(The following is a homily given by Russ Dean, Co-pastor at Park Road Baptist Church, during the recent Ash Wednesday service.)
The more I read the Bible the more I am convinced that it is a hard book.
Years ago I said something in a sermon that one of our most careful listeners didn’t like. She had gotten stuck on some of my words. After church she politely rebuked me, and when I explained that I was speaking in a metaphor, she blurted out, “But, that’s not fair! How was I supposed to know that!?”
Well, I get it.
And I’ve tried to remember her valid complaint. Listeners don’t always benefit from the clues we sometimes get in print - grammar, quotation marks, italics and bold print. But the Bible doesn’t contain a lot of those clues, either. So very often it’s hard to know exactly how to read a particular passage.
The most common error in reading the Bible, and the cause of most of the world’s problems with religion, is getting stuck on the words – when something much more important is being spoken.
Jesus told Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stumbling block” (Matthew 16.23). Or, maybe he said: “Get behind me. Satan is a stumbling block for me.” You see, all the punctuation we see in our modern versions of the Bible was added to an original text … at a much later date.
The scripture passages that make up tonight’s service are filled with interesting nuances and double entendres and metaphors (Joel 2.1-2, 12-17; Isaiah 58.1-12; Psalm 51; 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10; Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21).
When the Prophet Isaiah spoke of fasting, he really should have put it in quotation marks: “fasting” – because he’s playing with this word. There are two different meanings of the word “fasting” for Isaiah. What is a “fast”? he’s asking. When you fast, are you refraining from food, so you can screw up your face to call attention to your discipline? In essence, just putting on religious airs, to make people think you’re spiritual?
Or… “are you doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God” (Micah 6.8), because that is the “fast” that God chooses (Isaiah 58.5-6).
Our opening litany alludes to the lectionary reading for Ash Wednesday, from the book of Joel, who says, “Sound the trumpet…” (Joel 2.1), and warn Israel that the day of the Lord is coming. But Jesus turns this around and says, “When you give alms… don’t sound the trumpet.”
Perhaps Jesus is implying that the real “day of the Lord” comes inwardly. In secret. When you give (maybe not, literally, your money or your possessions), but when you “give” your life, quietly, completely – and not so anyone else can see it. Fast. Pray. Give – in secret. That will be its own reward.
The prophet exhorts the people: “Seek the Lord” (Isaiah 55.6), but he knows that most of their seeking is really just self-seeking, self-indulgent piety. It’s one of the Bible’s many strange paradoxes, but it’s aimed at the heart of the religious life. Can we every really find God if we go, outwardly, intentionally “seeking God”? What is God? Where is God?
Maybe implied in any outward quest to find God is the arrogant assumption that we already know where to look… how to look… and what we’re going to find, when we finally get there. Maybe, quite on the contrary, the only way to find God… is to be found by God, which negates the seeking altogether.
The New Testament says, ultimately, true life comes only by receiving Grace (Ephesians 2.8). Grace is a gift – there is nothing at all we can do for it - because by working for it, by striving for it, by seeking it… we, necessarily, negate the gift, so we can’t get it.
Do you “get it?” It’s a gift. You just have to receive it.
So, what, then, is the purpose of the religious life, the Christian faith? If practicing it (striving, seeking) negates the purpose of it, to begin with? All of this confusion and paradox is tied up in these texts we have read tonight. And in this strange ritual we experience on this Ash Wednesday.
Ironically, this is the season when some Christians are most visible about their faith. Tonight if you walk in the grocery store, you’ll find a few people mining the shelves, with dusty crosses on their foreheads.
We might ask: Shouldn’t they have wiped those off before going out in public, so they practice their Lenten discipline in secret, as Jesus said? And, if you give up chocolate or soda or meat for the next 40 days, someone is bound to find out, and won’t that contradict the kind of inward discipline that quiet, Lenten denial is supposed to reflect?
Here’s my charge for you this lent.
Give up something, or take on some discipline for the next 40 days. (You get Sunday’s off. They’re not part of the Lenten season, technically.) And as you practice this 40-day spirituality, I hope you will get all twisted about where and how you should do it, and what it means and why you’re actually doing this thing you’re doing in the first place.
But I hope you’ll keep doing it, for the sake of the discipline. And as you struggle with it (you might feel silly about it at some point or like you’re some holy roller – or maybe as a good Baptist you’ll just feel too Catholic about the whole thing!), but as you struggle with it…
Try to let all of that tension remind you that this is what the season is all about. Paradox…
As alive as you are, be reminded that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, and if that depresses you, remember what the prophet Kahlil Gibran says, that “life and death are one,” and remember that Jesus taught us by his dying example that only in giving life will we ever find it, and only by losing our life will we save it (see Mark 8.35), and only by practicing dying – practicing dying, every day – will we ever hope to know resurrection.
You are dust, and to dust you shall return. At least, we can all hope.
May it be so. Amen.