A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

An Episcopal Priest, Barbara Cawthorne Crafton wrote this reflection on Lent which speaks eloquently of the times we live in and this season of the Church which we’re entering.

We didn’t even know what moderation was. What it felt like. We didn’t just work: we inhaled our jobs, sucked them in, became them. Stayed late, brought work home – it was never enough, though, no matter how much time we put in.

Do you remember: we didn’t just smoke: we lit up a cigarette, only to realize that we already had one going in the ashtray.

We ordered things we didn’t need from the shiny catalogs that came to our houses: we ordered three times as much as we could use, and we ordered three times as much as our children could use.

We didn’t just eat: we stuffed ourselves. We had gained only three pounds since the previous year, we told ourselves. Three pounds isn’t a lot. We had gained about that much in each of the past 10 years. We did not do the math to know that meant we were 30 lbs over-weight.

We redid our living rooms in which the furniture was not worn out. We threw away clothing that was merely out of style. We drank wine when the label on our prescription said it was dangerous to used alcohol while using this medication. “They always put that on the label,” we told our children when they asked about it. We saw they were worried. We knew it was because they loved us and needed us. How innocent they were. We hastened to reassure them: “It doesn’t really hurt if you’re careful.”

We felt that it was important to be good to ourselves, and that this meant that it was dangerous to tell ourselves no. About anything, ever. Repression of one’s desires was an unhealthy thing – we saw it on Oprah. I work hard, we told ourselves. I deserve a little treat. We treated ourselves every day.

And if it was dangerous for us to want and not have, it was even more so for our children. They must never know what it is to want something and not have it immediately. It will make them bitter, we told ourselves. So we anticipated their needs and desires. We got them both the doll and the bike. If their grades were good, we got them their own cell phones and large screens.

There were times, coming into the house from work or waking early when all was quiet, when we felt un-easy about the sense of entitlement that characterized our days.

When we wondered if fevered overwork and excess appetite were not two sides of the same coin – or rather, two poles between which we madly slalomed. Probably yes, we decided at these times. Suddenly we saw it clearly: I am driven by my creatures – my schedule, my work, my possessions, my hungers. I do not drive them; they drive me. Probably yes. Certainly yes. That is how it is. We got out of bed and did twenty sit-ups and passed on the bagel with cream cheese at the drive through on the way to work. The next day the moment had passed; we skipped the sit ups – had extra cream cheese.

After moments like that, we were awash in self-contempt. You are weak. Self-indulgent. You are spineless about work and about everything else. You set no limits. You will become ineffective. We bridled at that last bit, drew ourselves up to our full heights, insisted defensively on our competence, on the respect we were due because of all our hard work. We looked for others whose lives were similarly overstuffed; we found them. “ This is just the way it is,” we said to one another in the lunch room. “ This is modern life. Maybe some people have time to measure things out by teaspoonfuls.” Our voices dripped contempt for those people who had such time. We felt oddly defensive, though no one had accused us of anything.

When did the collision between our appetites and the needs of our souls happen? Was there a heart attack? Did we get laid off from work; deemed extraneous to the company we’d given our lives to. Did a beloved child became ill or worse a bored stranger in our lives? Or, by some amazing working of God’s grace, did we just find the courage to look the truth in the eye and, for once, not blink ? How did we come to know that we were dying a slow and unacknowledged death? And that the only way back to life was to set all our packages down and begin again, carrying with us only what we really needed?

We go on. We are heavy laden. And this season of Lent is a time in which we’re invited to look again at our lives and to ask a homeless, jobless, possession-less Saviour to come to our aid. ‘Naked he came and naked he went’ And so it is for us. And so it is for us. This Ash Wednesday and this season of Lent are the Church’s invitation to her children to wake up from our self-indulgent slumbers and remember who and whose we are. And strange as it seems to our ears; to invite us into a life far more abundant and rich than what we’ve been chasing after.

And you know most of us well – we’ve tried everything else – how many self help books does a single person need? Maybe we should give Lent an honest go. Christians have been doing it since at least the year 325 – it might just be the tonic our over stuffed lives and souls have been truly craving. Amen.

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