So, as a general rule I have not posted sermons in the past. I figured I would give it a try this Ash Wednesday.
Rev. Robb Harrell
Ash Wednesday 2012
The Lies We Believe
In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
We have been lied to, my friends. More than once, in fact. We are lied to on a daily basis, and the sad fact is that we willingly believe the lies, so much so that we build our existence around them. The lies are many and various. If we wear the right brand of clothes, people will think more highly of us. If we go to just the right college or university, or keep a high enough GPA, then the world will be our oyster. If we drink the right brand of beer or use the right body spray, then the hottest women in the world will throw themselves at us. If we simply inject a little botox around the face then we can stave off those cursed wrinkles and continue to look young. Why in the world would we allow our hair to turn grey with age when we can dump some ammonia based sludge-in-a-box on our tender scalps and have a whole new look? There is even dye designed especially for beards. I guess maybe I should do something about all this white showing up on my chin.
Lies, all lies. And at the root of the lies is the biggest lie of all: we can escape death. It is all rooted in the first lie told to humanity before all history. Let us go back to the Garden of Eden; that sacred, ethereal space created for the archetypal man and woman. God had given so great a gift to them. All of the food that grew in that great garden was fair game with the exception of one: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The story tells us that the serpent was more crafty than any of the other wild animals God had made. Because of his craftiness, he was able to plant a seed of doubt in the woman’s mind about the real consequences of eating from the tree. Eve explained that she and her husband were warned upon pain of death to avoid the tree. How does the serpent answer her? I like the way the old King James puts it: ye shall not surely die. So she eats, and brings fruit to her husband eat. At the root of the mythical fall is this notion that death does not apply to us. Just like in the garden, we continue to believe the lie of the serpent, that we shall not surely die.
I am sorry to be the one to break it to you, but you shall surely die. As I was riding in last night with Ezel and the little ones for our Fat Tuesday pancake supper we heard the Casting Crowns song on the radio, “Who Am I?” And while I am not a huge fan of contemporary music, I thought the lyrics to this one would fit the mood we are trying to invoke. The chorus says, “I am a flower quickly fading/Here today and gone tomorrow/a vapor in the wind.” It actually reminded me of one of my favorite lines from the book Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk that states the same sentiment in a slightly more stark manner, “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile.”
Believe it or not, I do not take it as my role to depress you tonight. I do not intend to diminish our humanity. In fact, I pray to reinforce that which is really human. When we deny the temporal nature of our lives we make ourselves something we were never intended to be. We attempt to become a god for ourselves, and there is no greater delusion in this life.
This is precisely what happens in our reading from the prophet Joel tonight. The people had forgotten God, they had forgotten the covenant, they were living for themselves and they thought they could live this way forever. In Joel God reminds them that this is not true, and calls everyone to repentance with “all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and with mourning.” This call to repentance holds true for us today as well. Jesus tells us in John 10 that he has come so that we can have life, and have it more abundantly or more fully. But how can we have that life if we are so saturated in the lies of a culture that is in many ways opposed to the promises we hear in our scriptures?
The point of Lent – the point of the whole Christian life, really – is repentance. Repentance is the key to living a thoughtful existence. Repentance is really little more than self-examination that leads us to question our own motives and actions. It is life in which we ask ourselves what is of eternal consequence and what is not; what is a small matter and what is significant one. For instance, I would never say that grades or school are of no consequence. However, if this becomes for us an idol, then it takes away something that belongs to God alone. There is nothing wrong with caring to present a neat appearance or to practice good grooming and hygiene, but when we begin to value that which is temporal (the body) over that which is eternal (the soul), then again we lose perspective. When we worship at the throne of money, or material goods, or political parties, or our job title, or our earning potential, then we are erecting false gods, and are called to turn from those lies.
The point of repentance, the point of fasting and weeping and mourning is so that we can see the lies that we have believed for what they are and rend our hearts so that they might be healed by the one that Joel says is, “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abiding in steadfast love.”
I quoted part of that song to you earlier, and at this point feel it is pretty important to finish the quote:
I am a flower quickly fading/Here today and gone tomorrow/A wave tossed in the ocean/Vapor in the wind/Still You hear me when I’m calling/Lord, You catch me when I’m falling/And You’ve told me who I am/I am Yours.
We are God’s. This call to repentance and self-examination isn’t a self-improvement project assigned by a Dr. Phil or a program with Oprah’s seal of approval. It is an eternal principle offered to us by one whose love is so great that –even when we believe the lies we are told- keeps calling us back. Lent, my friends, isn’t about starving ourselves to be holier, or giving up M&M’s or soda or beer or meat. God doesn’t really need us to do those things for his sake. And we surely don’t earn forgiveness for doing those things. That was taken care of on our behalf on the cross. Lent is about remembering who we are and who God is and what is really important in this life that is – in the face of all eternity – so short and precious. Amen.