Title: Reformed earth
Date: 3/9/11 (Ash Wednesday)
Texts: Isaiah 58:1-17
Jesus once said, “Only the one who loses her self will save it.” I think that’s a pretty good way to summarize what Lent is about. It’s about learning how to lose yourself, to let go of the self you have created, the identity you have worked so hard to protect. Lent is a time to consider your desires, your wants, your dreams, the habits of life you think you can’t life without—to consider all of these parts of who you are and learn just how malleable, how pliable, you can be… how you can be reformed, taken apart and put back together. During Lent you learn that you can say no to the parts of you—the desires and habits—that you thought you couldn’t live without.
We begin this season of Lent with Ash Wednesday, a day when we remember that we are formed from ashes, from the earth, from clay, from dirt. We remember that the One who formed us from dirt, wants to reform us again and again, reshaping our lives, molding us into the human beings we were meant to be, images of God on earth. On Ash Wednesday, we journey into our humble nature: that we are dust, that humans are carved from the earth, molded from ashes of earth. No matter how we construct our selves, no matter what we do with our time or energy, no matter how we decorate our lives with achievements, we come up against a difficult truth. It’s there on your bulletins: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19).
We are dirt, all of us. But that’s not the whole story. We are formations of dirt that God has chosen to love and sustain through the breath of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has filled us with the life of God. Every breath we breathe testifies to the sustaining work of God in our midst, the Holy Spirit who sustains our spirits. The call of Lent is to surrender to this breath, to the Spirit of God. We take time to become familiar again with the Spirit, the Spirit who fills our earthen bodies with life. And as we open ourselves to God’s Spirit, we learn to let go, we learn to let down our guards because, after all, we are dirt, ashes; heaps of ashes brought to life through the work of another. We do not belong to ourselves, we belong to another, to the One who made us, the One who formed us, the One who shared his life with us so that we can be his companions, his friends; the One who breathed her very self into us and forever bound her life to ours, the bond of divine love we call the Holy Spirit.
The invitation of Lent is to confess all the ways we have come to think that we can own our lives, that we are our own possessions, that life is a possession, and instead to loosen our tight fists, to let go of our pride of life, and remember that all of life is a gift, all that we have comes from God.
Our Anabaptist mothers and fathers from the 16th century talked about discipleship as Gelassenheit. The word means something like surrender or submission, self-abandonment or yieldedness. For them, the Christian life was about learning how to give up our sense of direction, to surrender our sense of control, all for the sake of waiting patiently, even suffering patiently, for God’s Spirit to break forth, for God to birth something new. The Anabaptists were convinced that the God who breathed life into dust was still at work breathing new life into this world.
I think this is a helpful way to talk about Lent, a time of surrender, of Gelassenheit, of yielding to the Spirit who is always already breathing God’s life through us. Lent is a time to rest into God’s sustaining presence, a presence we draw closer to as we lay aside all the clutter, all the ways we distract ourselves from our earthiness, all of the ways we try to secure what we have made of ourselves. The good news is that we are dust and can do nothing to make our lives more secure, other than rest into God’s love for us. Lent is a season where we reflect on the miracle of our being, the wonders of being a human—made from dust, yet made to be loved by God. God loves dirt, mounds of dirt he formed into our bodies.
We are infused with God’s love, and Lent is a time for us to consider all the ways we refuse to let that love flow through us and into our friends and neighbors and strangers and co-workers and whoever. What are the ways we restrict the flow of God’s love, the love that formed us and sustains us? Sin is simply the name we have for all those ways we refuse to love, all the ways we refuse to share the love that makes us human, the love that forms our lives from the dust, the love that is God.
We are invited into a season of listening, of becoming more and more familiar with the Spirit of God who gives us our breath, our very life; a season to listen for what God may be saying, a season to listen for the whispers of God’s love and to follow the movement of that love, to surrender, to yield to that love.
Lent is a time to make lasting change in our lives—a time to let go of our sins, or at least a couple of them, to let go of those desires and habits that refuse to let God’s love reform our lives. And as we let go, we are renewed by the Holy Spirit and become earthen vessels of God’s love for the world. Then, as the prophet Isaiah says, the glory of the Lord “shall break forth like the dawn” (Isa. 58:8) and we “shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.” (v. 11).
We let go of ourselves, we make ourselves available to God, so that God can pour out the waters of life for all people. Then the glory of the Lord “shall break forth like the dawn.”