• St. Matthew's Evanston

Turn: A Practice in the Way of Love

Ash Wednesday

A Sermon Preached at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church

Texts: Joel 2:1-2,12-17, Ps. 103:8-14, 2 Cor. 5:20b-6:10, Matt. 6:1-6,16-21

February 27, 2020

The Rev. Charlie de Kay

Ash Wednesday. Lent has arrived.

Welcome. To. The. Wilderness...

I’d like you to think back to your childhood. What was it like for you as a kid? I was really lucky as a child; I had great parents, and with their help I didn’t develop a lot of fears growing up. I know folks who are afraid of heights and spiders, terrified of being buried alive, scared of the dark, petrified by thunderstorms, hate enclosed, tight places or wide open spaces, folks who now, today as adults, are scared of all kinds of stuff, much of which can easily be traced back to some childhood scare. I had none of that until our family went on our one big family vacation.

It was the summer of ’69; and it was an adventure. We spent ten days touring Spain and Portugal. The folks rented a car, and they’d look at map, pick a destination and then just go. No big pre-planning, no reservations, no guidebooks just head out each morning looking for a point on the map that sounded interesting, and go. This, of course, was long before Garmin, GPS or MapQuest. Really, satellites in orbit around the earth were a relatively new concept.

Looking back, I think this kind of seat-of-your-pants adventure was probably fun for my father, and maybe not so much for my mother. Anyway, on the second day in Portugal, driving through a particularly uninspiring countryside, Pop took a right turn. My mother was sure that right was a wrong turn. She voiced her concern, he assured her everything was fine and Pop drove on. The miles went by, and with them, her discomfort grew. Somehow, the landscapes which had been bland began to take on a menacing vibe. We drove on.

My mother’s concern spread to my big sister, Sarah, very grown up at eleven-year-old, who stopped singing Peter, Paul & Mary’s “Leaving on a jet plane” for the thousandth time, and suddenly we all wished she’d never stop.

The summer fields gave way to abandoned industrial parks. The heavy overcast skies chose that moment to open up, and visibility dropped precipitously. And I knew I was afraid. Afraid of being lost. Lost in a strange country.

Pop had taught me to order “wavos fritos” for breakfast in Madrid, and everyone (except my siblings) acted as if they found my strangled six-year-old Spanish to be a joy, but none of us – not one of us in the car that day - spoke a word of Portuguese.

Five miles further, the paved road became a gravel track, visibly on its way to becoming a single-lane dirt path. A driveway? Pop surrendered. He turned the car around, reluctantly, striking up a favorite bright Gilbert & Sullivan tune, if memory serves it was “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.”

It felt as if we’d been lost for hours yet, magically ten minutes later found us back at the crossroads where we’d turned off.

Have you ever been lost? What is the goal when you’re lost? To find your way back, right? Often to get home to those who love you and where you are safe and protected. Sometimes we have to turn back. Sometimes we have to return.

There’s lots of ways we can get lost. We can get lost geographically sure, but we can also get lost mentally, ethically, or emotionally.

Have you ever been lost spiritually?

On Sunday morning on my way to church I learned that the heart of the spirituality of the Jesuits, Ignatian Spirituality, is “finding God in all things.” Finding God in all things. Now that’s grounding. Would that we were all there. Would that describe your default outlook?

If not, if in fact you have ever felt far from Jesus, far from God, scripture has prescription: Turn. For instance, Jesus, scripture tells us, after his Baptism and his time of temptation in the wilderness, began his public ministry preaching the Gospel of God, saying, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.”[1] In the notes of my Oxford Annotated Bible at its first instance in Matthew – when John the Baptist held forth in the Jordan River, I found “Repent, literally [translates as] ‘return’ [or turn back:] meant to come back to the way of life charted by the covenant between God and Israel.”[2]

It is not just Jesus or John the Baptist, though. This story – falling away from God and then return is a theme that runs throughout the Bible; it is perhaps The Through-Line of the entire biblical story. If you ever felt spiritually lost – distant from Jesus, from God – know that you are in the company of much of the history of God’s people, including many of the most notable women and men of faith.

Losing the Way is easy. The church has a word for getting lost spiritually – sin. This is what that word – freighted as it is with centuries of church history and teaching means. It simply means to miss the mark – like an archer missing her target – sometimes we get off the track, off of the way of love. However, the solution is simple: Pause. Remember. Get your bearings. Turn around. Head back to God. Get unlost. Get found. It is that simple, if not always easy. Sometimes, like my father did, we have to confess we were mistaken, and do so in front of those we wish never to appear vulnerable. Sometimes being wrong is hard to confess.

Hear once again, a snippet of the Joel passage. After predicting the Day of the Lord, a day of thick darkness, woe and calamity, God, speaking through Joel says: “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart.” In Second Corinthians, Paul writes: “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled with God.” In today’s text from Matthew, Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on Mount instructs us to orient our behaviors to put our relationship with God first above all other concerns. It is a through-line of the message and spirituality of Ash Wednesday: listen closely to the words of Psalm 51 and to the Litany of Penitence. You might even consider taking a further step and trying out the life-giving rite of personal Confession during this holy season – just ask me, we’ll find a mutually convenient time.

This [right here] is the first in a sermon series of spiritual practices that make up “The Way of Love.” For those who wish to examine, explore and take the practices deeper, a group of us meets Thursday evenings in Lent – starting tomorrow - for a simple dinner at 6:30 and a conversation and more from 7 to 8pm. The practices or disciplines we explore can be combined to create a rule of life, or a set of spiritual practices you can use to grow your relationship with God.

Jesus tells us that the most important things in life are to love God with our entire being, and our neighbors as ourselves, this is the key to a moral, centered, meaningful life with God – a life abundant, he called it. In this time when our democratic institutions are taking fire as never before and morality seems to be graded on a curve, perhaps our intentional return is just what we need most to live an abundant life.

What might such a practice look like for you? What would you be willing to commit to doing to instill an intentional habit of turning toward the love of God into your daily schedule?

[pause for reflection]

In closing, together let us offer the traditional Prayer Book Collect for Ash Wednesday, found on page 264 of the Prayer Book:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

  1. [1]Matthew 4.17, Mark 1.14-15. [2]The New Oxford Annotated Bible, p. 1173, Note on Matthew 3.2.

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