Transcribed from the audio.
Gracious God, help us always to seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will.
Today, on this Ash Wednesday, I want to speak to you very personally, not as an exemplar or a model of Christian virtue, but rather as a sinner and a fellow pilgrim on the way. For on this Ash Wednesday we begin our journey together in a season that calls for self-examination, prayer, fasting, self-denial and meditating on God’s Holy word. In light of the fact that I was preaching today, I got a jumpstart on the self-examination. It is from that place that I speak to you today and hopefully something that will have resonance with you and accompany you on this journey that we take together, ultimately to Jerusalem through the Cross and to the Resurrection.
So here we go. Growing up in South Texas I learned at a very early age of the power and potential danger of fire. As a small child, early on, we were told not to touch the stove because it was hot and we could be burned. And in Texas, of course, everyone had the ubiquitous barbecue grill or barbecue pit in the backyard. It, too, was something to be approached with seriousness because the flames could burn and go out of control. And where we lived in Texas, it was not uncommon for there to be an unexpected explosion that would result in oilfields bursting into flame and going out of control: dangerous, destructive and causing death. They would rage wildly until someone could cap that well. So, too, in a ranching environment, it was not uncommon for wild fires to start out of nowhere when the grass was dry and the sun was hot. Those wildfires too could burn out of control.
So with that framework of fire and danger, I learned that I needed to pay attention to that and I took it all very very seriously—so much so that one time it actually got me in trouble. I was in the second grade and I learned that even a shard of glass could start a fire if the conditions were right: if the grass was dry and the sun was beaming brightly and it was hot, which was a ready state of affairs in South Texas. I took to heart that glass could be a cause for concern, as well, and so on that day, when I was walking home from school with my classmate Jeff Anderson, I convinced him that it was incumbent upon us, if we wished to save our town from fire and destruction, to pick up every shard of glass between school and our home. And so we dutifully started picking up every shard of glass we saw.
Well, I totally lost track of time because I was intent, of course, on saving my town from this mass destruction and I don’t know how long it took for my mother to come racing up in the car to find out where we were because I wasn’t home at the regular sort of time. I had caused major concern that some aliens had nabbed us and taken us to some horrible place. Despite my best attempts to explain that I was just trying to save our town from fire, it really didn’t hold much water in that particular situation. It was a very stone cold silent ride home. But I knew that fire was dangerous.
On this Ash Wednesday we are reminded through the very ashes that we will receive on our foreheads, of our mortality and our call to penitence—ashes that result from the burning of the palm crosses and palm branches from Palm Sunday. In this liturgy we will be invited to remember, to reflect, to repent, to renew. And if you look at the symbols of fire and flame, they don’t always have destructive connotations. The candles that are lit behind me remind us of God’s presence in our midst: the light that Christ brought into the world; the burning Bush that wasn’t consumed but was Moses’ guide that God was present and that Moses was standing on Holy ground; the pillar of fire that led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt into the Promised Land; the tongues of fire that alighted on the disciples and all those present on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on each person present, reminding us of the enduring presence of God in Christ and the Holy Spirit.
So it is in that context of fire that I am remembering the life-giving aspects of fire. It wasn’t until much later in my life that I learned about planned burning and controlled fires; that that is the technique that is used in land conservation to burn off that which is life depleting to open up space for that which is life giving. You see, in forests, the floor of the forest can accumulate leaves and dead branches and trees that left alone can become fuel for fire, should a wildfire breakout. We see the results of that in the western United States and west coast of what happens when we’re not thoughtful and careful about the ecosystem of a forest. Not only are there pine needles that don’t really decay or large logs that only decompose after 100 years, forests can get trees that are filled with disease that then infect other trees if left unattended. Forests that aren’t burned periodically can also become overcrowded, not allowing for new growth and healthy replenishment of the forest to occur because it is choked by overgrowth.
How might a planned burn be a metaphor for us in this season of self-examination, repentance, renewal, and new life in Christ? As I looked at the Litany of Penitence which we will all pray together on our knees, with each petition, I saw all of the work that I so badly need to do: envy, pride, things done and left undone, hypocrisy, a failure to serve, and indifference to injustice. And as I reflected on this past year since our last gathering for Ash Wednesday and looked at the landscape of our cultural narrative in this country that looked too much like an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and tit-for-tat, I saw that I had a lot of underbrush that I need to have burned away— the things that would seek to decay; that I had diseased trees that needed to be eradicated lest their roots take real root in my life. What overcrowding have I allowed into my life? Perhaps an overcrowded schedule that needs to be burned away to open up space to abide with God, with my family, with my friends, with my neighbors in order to have new life, to live into a different reality that Christ offers for you and for me.
It just seems that so much of our conversation over the past year has not been one to inspire us to our best selves, but rather one that perhaps led us into a path of decay and death—not life, not blessing one to another. And so, in this season of Lent I’m painfully aware of the work I have to do. Perhaps some of you see that work ahead of you too. So I look forward to a planned burn in this season of Lent to clear away that which needs to die in order to open up my heart, my life, my spirit, to that which awaits on the other side of the cross. As we make our way to Jerusalem and ultimately through the Cross to the Resurrection, may this be a Holy and life-giving journey for you, a true time of reflection, repentance, renewal and new life. Remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Amen.