Ash Wednesday February 22, 2023 — Ryan Pemberton

posted in: Sermons 0

Good afternoon. It’s good to be with you all again for the start of the Lenten Season.Lent seemed to come quick this year, hasn’t it? It really does feel like I was just with you all, entering Advent together. And so it goes.

But here we are: Ash Wednesday, the welcome mat to Lent.

Lent is, of course, many things. It’s a season of intentionally slowing down, a literal lengthening of our days as we prepare for spring.

Lent is a time of reflection. A time to take seriously our grief, the kind of grief we’re so good at avoiding most days. Busyness is my personal favorite strategy.

For many, Lent is a time of repentance. Not only reflecting on our grief, but identifying its source, and actively taking steps to turn away from that which contributes to our grief, both individually and collectively.

But it’s not only that.

The Orthodox priest and writer Alexander Schmemann refers to the “bright sadness” of Lent. “Bright sadness,” what a phrase.

Lent is a journeying time, a time for looking ahead to the arc of Holy Week and the acute, in-breaking hope of Easter, while paying close and careful attention to the not-yet nature of our present lives and life together.

It’s a time of taking seriously where we are, and, equally, where we are going. Lent is, if you will, something of a stop gap. And Ash Wednesday is its entrance.

Seeking Non-Performative Repentance

Recently, I was participating in a half-day DEI training, and I found myself thinking of our Lectionary text for today’s gathering. Perhaps some of you have also participated in or even led similar trainings in your own workplaces.

What do you think God thinks of our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts? In response to persistent and systemic injustices that continue to punish and exclude so many, is this the fast that our God chooses? I wondered.

Also recently, in an evening of thematic resonance with these questions I was already sitting with, I attended a lecture offered by an Asian American professor of theology, visiting from Baylor, who spoke just across the canal from here, at Seattle Pacific University—and I mention his race intentionally. In this lecture, Dr. Jonathan Tran addressed the impact of what he described as “racial economics,” the way our economics serve as the substructure of racism, enforcing racism without critique.

He went on to make the provocative argument that so much of our current anti-racism training is little more than a performative attempt to absolve our sense of guilt, without actually doing anything to address its roots. Largely, he argued, because racism is conceived in these conversations as individual and remedial, something individuals in systems can be trained out of.

While confessing that his friends who are involved in the exhausting work of DEI training and policy making are some of the bravest folks he knows, and while insisting that he is absolutely against racism in all forms, Dr. Tran referenced longitudinal studies of DEI initiatives that have proven to be ineffective at actually addressing systemic racism, working much like evangelical youth retreats, as he put it: climaxing with white people in tears, but then sending folks home to return to life as normal.

So why do we keep investing billions of dollars into these efforts, he asked? Why do we do this work, if data suggests it’s not actually getting to the root issue?

To protect our institutions from litigation, he said with a smirk. Because we’ve got to do something.

And, perhaps more insidiously, he continued, it’s so that we can appear to be concerned, while continuing to go about our ways of life, our ways of business, which are wholly invested in racism.

His pointed words echoed in my mind while I sat down with the Prophet Isaiah’s words to prepare today’s Ash Wednesday message. And I don’t think I’m alone in seeing resonance between his warnings against performative workshops and the Prophet warnings against performative religion.

Isaiah 58: Undesirable Fasts

Just listen to these words:

Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins,” the God of the Prophet Isaiah says.

Day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.”

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.”

This is a piercing critique of the religious folks of Isaiah’s day. They’re described as a people who “delight” in worship. “Delight” shows up twice in this chapter to describe their worship (seeking to be near to God).

But the problem is that their delight, their worship looks nothing like God’s concerns. Their worship has become self-indulgent, void of ethical content or action. And God is tired of it, Isaiah says.

If you’re going to rub ashes on your forehead and return to business as usual, God warns through the Prophet, don’t bother. God is wholly uninterested in performative attempts to absolve ourselves of our guilt. But God is interested in pulling it up from the roots.

In Case of Emergency: Use Ashes

One of the more surprising shopping discoveries in my recent experience is charcoal toothpaste. And then, not long after, charcoal soap. Perhaps you’ve seen it?

Turns out charcoal is a good cleanser.

This is something the church has known for centuries, using ashes in services of communal repentance since the early Middle Ages.

