Sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 26, 2020 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Joel 2:2:1-2, 12-17+Psalm 103:8-14+2 Corinthians 4:20b-6:10+Matthew 6:1-6, 6-21

In my sermon on Sunday, I spoke of my interest in following news around the world, seeking stories about places I have a connection to or particular interest in, and I mentioned that last week was a bad news week in many parts of our world. One that I did not mention but could have is the locust plague currently ravaging Eastern Africa, with city-sized swarms of the insects decimating crops across seven countries.

Now, I don’t often preach from the Hebrew scriptures, but when there’s a plague of locusts of biblical proportions wreaking havoc, it seems a good time to turn to the prophet Joel who is offered up on Ash Wednesday. We don’t know much about Joel, other than that he is the son of Pethuel. His short three chapters are smushed in here between Hosea and Amos, but we don’t really think he was a contemporary of theirs. We don’t really know when he wrote, which is kind of nice, because we can make his words apply to any era. Even our own.

Especially when he starts with locusts, and we have them.

Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy mountain!

Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—(Joel 2:1)

One would think that the day of the Lord is the day we long for, but to hear the warnings of the prophets, we need to be worried. We’re not ready. We have not done those things required of us; we have trampled on the poor and needy; we have relied too much on the “devices and desires of our own hearts” as the old Confession says (BCP, 41). If we’re right with God, we’re ready for that day, but how many of us are really ready?

This is what Ash Wednesday is about. Making ourselves right with God. Making ourselves right with our neighbors. Not so that we can avoid going to hell, but to avoid living there right now.

Many of the prophets of old tried to get a wayward people to return to God. They warned of impending disasters. The people usually didn’t listen, or if they did, they didn’t amend their ways. You may wonder why that might be, but then in the next thought, your understanding of human nature will give you the answer. The doctor warns you to lose weight and get exercise when your blood pressure soars, but how many people don’t, even after a serious cardiac event? And when it comes to prophetic words from God, we’re no better. We don’t really need God. We’re doing pretty well on our own – good job, good health, beautiful family, nice retirement account – or whatever measure you use. No, we don’t need God. Until we do. Until the diagnosis or the addiction or the broken marriage or whatever it is. And then we turn. At least for a while.

Ash Wednesday and indeed the entire season of Lent give us an opportunity. It’s an invitation to turn, to remember who and whose we are, and to live as followers of Jesus. It isn’t a time to beat up on ourselves for all the ways we have failed. It’s to acknowledge that we cannot, by ourselves, save ourselves. That’s God’s work.

Don’t spend all of your time focusing on your particular moral failings – we all have them – and I think God is much less concerned about those than about the failings that break relationship, that harm the helpless, and further the suffering of those in want or need. Joel tells us to rend our hearts, let them be broken out of love for this world that God has created, and God will turn and “leave a blessing behind him”(2:14).

Poet Jan Richardson puts it this way:

To receive this blessing,
all you have to do
is let your heart break.
Let it crack open.
Let it fall apart
so that you can see
its secret chambers,
the hidden spaces
where you have hesitated
to go.

Your entire life
is here, inscribed whole
upon your heart’s walls:
every path taken
or left behind,
every face you turned toward
or turned away,
every word spoken in love
or in rage,
every line of your life
you would prefer to leave
in shadow,
every story that shimmers
with treasures known
and those you have yet
to find.

It could take you days
to wander these rooms.
Forty, at least.

And so let this be
a season for wandering,
for trusting the breaking,
for tracing the rupture
that will return you

to the One who waits,
who watches,
who works within 
the rending
to make your heart

I pray that this will be a blessing for all of us as we make our way through Lent.

[1] Jan Richardson, Rend Your Heart: A Blessing for Ash Wednesday.

ASEPSermon for Ash Wednesday, February 26, 2020 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas