February 17, 2021
St. Anselm Church – Sudbury, MA
Readings: Joel 2:12-18; Psalm 51; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18 https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/021721.cfm
Our God is a god of peace. Our God yearns for unity among all people. God wants to heal all division.
The key to peace & unity and healing is forgiveness — which is at times hard to give, and is even hard to receive.
You know that! For who among us has never held a grudge?
Who among us has not had a hard time saying sorry?
But God sets the example. God makes the first move to forgive.
In the Prophet Joel we hear God cry out: “return to me with your whole heart”. If you’ve strayed and gone away, come back! return home!
The prophet Hosea also shows us our God speaking in tender terms to an unfaithful people, urging repentance and lavishing forgiveness.
Above all, God binds up the wounds of our human sin and removes from us the finality of death, by reaching out a hand, by grasping for the olive branch, by extending forgiveness.
You all have heard John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son that whoever believes in him shall not die but have eternal life”.
And Jesus is the good shepherd, who goes after the lost sheep to return it to the safety of the flock (Luke 15:3-8).
Forgiveness! Peace! Unity! Eternal life!
That beautiful dream is on offer — for God makes the first move — if only we respond, return, come back, get close again, reach out our hand to the One reaching out to us.
That beautiful dream of a world made new by forgiveness is on offer to all of us —
all of us who are not perfectly loving all the time,
who are quite often not willing to forgive,
who tend to refuse to see our own faults
but magnify the faults of other,
to us who nurture anger
Or revel in the power of gossip.
I know it sounds like a tall order. Virtue is a tall order!
But no, perfection is NOT demanded by our God;
A humble heart striving to be more Godly is.
The year we have just gone through has been hard!
In it we have seen some of the best of human tendencies and some of the worst of human tendencies all heightened by crisis and fear.
But God doesn’t ask us to perfect ourselves on our own. God makes the first move! He stretches out a hand to help. He utters tender words of love:
come back to me with all your heart! Welcome home!
I miss you. The lights are on for you. The door is unlocked.
God also gives us a community with whom to strive together.
Locally that’s called St. Anselm’s.
Broadly it’s called the Church.
Globally it’s called People of Good Will.
We are not alone.
We are sinners, loved by God, on the way of purification,
and our destination is God’s Kingdom — and the doors are wide open before us, right in this moment.
Today we mark ourselves with ashes.
As with ashes of destruction and demolition,
so with the ashes we use in sacred rites today.
They are ashes of both life and death.
These ashes carry the specter of death.
Lent is a season of dying:
dying to “Me, me, me . . .I, I, I” —
dying to being the center of the universe;
telling jokes at another’s expense;
dying to the need to be right;
dying to aimless web surfing;
dying to blaming our alcoholic or disaffected parents,
our heartless and disinterested educators,
the oppressive or sexist system, the abusive Church;
dying to an obsessive need for Facebook or Twitter;
dying to buying one more toy I don’t need . . .
You know your personal list better than I.
You have rehearsed yours as much as I have rehearsed mine;
examined yours as much as I have examined mine.
Anything that is killing your spirit softly,
with a song that’s sucking your soul,
and hurting your heart—
keeping you from your status as a child of God and a saint—
it must die.
It has to die.
That’s the primary reason for this season.
Yet we call this season of Lent a joyful season.
And here is the reason why:
These ashes form a Sign of the Cross.
And so these ashes are a sign of life.
We have been redeemed by Christ’s cross;
transformed and “charged with the grandeur of God.” [Ref. poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”]
“Now is the time, this is the day of salvation.”
Knowing we are redeemed by the Cross
we may find life in these nine new words:
“I am sorry. You were right. I love you”;
Signed, sealed, and saved by the Cross,
we might listen more,
pausing before we speak.
Restraint of tongue, pen, text and e-mail goes a long way.
We might change the soundtrack of our lives—
cutting the depressing music;
and cuing in musicals instead.
Signed, sealed, and delivered
we might celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation
(yes! go to Confession!).
For there in that celebration is a balm in Gilead
In the glory of the Cross
we might see ourselves as God sees us
or venture to look a homeless person in the eye
and do something on his/her behalf.
Smeared with ashes
we might find life in waking up 15 minutes early
to sit with God—
just God and you.
It may be the best time you ever spent with anyone—guaranteed.
Knowing we are saved and set free
in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
this season may indeed be a joyful season
wherein negatives get transformed into positives.
stumbling blocks into stepping stones,
the old saying “I just can’t”
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me,”
hand-wringing and lamenting
“We can’t do anything about that problem”
transformed into “If God is for us, who can be against,”
and Crucifixion into Resurrection.
Whatever you decide to make your practice this Lent,
take courage and stick to it!
And to help you to, I’ve got a smooth stone for you to keep in your pocket. Every time you feel it it will remind you —
to say a prayer, to give a kind word, to forgive, to say sorry — whatever you resolve to do.
The greeters will give you one on your way out along with a prayer book.
So now, come forth, my sisters and brothers,
be marked with the ashes of death and life.
Come forth knowing that you are dust,
but dust redeemed by the Cross.
Come forth in hope of discerning what is killing you,
in hope of confronting it/them with God’s grace,
in hope of living life in new and loving ways
over these forty days of Lent,
in hope of coming to those Great Three Days
of Christ’s Death, Rest, and Resurrection,
nailing your sin to the Cross,
leaving them there on the Cross,
resting in a love that knows no bounds,
rising to new life
so that you and all the world will know that with our God all is well,
every manner of thing is well
and every manner of thing is well. [Ref. Julian of Norwich, mystic writer of the 14th century, Revelations of Divine Love]