Ash Wednesday Sermon: “Wash the Ashes Off” ©The Rev. Laurel Dahill, 2016

If you like a good guilt trip, pack your emotional baggage because Ash Wednesday is for you. If you like the feeling of being found out for the sinful things you’ve done, today is your day. If you find that the attention you get for doing bad things fills a need within you, then I’ve got some filthy ashes over there with your name on it. If Ash Wednesday and Lent were only about the baggage we carry of not all our shortcomings, that we’re perpetual slaves to sin, we could simply take our ashes to go, and be done with it. But there’s much more to this day than indulging a gnawing sense of guilt.

There are many things for us to admit our guilt.

The whole world grieves the horrific deaths of innocents at the hands of vicious militants. We cringe at beheadings, and immolations we see in the news cycles. Meanwhile, women have been the victims of this and a host of other unspeakably brutal acts for generations, but no one seems to want to notice their cries for justice. It’s only when a male is treated in such a manner that it gets media attention and the world cries foul. According to a statement by Amnesty International, “Every year a vast number of women and young girls are mutilated, battered to death, burned alive, raped, trafficked for domestic or sexual purposes, primarily because they are female.” This is just one instance where we ought to adorn ourselves with the ashes of guilt.

In our lectionary reading from Joel, we tremble at the approach of a great and powerful army; the likes of which have never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. How many armies have used the time-tested approach of shock-and-awe to vanquish enemies, or the blitzkrieg to disorganize and confuse in order to conquer lands. All may be fair in love and war, but that doesn’t excuse our willful ignorance of the lasting effects of traumatic stress of war amongst our neighbors.

In our reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we hear of the injustices and cruelty inflicted upon human beings by other human beings who devalue life. Paul describes what it’s been like to change the way people think and act as followers of Jesus Christ. He frames the experience of discipleship in terms of great endurance in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger. The response of the people he was trying to reach came in the form of treating Paul and his companions as impostors; as unknown, and dying. They were punished, sorrowful, poor, and having nothing; and yet they moved deliberately forward, toward something greater. That’s important: they moved deliberately forward, toward something greater.

The people Paul ministered to are guilty of gross mistreatment of Paul and his companions. We are guilty by extension whenever we ignore the pleas of fellow disciples for justice in similar situations.

We often don’t see our own failures as well as we see the failures of others. We’re not able to see the ash marks on our own foreheads. We need others to point them out to us. There are plenty of things we ought to be ashamed of, and smudge our foreheads with the guilty dirt, but what good does that really do for us? It does plenty of good for the egos of those who enjoy looking for the faults in others. But how does it help us be better followers of Jesus Christ?

Ash Wednesday is about recognizing our shortcomings, admitting our sins, and confronting those parts of ourselves that ordinarily we would rather keep hidden from the judgmental gaze of others or our own guilt trips. Today we have the dirty parts of us pointed out for the purpose of doing something about them. That is what Lent is all about.

It isn’t really enough to walk about with a mark on our foreheads so that everyone can see that we’re Christians observing an annual day of atonement. The reality is that, however well I draw a cross on your forehead with these ashes, it will be washed off before tomorrow; and then what of it? This day is meant for bringing our shortcomings and failings before ourselves so that we can do something about them, and move to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.

Jesus warns us today in the Gospel about practicing our piety in order that others will see it. Christianity is about being in community with one another; to see and be seen; to know and be known by others. You cannot be a Christian in isolation. But on this day, you are expected to do the hard work of individual introspection. Bravely hold up before your very own eyes, those things that hinder your full participation in the Body of Christ; and then be willing to undertake an honest process to correct those failings. God already knows about your sins and failures. God was there the times you turned a blind eye to the needs of others, or chose a snarky statement over hospitality. Lent is for us to be honest with ourselves, and become better disciples in the process.

In the Gospel, Jesus gives us a path to move forward; to grow into full and complete discipleship. If you desire righteousness, follow this pattern. If you seek to know Jesus, follow this pattern. If you want to do something about the character flaws that hold you back from all the blessings and grace that God desires for you, follow this pattern.

Jesus says give. Just give. Give of your alms. Give of your time. Give up the guilt over the things you didn’t get right last time. Give up letting other people’s judgements of you control your life. Give up giving up on yourself. Take a deep breath and try again.

