Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Please Forgive Me

A Sermon Preached at St. James's Episcopal Church, Cambridge for Ash Wednesday
Tiffany Curtis
February 13, 2013

Joel 2:12-16
12 Yet even now, says the Lord,
   return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13 rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
   for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
   and relents from punishing.
14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
   and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain-offering and a drink-offering
   for the Lord, your God? 

15 Blow the trumpet in Zion;
   sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
16 gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation;
   assemble the aged;
gather the children,
   even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
   and the bride her canopy. 

Edwin [Rev. Edwin Johnson, Assistant Rector at St. James] often refers to what he likes to call the “side hustle”-- a job you do on the side to generate income or just out of pure passion. As you probably know, Edwin himself has a few side hustles, teaching dance, for one. I guess you could say that I have a side hustle, too--as an anthropologist. It doesn’t bring in much in the way of cash, but it does make for a lot of unique experiences, like two years ago when my side hustle brought me to an Eastern Orthodox Christian community to journey throughout the holy season that they call the Great Lent.

Rather than Ash Wednesday, the Great Lent began with a service called the Forgiveness Vespers: It consists of a dramatic series of chanting, censing, praying, removing all the vestments from the altar, the lights dimming slowly to black, all leading up to the heart of the service.

Slowly, one by one, we began to form a large circle around the sanctuary, prostrating ourselves in front of one another, our bodies flat on the ground, our faces in the dust. When we came before each person, we said to each other: “Please forgive me” or “Sister, forgive my sins” crossing ourselves and pressing ourselves downward, the crowns of our heads often almost touching as we placed our foreheads on the ground. As we rose, we embraced and said to one another “God forgives. And so do I.” During this time, the choir was chanting softly. They were the last to line up for this ritual, the room finally going completely silent. After every single person in the room had bowed down and forgiven every single other person, the lights turned back on, waking me up out of the intimate darkness and dull pain in my body from having done hundreds of prostrations.

I don’t think I need to tell you that this was a powerful invitation into Lent--it was incredibly moving and humbling to be reminded so viscerally that our sins are not against some disappointed God in heaven, but against one another. That which I have done or failed to do to my neighbor, to my partner, to my friend, to a person I don’t even know, clumsily bowing in front of me, I have done or not done to each and every person in this room.

Today on Ash Wednesday and throughout the season of Lent, we are not asking for God-our-Powerful-Father to forgive us our appalling sins, seen only by His penetrating gaze. Rather, we are asking forgiveness for the ways in which we hurt one another, we are addressing that vulnerable divinity that was born to us so recently in our Church calendar--the infant God within us, the baby Christ--the God incarnate in our fragile bodies.

We ask forgiveness because we are heavy with shame and guilt and disappointment because we mess up all the time, failing each other in profound ways, violating that tender divinity within each of us rather than honoring and kindling that sacred spark.

We cling to petty bitterness, we develop self-indulgences and self-loathing, we get lost in waves of ennui in the face of injustice. We are caught up in systems of oppression beyond our own doing; we are overwhelmed by the dire environmental crisis, by the inequity of distribution of food, wealth, power, by the ways that people are systematically and personally denied the opportunity to flourish and live into their truest selves. Our own choices and the choices that seem to be made for us elude us, and we become frustrated, too afraid to take responsibility for our mistakes, for our failures, for our fear and clinging.

If Advent and Christmas are about the miracle of incarnation...Lent is an exploration of its challenges. Living a human life is hard. It is full of suffering, pain, temptation, and death. We sit with this discomfort for the next 40 days, mirroring the story of Jesus in the desert for 40 days, which in turn echoes the Israelites wandering for 40 years in the desert. Jesus went alone into the harsh wilderness, whereas the Israelites went together, and in a way, we do both.

This time is a time of personal introspection and it is also communal. On silent meditation retreats I have often heard that we are practicing being “alone together”--and Lent provides just such an opportunity: to pray, to meditate, to fast, to contemplate...alone-together. We reconnect with our vulnerability and our failures so that when Holy Week comes and we follow Jesus on his journey into Jerusalem, into his death, and into his miraculous and history-making triumph over death, we might better understand the power of the Christian witness--what it means to have the hope of resurrection in the midst of the desert journey, in the midst even of death.

In the reading from the book of Joel we heard the exhortation to call a solemn assembly, to gather all the people, the whole congregation from oldest to youngest, to drop everything to return to God in weeping, and mourning, with this stunning image to rend our hearts--to tear them open.

Like the Forgiveness Vespers I experienced, Joel asks the people to gather together to weep and pray. We are not isolated in this 40-day journey we are entering, we are a solemn assembly of fellow travelers, bowing our heads in prayer, humbling ourselves before God and one another and asking for grace, asking that our hearts be transformed to love.

With these ashes we affirm our rootedness in the earth, and we reject the narratives of scarcity, distrust, and fear that permeate our world. When we remember where we come from and where we are going (from ashes to ashes, dust to dust), we remember our finitude and our beauty as human creatures, we remember our connectedness.

And down in that dust, our faces flat on the floor in regret, we hear a voice, then another--ours and our neighbor’s, and they say softly: God forgives, and so do I.

We offer these ashes as a tangible reminder of this grace: a love that holds us all, no matter who we are.

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