3/5/2014 sermon “Wholly, holey, holy”

Location: Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, VA
Text: Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
Ash Wednesday

Wholly, holey, holy

I spent my whole childhood in church. I attended religiously—every Sunday, every Thursday night—for as long as I lived in my parents’ home. And yet, not once, in all those Sundays and in all those Thursdays, do I remember hearing about Lent.

  • No pancakes, or Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday to get misbehaving out of our system the night before Lent began;
  • No ashes on Wednesday to mark the beginning of Lent;
  • No introspection, no confession, no making things right.

No Lent!

The emphasis in that particular Christian tradition was on holiness. We could and surely should be holy—filled with God’s love, holy—every single day, all year long. We were wholly holy, holy. Totally holy, you understand.

Truth be told, ashes and Lent were considered distinctly Papist, too Roman Catholic for comfort. “After all,” the thinking went, “WE could read the Bible for ourselves. WE didn’t need anyone to confess to, except to God directly. And WE were entirely holy, ‘holy, holy, holy.’”

Well, I was entirely holy. Couldn’t you tell? Didn’t I pray the loudest at prayer meeting on Thursday nights? Couldn’t you see my ten-year perfect attendance pin right here on my chest? And didn’t I know the books of the Bible by heart? “Genesis. Exodus. Leviticus. Numbers. Deuteronomy. Joshua-Judges-Ruth…?”

I was in college before I personally encountered Lent for the first time. There was something powerfully present in my first Ash Wednesday service. Something liberating. Something deeply true. The essence of this deep truth is this, “We each, you and I, are going to die.”

There. I’ve said “I am going to die” aloud. Said another way: “Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.” Ironically, saying this aloud helps me to fully live.

Why does acknowledging my own mortality help? In some unknown way, hiding the truth of death from us is the great lie that we buy into that keeps us from living for God. You surely remember THAT lie, that first lie, the lie that enticed the first humans in the garden of creation to disobey our maker: “If you [do what I say,” said the serpent, “you surely will not die.”

We might not have personally eaten the forbidden apple, but we surely have bought into this lie. In our culture we don’t even use the word “die” anymore, do we? We say that a loved one has “passed away,” or “has lost the fight” against whatever disease cruelly took them from us. But no, we do not say that they have died.

Well, today is the day when we acknowledge that we are all going to die. Most of us patch, cover over, and hide the ravages of time. We pretend, and thus we manage to forget that our time here is short before we go to meet our maker and give an accounting of our lives. All too often our holiness also gets patched up, cover over, hidden, to hide the holes in our holiness.

So tonight we begin a six-week period that we call Lent. During Lent our tradition invites us to end our self-deception and face up to the realities of our lives. We are to fearlessly ask ourselves:

  • Do we really love the Lord-our-God with all our hearts?
    If so, how does this show in our lives?
  • Do we love Our-Neighbors-As-Ourselves with all our hearts?
    The actual troubling, annoying people.

Chances are, because you are here tonight, you do. But maybe not wholly, not totally. If not, how shall we, with God’s help, get back on true course, back on track?

At times like these, I think that the 12-step folks have the most practical instructions. They say, “Tell God that your holy life has holes. Then let go of trying to hide the holes and let go even of trying to fix the holes all by yourself. Then, the 12-step instructions say, “Take a fearless moral inventory” and “admit to another human being the exact nature of your wrongs.” These sound like Lenten tasks, to me. The 12-step folks call them something else; we call these tasks repentance and confession.

Our gospel lesson tonight is Jesus’ admonition that you can’t count church attendance and knowing the Bible as holiness. Yes, we definitely need to do these things. But, Jesus asks us tonight, how do these things seep down into our lives and get lived in the short life that we have been given?

I invite you to a holy Lent, sustained with the knowledge that you are ashes; be wholly holy, holy.

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