Jesus says pray. Pray in song when you’re driving to work and no one else can hear you. Pray like my favourite Tevya from “Fiddler on the Roof” who talks to God like he’s talking to a person standing next to him. “Dear God,” he says. “Was that necessary? Really, sometimes I think when things are too quiet up there you say to yourself, ‘let’s see what kind of mischief can I play on my friend Tevya.’” Pray honestly and often. God will hear you.

Jesus says fast. Abstain. Do not even allow those things that cause your faith to stumble to enter the domain of you. Do you drink too much? How much power do the couch and TV remote have over you? Can you go 40-days without following the presidential candidates on Facebook and Twitter? There is so much surrounding us to lure us away from the life and peace and serenity that our faith offers. Things that are quantifiable will always try to diminish the value of things not quantifiable. The abundance of faith cannot be measured on a ticker tape. Abstain from those things.

Jesus says, above all this, be transformed by all of this. Use this sacred time of Lent to create new patterns for yourself that are lasting and more life-giving that the ones before. I promise you, if you are diligent in this sacred time, you will enjoy benefits you couldn’t even imagine.

If you choose to come forward to receive the imposition of ashes, try to think of them as all the detritus that’s been keeping you from fully embracing the best life in Christ. Think of this filthy ash as all the guilt you’ve accepted, heaped upon you by yourself and others, for all your failures. Think of this gray powder as the dust you tap off your sandals as you walk away from the kind of living that’s not much of a life. Then go home, and wash it off, and start a new life, fresh and clean in the love of your Saviour.

Let us begin Lent this day as a journey without the baggage of guilt. Start anew to bring peace and justice to the world. Take the time to make a difference in the life of a stranger. Seek and serve Christ in all people. And when you fall short of the expectations of the kingdom of heaven – because you will – because nobody’s perfect – wash the ashes off, take a breath, and try again.

Let us pray the words of the Psalmist for a holy Lent: Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all God’s benefits. God forgives all your sins and heals all your infirmities. God redeems your life from the grave and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness. God satisfies you with good things, and [you will be] renewed like an eagle.

Amen.

“What’s your Geek? Who’s your Mary?” ©The Rev. Laurel Dahill, 2016 2nd Sunday After Epiphany January 17, 2016

If I may paraphrase Paul’s letter to the Corinthians… Now there are a variety of ways to geek out, but the same impulse; and there are a variety of interests, but the same creativity. The same God activates everyone’s passions. All the things we geek out about serve the common good. To some are given the ability to speak different languages; to others the passion for prayer and ministry. Some dedicate their lives to medicine, others to helping foster understanding. All these gifts are activated by the Spirit.

I heard a funny take on the beatitudes once, “Blessed are the Geeks, for they shall inherit the earth.” Heh heh, the geeks. The modern equivalent of the meek, I guess. When we think of geeks, do we not often imagine the thin, lanky kid with the thick rim glasses held together with tape at the center? The iconic geek speaks in obscure cult movie phrases. They roll their eyes at how ignorant the rest of us are. Geeks are little-tolerated by the more socially sophisticated people. In movies and TV, it’s often the geek who saves the day because they know how to break the code, or have the invention, or can piece together the clues. The geeks will inherit the earth because in the future everything will be so technologically advanced, that only the geeks will know how to reboot the system.

Geeks in real life don’t all look like the hollywood version, though. Geeks come in all sorts of varieties. Think about the geeks you know. Is there someone in your life who has an interest that you don’t necessarily share, but that their passion for that thing is inspiring to you? Among my favourite geeks are Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers on Car Talk every Saturday morning. Their automotive geekiness has helped countless mechanically disinclined people with their car troubles. Because there are those geeky enough to become astronauts, we here on the surface world have gained important research for such things as treating osteoporosis. Steve Jobs, in his garage workshop, in 1968. Enough said. Click and Clack, and astronauts, and Steve Jobs, all of these people have been given gifts by God and are thus inspired to focus and develop the things they love to do. They don’t just do these things, they do them BIG. And all the rest of us benefit from that they love to do most. Who are the people you like to think about who engage the gifts they’ve been given to the degree of geekiness? Maybe it’s an activist or adventurer, maybe a saint or scholar. Consider how their activities benefit others. Isn’t it remarkable that the people we think of in this way make what they do so well look so easy.