Christians have been celebrating Ash Wednesday since the 11th century. Though, interestingly, the practice of wearing ashes on our foreheads didn’t become popular here in the US until the ‘70s, as Christians were looking for ways to connect their spiritual life with their physical life.

But wearing ashes can be found throughout Scripture: they’re related to sacrifice, mourning, and fasting.

Ashes are also used for cleansing, we read in the Book of Hebrews.In one of those cyclical religious symbols: ashes are both a sign of our shortcomings and also our response to them.

I found it fascinating when I first read that ashes can be used as a disinfectant.

The World Health Organization recommends ash when soap is not available. According to the WHO website: “As soap may be in short supply during emergencies, the use of ash, sand, or other substitutes should be promoted.”

In emergencies, ashes can be used to cleanse us.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by the charcoal toothpaste, charcoal body wash. It’s there because we all have emergencies; we all are desperate to be clean. We are constantly looking for the new thing that promises to make us clean, even if the new thing is really the old thing.

Stop Gap Justice

Returning for a moment to that recent lecture in which the professor of theology pointed out the limitations of DEI work. Someone in the audience that evening asked if he took this to mean that we should cease our DEI efforts.

This professor thought about his response for a moment, then he spoke up.

“We need to look for lights wherever we can find them,” he said.“Affirmative Action and other DEI initiatives are a stop gap, [though,] they’re not the end goal. But sometimes we forget that. Affirmative Action is not our eschatological goal or vision.”

Such efforts are not bad per se, he argued, so long as they’re not confused with the goal. They’re necessary, certainly, but not sufficient.

Ross Gay: Institutional Grief

In his new book, Inciting Joy, which I highly recommend as Lenten reading, the poet Ross Gay asks: “What would happen if our institutions grieved?”

“I don’t mean if they performed grief, if they ‘acknowledged’…if they hung a flag or made a little fund or required everyone to take a phony guilt workshop, all the gestures these days that are more about laundering one’s image than changing one’s soul. All the gestures that are actually evasions of grief.”

“I mean what would happen if we truly grieved?” he asks. “Everything would change.”

I don’t know if it’s likely or even possible for our institutions to grieve. I don’t know if our anti-racism trainings are going to get us to where we need to go as a species that shares an old house that is ridden with decay—as author Isabel Wilkerson describes our country.

But I do believe that once again we need to hear and respond to these words from the Prophet Isaiah, words that invite us beyond performative workshops, beyond performative religion. So that our grieving finally leads us beyond grief, toward repentance, toward, as Ross Gay puts it, “an altar for listening to the beginning of the world.”

Repairers of the Breach

The truth is, we are all of us carrying our ashes around with us—you have yours, and I have mine. And, we have our collective ashes, too, don’t we? Grief compounded by generations of grief, piled up so high for so long that we no longer know whose is whose, let alone how to deal with it.

But here, in this service, we’re invited to carry those ashes in a new way. Not just on our foreheads. Not just skin deep.

The kind of religion that God invites us into refuses to remain skin deep.

Rend your hearts and not your clothing,” is how the Prophet Joel puts it. “Return to the Lord, your God, for [God] is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13).

“Return to the Lord,” Joel writes. Lent is our season of doing just that. It is a time of repentance, and repentance moves us beyond regret.

“With regret, you’re beating up on yourself and loving it,” my old professor Rick Lischer notes. But repentance is different. “Repentance acknowledges the possibility of an answer that makes things right.”

Repentance is a re-orientation. In this season of Lent, we are invited to slow down, to reflect, to move in new ways, creating new paths, that we might return to God, in all our waywardness.

So that, as the Prophet Isaiah puts it:

“Your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

Then you shall be called, “the repairers of the breach, the restorers of streets to live in.”

The religion that God is re-orienting God’s people toward is one that goes down deep, shaping us together into the embodiment of God’s in-breaking Kingdom. In these intentionally shaped, cross-smeared ashes, which we will soon receive, God invites us to go deeper still with our grief.

To grab it by the roots and lift it into the light as we journey together toward our Paschal hope–and not only there but even here, even now along the way, become shaped more and more into the likeness of the Crucified and Resurrected Lord who was and is and is to come, our very Repairer of the Breach.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *