The season of Lent provides a time for us to consider where we are on the path of Discipleship and in our relationship with God. In order to know where we are, we need to understand the guideposts along the way. What guiding principles and practices provide a firm foundation and guardrails along dangerous and uncertain paths? At Foundry, we practice biblically rooted sacred resistance, a way of being and acting that is engaged with and for the world God loves. As we journey through Lent, the scriptural texts will illumine some contours and commitments of sacred resistance, touching on topics like taking risks, keeping perspective, and working for a common good. Join us as we are nourished and called to sacred resistance that is deeply rooted in the resources of our faith and in the grace and mercy of our God!
A homily preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC March 2, 2022, Ash Wednesday
Texts: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
I recently said to my spouse that this year, perhaps more than any other in my life, Spring can’t get here fast enough. There are many reasons for this in my life. Perhaps some of you feel that way, too. And it occurs to me that the seasons of the earth—whether those are a rainy season or dry season as in some parts of the planet or spring, summer, winter, fall as in this one—the seasons outside remind us that there are seasons in our lives.
As with seasons in the earth, the seasons of our lives have their own look and feel—and affect on our bodies and spirits. And they change, they come and go, they turn. The wisdom of Qoheleth, picked up by Pete Seeger in the song performed by the band The Byrds midst all the unrest swirling in 1965, has been in my head: “For everything…turn, turn, turn…there is a season…”
To say we are in a moment of unrest is putting it lightly. Right now the world community is grappling with global pandemics, dire predictions related to climate change, a disturbing turn toward tyrannical leaders and oppression of all kinds, and the reminder that nuclear war is as much as possibility now as back in 1985 when Sting first sang “I hope the Russians love their children, too.” In our nation, polarization is beyond a fever pitch, the gap between haves and have nots is greater than ever, fear and social phobias and prejudices and white supremacy are rampant, and many are just trying to hold on in the midst of COVID crashes, the emotional and physical effects of years of stress and trauma, and just normal issues of being human in the world. This is a difficult, stormy season in history.
Within this larger context, we personally move through seasons—related to our age, relationships, school, vocation…or prompted by gifts like children or grandchildren or challenges like illness or loss. Amidst the not always predictable seasons of life, our spiritual tradition offers us a rhythm we can count on. Even more certain than pumpkin spice lattes in October, are the seasons that mark the Christian year. And Ash Wednesday is a turning point, a crossing over from the season of Epiphany and revelation, to Lent and introspection and discernment about our own lives and how we’re moving through the seasons of our lives and of the world.
Every Ash Wednesday we read the same scriptures and speak aloud many of the same prayers. And every year, I find that a different part of the text or liturgy draws my attention. This year, I’ve been laser focused on the word “return.” “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart.” Perhaps there is some subconscious connection I’m making to the work of “re-entry” or “return” to various modes of engagement related to the COVID pandemic. Perhaps the draw to this word in the Joel text is in response to my awareness of those who are feeling disconnected from God or from faith community.
But the truth is that in any season of life, it’s easy for our hearts to get pulled away from God. It’s true as the hymn says, that we’re “prone to wander,” to leave the God we love. We get weary. We get distracted. We get full of ourselves and our big ideas or of worries or of tasks so that there’s not room left for God. We give focus and energy to things that numb us or that we think will help manage our lives… It is so easy to wander into places and habits that steal life or put distance between us and God. Every day, each moment of challenge or triumph, we choose where to turn, whom to turn to. Today we are invited by God to re-turn, to turn again toward the grace of God, the mercy of God, the love of God.
There are moments when waking to a world covered in ice and snow or the first crocus poking out of earth shake us out of our daily distractions and draw us toward wonder and gratitude and hope—toward awareness of life and its seasons.
And right now, this Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent, we are reminded of God’s grace. We are ritually shaken out of our distractions and reminded that we are finite and that every day we face an important choice. As the Gospel according to the character Red in the film Shawshank Redemption says—the choice before us is: we either “get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.” We choose where to turn—toward those things that, at the end of all our seasons, leave us empty or toward those things that fill our lives with meaning, purpose, beauty, and joy.
It’s traditional to focus on self-denial during Lent, the wisdom being that this creates space to invite more awareness of God’s presence and our dependence upon God’s grace for our lives. This may be the invitation for you in this Lenten season. Perhaps there are things you need to remove from your life—habits, substances, dependencies, attitudes—that distance you from God and the life that is possible.
I want to suggest that some of us may need to focus on the other side of this invitation—that is, not what we need to let go, but what we need to receive. Because the call is to “rend”—to tear open—our hearts so that whatever we need to receive from God has an opening. Sometimes, things in our lives lead us to put up defenses around our hearts and lives. Sometimes, in our wandering away, our hearts get closed off, our openness to wonder, delight, mercy, hope, and even love is lost or diminished. Sometimes we forget we need care; we may get so lost that we think we aren’t worthy of mercy or peace or joy or love. I was struck by the resonance of the invitation to return to God in these words of the Sufi poet Hafiz:
We have not come here to take prisoners
But to surrender ever more deeply
To freedom and joy.
We have not come into this exquisite world
to hold ourselves hostage from love.
Run my dear, From anything
That may not strengthen
Your precious budding wings,
Run… my dear,
From anyone likely to put a sharp knife
Into the sacred, tender vision
Of your beautiful heart.
We have a duty to befriend
Those aspects of obedience
That stand outside of our house
And shout to our reason
“Oh please, oh please
come out and play.”
God says, “Come out and play. Come and spend time with me…I miss you…and I love you. Return to me with all your heart…and I’ll help you do what you need to do, receive what you need to receive. Just open your heart…and offer it to me. Come out and play…”
Turn again to God who assures you of your beauty and your sacred worth. Turn again to God who takes the dry dust of us and breathes in life that makes the dust dance and sing and create and care. Turn again to God who encourages you and brings you through every season. Turn again to God who wants you to live a life that is full of love and meaning, freedom and joy.
The seasons of the world, of the nations, of our lives change and turn, turn, turn. Today we are reminded that we can re-turn to an ever-faithful God, a God “who changest not, whose compassions they fail not…” Any minute, any moment, even now, you can return to a God who will never turn away from you and who loves you in season, out of season, and unto eternity.
Thanks be to God.