Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday Sermon - the Rev. Canon John Kilgore, M.D.

Preached by the Rev. Canon John Kilgore, M.D. at Christ Church Cathedral on Ash Wednesday, February 22, 2012

‘And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’

Your Father who sees in secret will reward you. This line appears three times in this gospel reading, at the end of three paragraphs. Your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And in Psalm 103 we heard, ‘For he himself knows whereof we are made; he remembers that we are but dust.’ And the next line in that same psalm goes on to say, ‘Our days are like the grass; we flourish like a flower of the field; When the wind goes over it, it is gone, and its place shall know it no more.’ We vanish away, but our Father who sees in secret will reward us.

Monday was the fiftieth anniversary of John Glenn orbiting the earth three times! That was a really big event. I don’t know where you were in your life but I was eight years old, totally enthralled with the space shots. I had a small radio shaped like a rocket ship that was black at the bottom and red at the top that had a silver rod that pulled out to tune it. A very crude radio. But I carried it with me everywhere and listened avidly to all the space shots. That was a very exciting time…and way cool, as they say. Going beyond our terrestrial globe. A really big event. Orbiting the earth. Mind blowing actually. And fifty years ago.

On Monday NPR interviewed Senator Glenn, now ninety years old, about that day. It was a very interesting interview, and one of the questions they asked him was about his level of concern that something might go wrong. He was very sanguine in his response. He explained that NASA had indeed experienced a few failures but that he had full confidence that all had been corrected and would go well. He admitted that his only concern was that if they had to abort the takeoff he would probably come down in the outback of Australia or New Guinea and the native people would see this craft fall from the sky and a being in a silver suit emerge…and might think he was a god!

A creature fall from the sky and a very strange being walks out, and one might think it was God! That concept is not that far fetched. For a primitive people to see something like a space capsule and an astronaut in a silver suit you might think it was truly other worldly. Panic and fear. Remember when Hernando Cortes appeared on horseback to the Aztecs in Mexico they thought, not having seen horses before, that the man and horse were one and that Cortes was a god. Panic and fear. And remember the Orson Welles radio broadcast in 1938 when they broadcast the War of the Worlds as a series of news bulletins that the earth was being invaded by Martians and panic ensued. People reportedly rushed to churches, confessed their sins to anyone around, and some were embarrassed later by their admissions.

Such dramatic events get one’s attention. Really get one’s attention. In fact there happen to us occasionally in life, dramatic events that may change our lives or bring us to the reality of our finitude. A near miss car wreck, a tragic fall, a near death experience, a recovery from cancer. But the fact is that most of the time we comfortably go about our way living our lives in Western society relatively immune from the great difficulties of life and forgetting that one day we will have a reckoning with God. Someday we will meet God face to face! Not Hernando Cortes or John Glenn but God, in person, so to speak, face to face.

And thus Lent and Ash Wednesday are a part of our reminder system.. It is oh so easy for us to think about our finitude later, to not remember that we are dust and will return to dust; to in essence kick that can down the road, just like Congress is doing with the national debt. And so here we are at the beginning of Lent with a great big reminder. That is why we have Lent and Ash Wednesday.

You are dust and to dust you shall return!

With the physical imposition of ashes on our foreheads in a few moments we will be vividly reminded of the fact of our mortality and of our need for penance.

But that is only the beginning of the story. The story concludes with Easter, with the Resurrection and our salvation. But not so fast… We are humans blessed with memory, skill, and reason, and free will. Ash Wednesday is our slap in the face and Lent is our time to sit and ponder the meaning of that slap, and consider our response to it. Lent is our time to shoulder our responsibility in our covenantal relationship with God. Remember that our gospel reading today counsels us when we give alms not to sound a trumpet, when we pray not to do so with swagger like hypocrites, when we fast not to look dismal. But to do all this quietly with our God. For our Father who sees in secret will reward us.

Lent is our time to better get to know our Father in heaven who will reward us. During Lent at the 7 AM Eucharist I will be preaching a series on the psalms, their history, their place in worship, and ways to pray with them. I commend the psalms to you, perhaps, for this Lent, or join us on Wednesday mornings. The psalms have had a lasting place in worship in both Judaism and Christianity for centuries. You know that Jesus prayed with the Psalms, as do we. Echoing what some traditionalists have said about the King James Bible, regarding the psalms I say ‘If they were good enough for Jesus they are good enough for me!’ And, as the Oxford Companion to Christian Thought says, the psalms ‘give voice to the whole gamut of religious experience from praise to protest, from quiet confidence to urgent questions, from joyful celebration to the dark night of the soul.’ There is much there in the psalms.

Joan Chittister, in her book Songs of the Heart: Reflections on the Psalms writes, the psalms are “written by one people but prayed by many different peoples since. Because they are about life, about what it means to struggle and laugh, to be confused and depressed, to grapple with self-acceptance and strive for enlightenment, they are about all of us. Best of all, they are written in a universal language that never goes out of style, that is always fresh, always piercing. They are the languages of poetry and song.”

So on Ash Wednesday I suggest that we remember Easter, but live Lent. There is a wisdom story that goes like this:

Once there was a student who was with a teacher for many years. When the teacher felt he was going to die, he wanted to make even his death a lesson.
That night, the teacher took a torch, called his student, and set off with him through the forest. Soon they reached the middle of the woods there the teacher extinguished the torch without explanation.
“What is the matter?” asked the student.
“The torch has gone out,” the teacher answered and walked on.
“But,” shouted the fearful student, “will you leave me here in the dark?”
“No, I will not leave you in the dark,” returned his teacher’s voice from the surrounding blackness. “I will leave you searching for the light.”

Welcome to the darkness of Lent. Have a good search.


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