Our Gospel story today shows us an important moment in the life of Jesus, when he geeked out at a friend’s wedding. It seems Jesus already knew what he was capable of doing. For him, turning water into wine was probably a no-brainer. He’d already mastered that miracle a long time ago. It’s like those knitters who can take a ball of wool and tie a bunch of knots in it on some sticks and suddenly: socks! Pssh! Everyone knows how to do that! [eye roll] I’m guessing this miracle in Cana was just something Jesus could do, no big deal. If that was the case, then why did he have to make 180 gallons of wine? That’s a little much, don’t you think? When geeks do their thing, they do them real big. Could it be that the Saviour had a little geek-out moment? Regardless – what he was simply capable of doing benefitted everyone else around him. One of the important parts to the story is that Jesus activated what he loved to do – what God put him on earth to do – and the result was good news for the whole community around him. It’s like those knitters who churn out warm items for our homeless neighbors. Their knitting geekiness ends up being a huge benefit to the people around them.

One of the ways I’ve come to recognize that something is a gift of the Spirit, rather than a passing interest or hobby, is that the act of engaging with that gift gives energy to keep doing it. Eventually passing interests and hobbies get tiresome, or we lose interest, or we get bored of them. But things that we do that are gifts of the Spirit give us life. They give us energy to keep doing them. We find we can’t wait to be able to get back to doing those activities. More than that, whatever it is that we do so passionately is often something that can be turned outward for the benefit of other people. The gifts that we are given by the Spirit are meant to be shared.

We’re all geeks when it comes right down to it. If, according to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we all have been given gifts by the Spirit to do remarkable things, and we all have been given such unique gifts, then we all have it within us to geek out about something. More than that, whatever it is we geek out about, is something that can be used to benefit others, and make our community stronger and more vibrant. So, yes; indeed, blessed are the geeks. What’s your geek?

What are the things you really love to do – those things you look forward to doing again and again – those things that would break your heart if you were ever prevented from doing? What do you geek out about? Those are the things end up serving the community around you more than you can imagine. The question we are left with between Paul and Jesus, is about discerning the gifts God has given you, and how you are called to engage those gifts. Don’t be afraid to geek out about whatever it is that you love to do. Do it big. There are people around you waiting to be inspired by what energizes you. Moreover, there are neighbors who need to benefit from what God has given you. Let your inner geek shine.

It’s one thing to be a geek – and proud of it. But it’s another to admit it and engage your geekiness. We may all have it within us to do great things for our community, but sometimes we need a little encouragement, a little push in the right direction, a little permission to geek out.

The Gospel story isn’t just about Jesus. It is as much about Mary. According to the story, Jesus wouldn’t have acted if it weren’t for Mary’s encouragement. “My hour has not yet come,” he said. Mary didn’t argue with him. It’s like she didn’t even hear his protest. What she said was enough to give Jesus the encouragement he needed; the push in the right direction; that bit of permission he needed to let his inner miracle-geek shine. Jesus could have made enough wine to appease the guests or the wine steward. It sounds like they were all already a little over-indulged, so it shouldn’t have taken much wine. One stone water jar might have been enough – but all six?! Jesus went way over the top! He made way more wine than was needed. And way better wine that was expected on top of it. But it might not have happened if it weren’t for the person who encouraged him. Thanks to Mary, we have Jesus’ first miracle.

Who encourages you? It feels good to be given the all clear to be fully yourself. God puts people in our lives who help us become all that God has made us to be. We all have a Mary. Who’s your Mary?

To whom have you been a Mary? Perhaps it’s your children or your spouse that needed that… gentle push to use their gifts – or the massive shove to get them going. Either way. Don’t we all sometimes need someone to give us permission to release our inner geek. When was the last time you were Mary to a geek on the verge?

Geeks give the world an important example of how to relish in the gifts God has given all of us. What do you geek out about? What is it that you’d be happy talk about at any time? The thing that gets you fired up? In these parts it a lot about cars. Computers and the tech industry is also widespread here. There are more than a few music geeks in this parish. Even sports, and TV and movies offer ways to connect and build strong and vibrant community. Do you know the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?

We all have within us the ability to geek out about something. And the ability to facilitate someone else to use the gifts that God has given them to improve the lives of countless others. The world needs you, sisters and brother. The world needs you to engage whatever it is that inspires you. Surprise the world, like Jesus did at the wedding. Let your gifts shine like God knows you can. Find someone who can give you the permission you need to be all that God has created you to be.

Ask yourself: What’s your geek? Who’s your Mary?

Be the good news.