I was honored and humbled to be asked to preach this year's noonday Ash Wednesday service at Luther Memorial Church, our next door neighbor. While, wonderfully, we were joined by other sisters and brothers in Christ, the ecumenical moment was coordinated by Geneva Campus Church, St. Paul's Catholic Church, St. Francis House Episcopal Student Center, Luther Campus Ministry, and Luther Memorial, who extended characteristic warmth and hospitality. I thank God for the gift of so many genuine friendships collected by the occasion. These are the readings for the day.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
I wrote you a poem.
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Remember you’re dust
And you’ll return to dust, too.
You’re welcome. I count myself as standing just now in the great, proud tradition of Anglican poets.
Today’s readings give Christians somewhat conflicting instructions for how to proceed on Ash Wednesday: the Old Testament says to sound the alarm, blow the trumpet. The gospel says to go to your room and lock the door. In a strange kind of compromise, you ended up here. Lutherans, Catholics, Christian Reformed, and even, Lord have mercy, Episcopalians. And, make no mistake, this is God’s mercy. It is a gift to be gathered together as we set out on this Lenten journey. For those of you who don’t identify with one of the four organizing faith communities today, your presence is all the more gift for that - you show us in a special way the generous heart of Christ. Jesus prayed for gatherings like this one. I thank God for you.
Today we begin the season of Lent. Here, on day one, we stand forty days, give or take, from the earliest, most ancient holy days of the Christian church: days that remember the death and resurrection of Jesus - Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. When we say that Christians are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are also saying that Christians are baptized into these ancient days and, therefore, into God's time. So Lent is the season by which Christians remember our baptism and rediscover our place in God's story.
Contrary to prevailing narratives, or at least what I was taught as a kid, Lent (or Christianity, for that matter) is not about self-improvement or becoming better people. Lent is about learning how to die. That makes the preacher's task on a university campus difficult because many of you are students and, God willing, none of you are dying anytime soon. In fact, you are beginning to establish personal and professional identities through which you will experience the bulk of your life to come.
Your personal and professional development matters; your education is full of loving gifts from a loving God to be lifted back up in love to God, but none of these gifts matter as much as, or apart from, the identity God first gives you through the waters of baptism. So Lent is not about disparaging your other vocations; it is about lifting up this first one, sometimes digging it out from the bottom of the pile or retrieving it from out of the dustbin, so that you can see all the others by its light. Lent is remembering that, no matter what else life holds, you are never less or more than the child dearly loved by the living God whose Son's life, death, and resurrection make it possible for you to lose your life in love without fear, for the glory of God and the building up of God's people.
Now, if (like me) you were baptized a longtime ago, you might not remember the words. But at your baptism, the Christian community invited the Holy Spirit to hover over the waters, and it was like a reenactment of the Spirit hovering over the waters back in the very beginning, the book of Genesis, at creation. It was the same, but different. This time, the Spirit and the waters announced God's new creation. Then the water found you and a voice spoke these words over you, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." And later, "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own forever." And these words count more than all the awards you will ever accumulate and all of the failures you can possibly manage.
The question that drives Lent is what trusting God's love for us and our neighbors above everything else, even our best accomplishments, goodness, and deserving, can mean. So Lent is about learning to die.
A dear friend of mine, Evelyn, spent the last of her eighty-plus years in an assisted living center. Though she would occasionally lament that the view through her window never seemed to change much, she was, on the whole, an infectiously positive woman. "I am thankful!" she would say every time I'd visit. She was thankful for her family, which included her church family, and all that her eighty-plus years on this earth had meant. More than anything, she was thankful for God. One day, though, Evelyn carried a sadness into our visit. I asked her about it. "I am thankful," she said, "and I have had to give up so much. I am thankful for my family, but I don't see my family as much as I'd like to. I am thankful for my memory, but I can't remember as much as I want to." Then she pointed to a ball of yarn and two needles. "My eyes are dim and my fingers hurt. I can't knit. And I loved to knit." She pointed around the room at her handiwork. It was true, knitting everywhere. "Tell me," she said. "Why would God take that from me? I think I am ready to die; I am not afraid to die. But why would God take that from me?"
Baptism reminds us that, just as Jesus was stripped at his earthly end, we too will be stripped. Sooner or later, there will be a day when strength and memory fail, when even the assurance that we have made a difference in the world might not make a difference to us. At that moment, will we have lost our worth before God? Through the waters of baptism, the Spirit cries, "No! God forbid!" And neither have those whom you do not recognize as worthy of love lost their worth before God by our negligence and self-interest: those with dementia and mental challenges, those we exploit for personal gain in this country and across the globe, the obviously unsuccessful, the prisoner, the outcast. Stand with these and you will discover the gift of God's love without condition, the Spirit's breath and mercy. In this light, as it proclaims God's love before all else, baptism is the gift of dying before your death.
So a world-renowned author went to a spiritual friend and said she was having a hard time deciding what to give up for Lent. She had no obvious vices, and was loathe to take on what she considered spiritual busywork. You know, giving up things like chocolate and sodas. After a thoughtful silence, the friend asked the author, "What if you gave up reading?"
There was likewise once a wealthy man who stood before Jesus and said that he, too, had no obvious vices. After a thoughtful silence, Jesus asked, "What if you gave up your wealth?"
I wonder, if Jesus wanted to tug this Lent on an equivalent thread of trust in your life, questioning that which you have come to rely on as a primary basis of your identity, a sign of your goodness and deserving, your love-ability, of a worth that has taken the place of your baptism, what question would Jesus ask you? Would you be willing to pull on that thread this Lent, if it could mean the emergence of a renewed trust in God?
Lent is about losing everything we thought made us the wonderful people we are until there is nothing left but God's love for us and the call to trust God's love and mercy to the end. Such a trust will involve turning from some actions toward new ones, because we will be given the gift of seeing how many of our actions toward each other are different ways of protecting ourselves from the need to trust God. This is one reason why you cannot do Lent by yourself, because trust of God and love of others belong to the same equation. You can measure the one by the other. Trust in God goes with generosity and vulnerability toward the outcast and stranger. So Christians learn trust together and discover that trusting God turns us into God's gifts for each other and gives glory to God. Like Israel's wanderings in the wilderness, Lent will call us to walk with God together, because the Christian life is not about impressing God by our moral performance, being good, but by trusting God, sharing communion with God and all those God loves, forever and to the end, in ways that become our thanks and praise.