Ash Wednesday B

Pastor Barbara Thrall

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Good evening, and a blessed Ash Wednesday to you.                      It’s February, just a few days after Valentine’s Day, and we as we’re expecting another storm, we seem to be firmly fixed in the grip of winter.  But we here in New England are confident that won’t last too long, and before we know it, we’ll be planning our gardens and thinking about where we want to go once things open up again.

Before all that outside stuff commences in time and space, however, there is something else that awaits us.  That is the annual ritual called Spring Cleaning, something a lot of us used to put on our calendars and perhaps also have been doing in small bits for the better part of the last year.  Forced to stay inside, we quite possibly have already done a rather thorough turning-out of our living and storage spaces, tossing and rearranging, to make things look and feel refreshed, better. The organizational guru Marie Kondo would say, it’s almost Spring.   May the serious tidying begin!

Some years ago, an older gentleman was telling me about his childhood, and the household chores that were assigned to the kids in his family once a week. His brother was in charge of taking out the garbage.  His sister had to change out all the towels and sweep the dooryard.  His job, as the youngest, was to air out the house. That one was a new one on me.  “Air out the house?  What is that?”  I asked, vaguely aware but not quite sure of what he meant.  He replied,   “Back when I was a kid, on Saturdays it was my job to go around the house and open all the doors and all the windows and leave them open for about ten minutes.  The weather didn’t matter. The idea was that the old, stale air would get blown out and the new, fresh air could come in.  Every family aired out their house or apartment.  It was said to be good for your health.”  That man lived to be quite old, and he performed that ritual once a week as long as he lived.  Maybe that contributed to his long life.  In these pandemic days maybe it’s an old-time thing that’s worth revisiting.

Here, on this first day of the new season of Lent, we have an opportunity to open our doors and windows, as it were, and let some new, fresh air into our souls and spirits.  Today, Ash Wednesday, is the day on which we embrace those images of opening up and cleaning out and we begin to focus on our need to go deeper.  Our liturgy calls on us to pull out the drawers we seldom look in, to get far back into that closet to revisit what we’ve stashed in there, and to get down on our hands and knees to find out what’s under the sink, that dark and dank place where we toss things we hope will disappear.

Ash Wednesday is the time when we collectively as a Church acknowledge what we tend to do  — we tuck away things and thoughts, fears and hostilities that we don’t want to deal with.  We get into ourselves and our own heads and stray from the faithful people around us and the God who leads us.   Today is the day to say we are sorry we do those things, to say that we acknowledge that in the end that kind of behavior – that avoidance, that running away from, is a mistake, and that we are determined to change.  The ashes on our foreheads, the ancient mark of repentance and renewal, the mark Jesus counsels us to keep to ourselves, is a sign that we resolve to, in a real way, pull those things out from under the bed, from behind the sofa and deal with them.

In the prayers we will pray in a few minutes, we will  vow to repent of our anger and frustration, to address our guilt – collective and individual – to commit to something greater than ourselves and to ask for and receive forgiveness.  We are called upon to remember how and why we love, to decide again to care for other people and the earth, to seek perspectives which will help us in our judgments, to unclutter our minds and hearts and to be open to God’s intervening love and power to work a change in us.

That love of God is on full display, but never named as such, in a novel you may have read called Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.  There are some kind of rough spots in that book, but mostly it’s the tender story of a 30-year old woman, Eleanor Oliphant, who has a terrible, traumatic past.  On her face she bears the scars of an incident long ago, but as we get to know her, we find that the scars she bears in her mind and heart, the ones she cannot hide with make-up and a good haircut, are much more important and compelling.  Eleanor struggles at every turn, bouncing between isolation and insecurity and the acidic superiority and judgment she lays on every one and every thing that tries to get close to her.  She experiences a deep and abiding loneliness as a young woman who has no friends, no companions, or anyone she can trust.

Then one day Eleanor and a young man from work are walking together in the same direction and they encounter an old man who has fallen and needs help.  Eleanor is flabbergasted that  Raymond, her acquaintance from the office, would go out of his way to help a perfect stranger. How ridiculous! Their connection with the old man opens Eleanor and Raymond up to new experiences and new people, and Eleanor is reluctantly drawn in.  Over time her defenses start to crumble and later, with the help of a skilled counselor, Eleanor comes to understand the ramparts she has created, the walls she has erected, the distance she keeps putting between herself and people who genuinely like her and are trying to get through to her. What finally saves Eleanor is the determination of others not to let her go, and her own willingness to do the hard work of facing the past, the present and the future from a place of strength, and not alone.

Eleanor Oliphant, a fictional character in a modern bestseller, is, as we might expect, not the only one who struggles.  What she is going through resonates in a culture that can be shallow and alienating, one based on competition, distance and fear; but the eyes of faith see a light at the center, the goodness and hope that is at the heart of the experience of being loved.  In a time when we have been separated from so many of the people we care deeply about, this story of overcoming loneliness by coming to terms with things, by allowing for love and acceptance, carries a strong message.

It’s that experience of love and acceptance we acknowledge today as we are bidden to open the doors and encounter what is standing there in front of us.  Starting today we can let in the air and the life, when we begin again to ask God to guide and direct us, and then commence the weeks-long journey of Lent.  Hopefully we can acknowledge that we long for a time, a time perhaps 40 days from now, when we can say to God with confidence, “I have done some hard work and I have cleaned up these messes as best I can right now.  I have let others into my life and they have let me into theirs.  I’m trying to let you in Lord, and with your help, I’m feeling comfortable enough to say, “God, would you like to come in and stay here with me?”

Now, St. Paul tells us, is the acceptable time, now is the call for repentance and amendment of life to begin.  Now, is the time to allow Christ to move in with us, to turn us around in the new air, in the freedom and the promise of new life.  We do not do this alone, thank God, and so the church invites us to make this journey with others, seeking wholeness and strength from God’s word, from fasting and prayer, from study and silence, and from interaction with our fellow-travelers, even if it’s only on Zoom.

May your Lent be one that draws you in, takes you to places you might not necessarily want to go but are glad you tried, and then brings you to a place of hope and light, life and joy, with a God who both sees in secret, and loves us anyway. Amen.

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