the season with the stark, the grotesque, the exhibitionist act of crossing ourselves with ashes while intoning the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” For the infant and the elderly, the message is the same, an insistent reminder: We are mortal, that we – every one – shall die.

And why?

Because it then begs the question, “Then how shall I live?

Mary Oliver (who is herself now dead) asked it well:

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?[2]

For any of us who have been near death, either our own near-miss or that of loved one, you know, at the end, only one thing matters, only one thing lasts, only one thing is worthy of this one wild and precious life. And that is love.

So, please, for the love of God, for the love of this world, for your own dawning of love of yourself, whatever you choose this Lent, may it be for love – that you are immersing yourself more fully into that river of God, which is love.

I wish you a holy Lent.

[1] Makoto Fujimura, Art + Faith: A Theology of Making, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2020, p. 24.

[2] Mary Oliver, The Summer Day