Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Good News of Conversion
(an Ash Wednesday sermon)



Today is Ash Wednesday.(1)  On Ash Wednesday, the Church remembers two connected realities: sin and death.  The wages of sin is death (that’s the connection).  Ashes to ashes.  Dust to dust. 

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked will I return. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

So today we are confronted with sin and death, our mortality, and I remember the warning that a long-time, beloved Episcopal priest of the Coastal Bend family once gave me concerning talk about sin.  He said: “If I talk about sin, the best I can manage with your sin is gossip.  But my sin - if I can focus on my sin - that’s the stuff of repentance, reconciliation, and healing - my being brought back into the fold and family of Christ.”

So on this Ash Wednesday, following the words of my mentor, permit me to share my basic understanding of my own sin -what I think I’ve learned about myself.

I try to keep it simple.  For example, when it comes to sin in my life, I know beyond doubt that my next sin won’t be my first.  I remind myself of this truth at least once every day so that I won’t perpetually torture myself in the face of important, new decisions. 

Yes, I want to do well.  Yes, I want to glorify God in all that I do.  Yes, I want each step to bring me closer to my Savior.  But what if I misstep?  What when I fall?  Is hope dead?  Is all lost?  By no means.  Despite my best illusions, I am not about the task of preserving my sinlessness.  I lost and gave up that game a long, long time ago.  I am a sinner whose next sin won’t be my first - or (very likely) my last.  In this life, at least, I will never not need the forgiveness of God.

If this is true, that I will never not need the forgiveness of God, then conversion is not just (or even primarily) for the pagans out there.  Conversion - being converted, the changing, transforming, and renewing of the mind – is for me.  Always for me.  Not just for the Bedside Baptists, the heathens who worship each week at Church of the Holy Comforter.  No, conversion begins in here.  Conversion is always for me.  As a Christian, as a priest, I have never exhausted the steps made possible, made open, to me.  I press on.  The pilgrim walk is long and beautiful, with a charge not completed simply because I find myself within these walls.  There is always more of God to discover and enjoy. Always obstacles that might be removed that would further open to me the vast expanse and brilliant landscape of the Kingdom of God: deeper in forgiveness, wider in mercy, fuller in self-offering and the love that we know on the cross.

A friend of mine tells the story of E. Stanley Jones.  (Have you heard of him?)  Stanley Jones was a missionary in India.  While in India, Stanley Jones established a Christian Ashram. An Ashram is a sort of spiritual community and retreat center. Jones recounted
this story:

In the Ashram, we gave the servants, including the sweeper, a holiday one day each week, and we volunteered to do their jobs for them. The sweeper’s work included the cleaning of the latrines before the days of flush toilets. No one would touch that job but an outcaste, but we volunteered.

One day I said to a Brahmin convert who was hesitating to volunteer: “Brother, when are you going to volunteer?” He shook his head slowly and said: “Brother Stanley, I’m converted, but I’m not converted that far.” (2)

The pilgrim walk is long and beautiful, with a depth not exhausted – a charge not completed - simply because we find ourselves within these walls.  There is always more of God to discover and enjoy.

“I’m converted, but I’m not converted that far,” he said.

This Lent, may I ask you:
How far are you converted?

How would you describe the always present call of conversion, the active and living work of the Spirit, in your life today?

Always present, always growing, churning, stretching, pushing, dynamic.

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians about the acceptable time, the just-right day to live into reconciliation, full life, with God.  Christ has made this reconciliation possible, says St Paul.  Jesus has opened the front door of the Kingdom, freeing us for the fullness of God, because there is always more of God to enjoy.  There’s an acceptable time and a just-right day for these things.  And now is the time.  Now is that day.  On Ash Wednesday, conversion is upon us again as Good News.

Today is Ash Wednesday.  Also, the first day of Lent.  Lent began as that time in which the Church historically prepared converts for initiation - baptism - into the life of Christ.  But you and I know that the good and restless work of conversion is alive in us and so this time is God’s gift to us as well.  The opportunity to go deeper in forgiveness, wider in mercy, more fully in self-offering and the love that we know on the cross.

Can I offer some unsolicited advice as you open this gift?  Don’t ad-lib it. Be intentional.  Sit down and sketch a flexible plan.  Scribble down the question: in what ways would you like to grow closer to God?  This question is a blank check that only requires a desire for God to write it.  Ask for help.  Use your friends, engage the Holy Scriptures, pray.  But see the opportunity.  See the opportunity, and seize the opportunity.  Ask the question.  The open door of conversion is the Good News that our sin and self-disappoints do not have the last word in our lives.  Christ is the first and last word and his life, death and resurrection call us nearer and closer, always nearer and closer, until we taste, touch, and see the goodness of God.  Don’t give up on yourself.  God hasn’t.

The wages of sin is death.  Ashes to ashes.  Dust to dust.  But today, ash and dust in this moment take the shape of the cross.  That blessed, holy cross.  That’s how we receive them.  Here is our hope: as sisters and brothers, converted again, moved closer, again, by the way of the cross, to the heart of Him in whom is our health, our life, and our salvation.

Amen.

_________

(1) Well, yesterday was.  This is a sermon preached at St C's on Ash Wednesday, 2012.

(2) Borrowed from Father Matthew Gunter's tremendous blog.  Originally found in Devotional Classics, Selected Readings for Individuals & Groups, Richard Foster and James Byyan Smith, ed., p. 303-304.

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