February 10, 2016 – Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:2
Gospel - Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Homily – I Give Up
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
Many of you know my wife, Melissa. Melissa's father, Carl, was a very handy man. If things broke around the house, Carl could fix it. Carl ran his own business and it was a business that required a "hands-on" approach. Every working day of his adult life, Carl went into his business, which was one of making parts for windows and sliding glass doors. He made these parts on very old machines, and he "ran" his business. If a machine broke, he didn't call the machine fix-it guy, Carl fixed it himself. If the garbage disposal went kerflooey at home, Carl didn't call the repairman, Carl fixed it. Wiring to be done – no worries – Carl was handy – he could do it. I think Carl would have gotten along quite well with our own Harding Wescott now that I think about it.
Not only was Carl a handy man, his sons got the handy genes and Melissa's two brothers were also pretty handy. She grew up in a household where the three men between them could fix just about anything mechanical. Ingrained in her consciousness and her sub-consciousness was the knowledge that the male of the species could fix things – not only could the male fix things, but he could fix them whilst consuming vast quantities of beer. You see where this is going, don't you? You don't? Well just hang on – I am getting there I promise.
So when we were newlyweds, Melissa was convinced that if things broke about our household, I would be able to fix them. She already was well aware that I could consume vast quantities of beer – surely I would be able to fix stuff. Garbage disposal down in the apartment – no worries, Sam will be able to fix it. Hole in the wall – I know that Sam will be able to fix it. Car really seems like it needs engine work – I know Sam will be able to get in there and get it going. Then it dawned on Melissa – something was wrong. She knew that in my heart I didn't realize that I could fix things. She knew (or at least thought) that surely I was smart enough. I just needed the proper tools – and a handbook. So Melissa bought me some tools - and a manual – a yellow Readers Digest How to Fix Everything Book. For the young and the young at heart, this is what people did before Al Gore invented Youtube videos. Richard Blood told me the same book changed his life and apparently he is handy too.
Well that book didn't take on me, I will tell you what. The book did encourage me to initiate home repair type things though. I would tackle the garbage disposal – only to make the plumbing under the sink worse. Then to fix the now leaky pipes under the sink, I would learn to make minor repairs – you know – sweat the pipes and solder the joints and such? Oh-oh-oh! Well, I stopped that repair quickly enough when young Sam told me that I was starting to set the cabinet under the sink on fire with the butane torch. I installed a ceiling fan in a family room of one of our houses. There was a switch on the wall that controlled the fan. If the switch was up the fan turned on – good right? The problem was if the switch was up the TV in the family room went off – bad right? Switch down – fan off, TV on – not so bad when you think about it – we were able to enjoy both the fan and the TV – just not at the same time...
And so what I learned about home repairs was that my best response to the heavens was that "I GIVE UP!"
Three words – I give up. These are three very powerful words, aren't they? On Ash Wednesday around the world, Christians feel compelled to give something up. Most people give up some vice or bad habit. The practice of self-denial is an ancient spiritual discipline. Others have poo-poohed the idea giving up of things for Lent. Many writers have warned against the dangers of going through the motions during Lent, or giving up something superficial that won't really get to the heart of the matter – a true sacrifice, as it were.
While I agree that the sacrifice that the Lord requires is not superficial, I'm also giving up judging others' discipline. If you want to give up chocolate, who I am to tell you that you shouldn't do that? Nowhere in "mercy, justice, and walking humbly with God" does it include my commenting on your spiritual discipline.
I usually give up things for Lent – bad eating habits and choices in my case – I should share with you that the Lenten discipline in my case usually coincides with my lack of discipline from Halloween through the Christmas season; and the Lenten discipline helps to make up for my splurging during my favorite time of the eating year.
This year though, as we begin Lent, I feel like I am ready to give up.
I feel tired – and it's not just from the DASH diet. I feel bone weary, drop down on my knees tired, and I don't think that I am alone. I am tired of the violence in the Middle East. I am tired about reports of terrorists slipping through the borders. I am tired from the violence on the streets of Baltimore. I am really, really tired of divisive politics and divisive politicians. I am tired of social media. I am tired of the Kardashians. I am tired of an overly wired society that can't speak to family members at the dinner table. I am exhausted from shoveling snow. I am tired from the snow piled on the sides of the road, from the laundry piled up in the bedroom, tired from the piles of books and papers on my desk at work, tired from the books and papers on my desk at home, and I am tired from the endless piles of bills. Pile after pile – they seem to come in wave upon wave. I am tired of no carbohydrates and I am weary over my to-do list.
And now here we are at Ash Wednesday – the first day of Lent and we are supposed to give something up. Guess what? I can't pick just one thing. And so. And so – I give up.
Let's have a look at those ashes. I give up.
I give up on my plans.
I give up on my power.
I give up on my ability to affect change.
I rub ashes on my head, and mark myself "given up." Weary. Tired. Defeated.
I remember that out of dust I was formed. To dust I will return.
I give up. I confess my failures. I examine my shortcomings. I reflect on the ways that I cannot do it all. I resign myself to God's will, not my own. I remember that I will die, and pain and suffering will remain, but I will have lived. I will live without the need to be right every time. I will live without the need to follow my plan, without the need to check every box, without the need to fix everything. Out of dust I was formed, and to dust I will return, but in between I am going live.
I am going to live.
I fall on my knees and I cry out to God, "I give up." God smiles, embraces me and says, "Finally. What took you so long? Now, allow me...allow me to do the heavy lifting."
And suddenly - the dam is lifted, and a tidal wave of grace comes pouring out.
The fast I choose this Lenten season is justice, mercy, and kindness. Not because my actions will solve the world's problems, but simply because God is these things. God is justice. God is mercy. God is kindness. God is love. This same God took a pile of dust and breathed life into me, so how else can I live?
I can't solve the world's problems. I can barely finish my laundry. These ashes are a reminder of my own mortality. These ashes are a reminder of my own shortcomings. These ashes are a reminder that God took ashes and formed something that I could never form. God provides answers I could never know. God provides paths I could never find.
I give up. I get up with God's help and assurance, and I feel fine.