Sitting with Lenten Tensions

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Readings for Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-12

Psalm 103

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

This homily was preached at the Episcopal Church of the Nativity in San Rafael on Ash Wednesday, February 10, 2016.

It was Johannine scholar and Salesian priest Frank Moloney who first called my attention to the obvious incongruity built into the Ash Wednesday service, in which we hear Jesus tell us, “Whenever you’re being pious, don’t make a show of it” and then we proceed to put ashes on our foreheads thus making a show of our piety, whether that is our intention or not. Frank Moloney did not try to resolve this tension but merely asked me to be aware of it. The awareness he invited me into was not of the fact that we as Christians so often fail to obey the teachings of Jesus. It was that our disobedience of Jesus, in some cases, is built into the very way we do church. For example, Jesus says, “Do not call anyone on earth ‘Father’” (Matt 23:9), and then we proceed to address some clergy often as Father. Jesus says, “Do not make vows” (Matt 5:34) and then we make vows at our baptism and at marriage and so forth. I’m not opposed to calling someone “Father” or being called “Father;” I’m definitely not opposed to our baptismal vows (and marriage vows) and certainly not opposed to the imposition of ashes, but there is clearly a tension here. Jesus teaches us not to do something and, when we gather as his body on earth, in some cases, we do that very thing. Before we start to resolve these tensions in our head, let us just sit for a moment in this incongruity, as Frank Moloney invited me to do.

As we hold these tensions, I want to offer two short stories for us to chew on today, on Ash Wednesday and perhaps throughout this season of Lent: one Jewish story (about interpretation) and one Christian story (about inspiration). First, a story about Moses that a rabbi told me a few years ago: The rabbi said that, while receiving the Torah from God on Mt. Sinai, Moses was transported hundreds of years into the future, into a classroom full of Torah students, into a yeshiva. Because he was a newcomer, he was asked to sit in the back of the classroom with the beginners. Moses then listened to a lively discussion between the students and their rabbi as they wrestled through apparent incongruities in the Torah. Although deeply impressed with their creativity, he knew that the students were completely wrong and completely missing the point and that the rabbi was even more wrong! He was just about to set the record straight for everyone when God spoke to him and said, “Silence, Moses, this is my will. I am speaking to these people through the words I gave you. I am revealing something new to them, something you did not even intend to say, but that I have intended to say through you. I am speaking to these people through their communal interpretation of the words I gave you and through their communal wrestling with the tensions.” After this experience, Moses was prepared to receive the rest of the Torah and share it with God’s people.[1]

A somewhat similar story, from the Christian tradition, is told by the Venerable Bede about the apostle John. (It’s a kind of Christian midrash.) The early Christians in Ephesus were struggling over incongruities that they saw in Christ’s teachings and in the emerging church structures. Their attempts to reconcile and resolve all the tensions failed so they asked their teacher to set the record straight by writing a Gospel based on his experience of Jesus. John said, “I will write a Gospel on one condition. You must all agree to fast with me for three days. Before we rush to answers, let us fast and pray and sit together in the tensions so that we can realize our utter dependence on God and listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” When the general fast was over, John became filled with revelation and burst into the heaven-sent Prologue, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Something profound happens when a community gathers together to sit in the tension, to fast physically and to feast spiritually on the wisdom and Word of God. The Holy Spirit tends to show up and speak, revealing new understandings and insights in the midst of incongruities. Lent invites us to sit with the incongruities, to live into the long liminal space between Epiphany and Easter, and to appreciate the mysteries that are all around us. We are dust, but we are dust that breathes the breath of God. We are mortals, but we have eternity in our hearts. And as Paul writes, “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see– we are alive…as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” And today we mark ourselves with the cross, the great coincidence of opposites, the symbol that represents the simultaneous glorification and humiliation of the One who was both God and man. By acknowledging our finitude in the face of these divine mysteries, we open ourselves as a community to the work of the Holy Spirit and we open our ears to that same voice that spoke to and inspired Moses and John, Paul and Jesus.

So how is the Holy Spirit calling this community to observe Lent? In what new ways is the Holy Spirit inviting us to understand the teachings of Christ, which, in some cases, we seem to flagrantly disobey? Is the Holy Spirit inviting us to fast the way Isaiah calls us to fast, by sharing our bread with the hungry and by showing hospitality to the poor? Is the Holy Spirit inviting us to lament the loss of a friend or loved one this Lenten season? Is the Spirit inviting us to let go? Is she inviting us to live into a new understanding of the Gospel? Is she inviting us to seek wisdom as we sit with the disturbing tensions of a politically divided nation?

As we confess together, I invite us to acknowledge and be present to the tensions within ourselves, within this community (both local and global) and within our tradition. And as we sit with these tensions together, like Moses, John and Paul, let us open ourselves up to the voice and guidance of the Holy Spirit among us. Let us allow our awareness of mystery and incongruity to form us during this season of Lent and to increase our capacity to know and to move deeper into that great Mystery of all mysteries, which is the heart of God. Amen.

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[1] I remember Rabbi Mira Wasserman telling me a version of this story in a class she taught at the Center for Jewish Studies titled “Ancient and Medieval Jewish Civilization.” The story is based on an account of Moses and Rabbi Akiva as recorded in Tractate Menachot 29b in the Babylonian Talmud.

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