Our Lenten fast begins today, with the palms of Palm Sunday last burned to dust. It will end with the spark of a bright new flame on the eve of Easter. “A dark and undeniable slash will be marked upon our foreheads, a bold proclamation of death and resurrection, all at the same time.” (Wind) Priests thumb sooty palm ash upon our furrowed brows, speaking words explicitly meant to evoke an awareness of our mortality: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And we ask ourselves: “This is the good news?”
We long to turn away, for life’s ashes haunt us. Darkness, cold, and death have power we cannot control. We despair over love re-buffed or withheld; lost hopes and shattered dreams; families, relationships, and communities broken beyond repair.
With brilliant self-deception, we do not notice our own ashy wake; born of our willfulness, arrogance, insecurity. We breed a violent culture; killing not only our children but the sons and daughters of our enemies as well. And yet the blood and the shriek and the gunshot of it all turn the promise of childhood to cold, dark death. (Bruggemann) Recently, our national confidence in unlimited wealth and prosperity turned to dust and ash overnight. And we feel powerless to make a difference.
It seems cruel to talk to people like us about ashes; (Wind) for what do they have to do with hope?
The prophet Joel spoke to people on the verge of catastrophe; a devouring plague of locusts devastated Israel’s crops, leaving people despairing and in need. “When disaster strikes,” writes Eugene Peterson, “our understanding of God is at risk.”
In the presence of ashes, people who haven’t given God a thought in years become instant theologians. Rumors begin to circulate: about God’s absence, God’s ineffectiveness; God’s irrelevance. Some even question God’s existence.
A good prophet stands up amid the ashes and clarifies who God is and how God acts. Joel uses impending catastrophe to remind Israel of the dailyness of their life with God. How they treat one another, how the widow and the orphan fare, how they handle themselves in business; what they say and do, all the things they have done to rip the fabric of community, all the ways they have broken the heart of God. God holds them accountable for it all, says Joel.
Suddenly, their individual and corporate accumulated decisions sit in the stark light of God’s judgment. Joel’s prescription? Nothing less than a corporate ritual of anguish. (Johnson) Repentance will be the pathway to hope. No one; not a priest, not a child, not even a honeymooning couple stand exempt; nothing less than sackcloth and ashes for all of them; fasting and prayer for all of them. Nothing less than tears will do.
And Joel means real tears; not the tears of “professional apology” we have grown accustomed to, when people in powerful places get caught crossing the line. Joel means tears born of the pain that Israel has etched upon the heart of God; the hot tears of Israel’s hope in the fidelity of God.
Joel hates hypocrisy. People promising to turn and repent who fail to, well, turn and repent. Barbara Brown Taylor argues that repentance lacks completeness if it fails to lead to penance. And by penance, she means specific actions that restore community.
Imagine, she says, confessing to your pastor, “I am a rampant materialist. I am devoted to things, not people. I know that Jesus loved the poor. I try to avoid them.” Then imagine receiving forgiveness and being given your penance. “So select five of your most treasured things,” the pastor says, “your Bose radio, for example, your Jimmy Choose, your iPad, and give them to five people who would be head over heels to have them.”
“And then, on Saturday, load your yard tools into the trunk of your car, drive to the transitional neighborhood where so many elderly people live and help tidy yards and the remnants of parks and public spaces. Work all day long, from dawn to dusk; do it without telling anyone, do it for free. Not as punishment, not to inflict pain; as penance, as a sign of real repentance, of a life turned away from self and toward the repairing of relationships.”
We do not fool God with our spiritual maneuverings; making a show of our piety, our giving, our prayer, with an applauding audience in mind. It does not surprise God when the flames of our self-deception and our enthusiastic palm waving turn to cold, dark dust and ash.
Time to stir, Joel proclaims: Time to stir the ashes of faith grown dark and cold; Time to stir until we break the patterns of habit and will that extinguish the flame of God’s love. Because the prophet believes there is a chance; a chance to catch fire again; a chance that God might send a blessing.
And of course, God already has. The blessing Joel could only anticipate has come close to use in Jesus; who came among us stirring ashes of hearts grown cold and closed to the love of God; who came challenging people to see God doing a new thing right in the midst of them.
Year after year, the mark of a sooty cross upon our brow reminds us that followers of Jesus found the spark of new life in his life and ministry. We may find it still.
For Joel’s people, ashes held the powerful promise of new life. They regularly burned their fields, reducing them to dust and ash so that new crops would have room to grow.
Remember the eruption of Mt. St. Helen’s volcano? Only one lupine survived the terrible fire and choking ash. Experts said the recovery would take 100 years. And yet, within months the shoots of lupine circling that single plant extended out two feet: Within five years, 24,000 lupine; within 10 years, 164,000 lupine. Green and good and lively things can come from ashes. Let us not turn away.
Rather, let us use this holy season to burn the fields of our hearts and minds, to allow new perspectives on ourselves and our world to spring forth. Let us repent, and turn, and create a space to wonder, (Wind) as Joel did, if perhaps God will send a blessing. And kindle a new and holy fire among us.
These are sermon notes and not for the purposes of publication.
The Message. Eugene Peterson
“Stirring the Ashes,” James P. Wind, The Christian Century, 2-1-89
“Remorse and Hope,” Susan Johnson, The Christian Century, 2-29-97
“Have a Lacrymose Lent,” Homiletics Prayers for a Privileged People, “Grieving our lost Children”, Walter Bruggemann Abingdon Press, 2008.
Speaking of Sin, Barbara Brown Taylor, Cowley Publications.