Joanna and Holly in the doorway of St. Paul's with ash marks on their foreheads, smiling; the St. Paul window is visible in the background.

Ash Wednesday | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 22 February 2023 | Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 | Psalm 103 | 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 | Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O gracious and merciful God who knows whereof we are made and remembers we are dust. Amen.

Friends, welcome to Ash Wednesday. This day begins the holy season of Lent. This day invites us to return to God, who is compassionate and merciful. This day calls us to remember our own mortality and our need for God’s help. And this season gives us tools to turn out hearts toward God.

One of the great gifts of the church year is to provide space for us to hold truths that are in tension. In Epiphany this year, we had seven weeks for seeing God’s shining glory and claiming our beloved-ness, and in Lent we will have six weeks for repentance and naming our need for help. Both of these experiences are true, and our faith makes space for both of these realities in the calendar.

Lent makes room for failure, room for grief, room to name the ways that all is not well with our world, and all is not well with us. Lent not only invites us to return to God, but Lent assumes that returning to God can actually be pretty hard to do. If we could just decide all in a minute, “I am going to return to God now” and do it easily every time, we might not need forty days. We might not need these ashes we’re about to put on our foreheads, or any of our Lenten practices, or the prayers and the stories in our worship that carry us through this season.

When I first came to churches like this, Lent was a new experience. I especially treasured Lent because the faith I grew up with sometimes had trouble making room for grief and for the slow process of turning to God. Sometimes the expectation was that the more faithful you were, the more cheerful you’d be, even in tough times. After the fact I learned a term for this: “toxic positivity.” And we’re not immune to toxic positivity in churches like ours either.

Grief and anger are difficult to deal with, and so sometimes we want to just force a smile, offer a platitude, and move on without digging any deeper into the causes of the grief or the anger. And sometimes we expect other people to do the same so that we don’t have to deal with it. In church communities, these expectations can be especially damaging because when positivity is seen as a measure of faithfulness, it can be hard to address the problems we have.

Even while I was still in the churches where I grew up, some of my teachers there helped me get free of this mindset by helping me to read the prophets in the Old Testament.

We read Jeremiah’s laments; this is a faithful prophet whose city is in ruin, and he spends chapters and chapters of his book crying and wailing and even ranting at God over the suffering he has seen and endured. And he still gets to be a holy prophet and still gets to be in scripture.

We read Isaiah. Isaiah’s visions show how God wants all God’s creatures to flourish and have joy. Yet at the same time, there is room for grief and anger when there’s injustice and suffering and the world doesn’t live up to God’s vision of hope and wholeness.

In our reading today from the prophet Joel, we can see that sometimes weeping is the appropriate response to the events of the world and to our own failures. We start Lent with a reminder that sometimes it can be faithful and righteous to be heartbroken.

The writer and liturgist Cole Arthur Riley said in her newsletter this week: “Lent, more than most things, is about existing in the pain of the world, not rushing past it toward spiritual toxic positivity.” In Lent, we get to surface things it’s hard to talk about. And that’s one of the reasons that Lent meant so much to me when I first came into churches that do it. Something in me was hungry for ways to abide with grief faithfully, ways to practice repentance patiently.

 In the churches where I grew up, we talked about sin and repentance plenty, but we didn’t really talk about how to come to repentance, except that you have to decide to stop sinning and then you have to behave differently. In Lent, we recognize that turning our hearts to God takes time and practice. We can’t always just do it in a moment.

It isn’t so much about mustering up the guts to change our lives in an act of willpower. It’s more about taking the time to create conditions where change can grow. It’s like building muscle memory. It’s like preparing the soil to grow a garden.

The rituals and prayers and stories of this season help us return to God. We remember God’s infinite grace and mercy; we acknowledge our own frailty and our need for help; and in many different ways and different voices and different practices, we call on God’s love to save us. Today’s ash is part of that. And some of us might find practices such as fasting or special prayer or Lenten study part of it too.

But both Joel and Matthew make clear that our practices of repentance are not about externals but about the heart. Joel says, “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” Matthew warns against putting on a show for others with the practice of fasting. Repentance is about re-orienting ourselves to God, and the point is that we turn to God and ask for God’s help in our weakness and our need.

And so what we do in Lent may look a lot of different ways, and that’s fine. All of our hearts have different histories, different wounds, different gifts, different ways that they know how to turn. God’s grace is here for all of us, whatever injuries we carry, whatever capacities we have, whatever the shape of our turning might be this season.

For some of us, giving something up for Lent can be a part of how we turn towards God. Some people give up a particular kind of food, and when they crave that food, they remember to turn to prayer. Fasting from food is an ancient practice many faithful people have used to turn toward God.

For some of us, fasting from food isn’t helpful—some of us have health problems that make fasting difficult, and some of us have painful histories with food insecurity or diet culture, and about 10% of people have had an eating disorder at some point in their life. For some of us, fasting related to food brings up hurt, and for some it’s just not particularly where we’re called. I don’t give up foods for Lent.

There are other ways to fast in Lent if we feel we might be called to give something up. Sometimes in Lent, I give up buying things I don’t need on the internet. Giving something up can be a chance to re-set our relationship with activities that might not be bad in themselves but might need a checkup or a re-balancing from time to time. But again, giving things up might be hurtful for some of us, and for others it just might not be the way our hearts best turn.

We might also consider if we’re called to take something on in Lent to help turn our hearts to God. This year I’m spending extra time with the Gospels each week.

Some of us may not be called either to give anything up or to take on any new spiritual practice. For some of us, the prayers and the stories and the rituals of Lent will be enough to turn our hearts toward God. For some of us, it won’t be a new practice, but a deepening of what we already do that helps us turn to God. For some of us, it will be taking conscious moments to breathe with the Spirit and ground in God’s presence with us. And for some of us, the Spirit will surprise us, whatever we’re practicing or not practicing.

Friends, whether or not we choose to do something in Lent that takes some work for us, we’re never working our way to God or to goodness. What we might do is create a little extra space in ourselves that helps us be more ready to receive the grace God always wants to give us.

God knows whereof we are made. God always wants to heal us and forgive us. God always wants to satisfy us with good things and renew us. God is always gracious and merciful, abounding in love. So let us turn our hearts to God. Amen.

Joanna and Holly in the doorway of St. Paul's with ash marks on their foreheads, smiling; the St. Paul window is visible in the background.
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