Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ash Wednesday

This is a sermon I preached for the Ash Wednesday service at Harpeth this evening. I'll include the Scripture from Isaiah 58:6-11 as well. I wrote it in the form of a letter to my Grandpa, who passed away while I was in high school and who I still miss.

Isaiah 58:6-11

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.

The Fast I Choose

Dear Grandpa,

It’s been 13 years since you left us. 13 years since you passed away so suddenly and so unexpectedly. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 13 years. I think about you almost every day for one reason or another. Every time I pick up my golf bag and hear the clink and clack of the clubs knocking against each other, I think of how we used to get up so early in the morning to go play a round of golf before it got too hot. Every time a little kid comes up and only half heartedly gives me five, I remember how you used to hold your hand out there until I gave you five like I meant it…until it sounded right…until it stung just a little bit…and then you’d shake your hand and say “that’s the way.”

I’m taking piano lessons again. Every time you would come to visit, you would want to hear my latest masterpiece, and, to be honest, I never really wanted to play. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to play for you, but I was so much more eager to go outside and play catch. Nobody else ever wanted to play catch. And it wasn’t just the catch…it was the conversation…it was talking about baseball and basketball and other sports stuff.

For some reason, the night you were given an award by the Marshall municipal band has been on my mind lately. I’m sure you remember that night. It was a warm summer night and we were all sitting there in our lawn chairs as the Marshall band played one of its outdoor concerts. You were up front announcing all the pieces like you did each week, and then someone else took the microphone and said that they had something special for you. They handed you a plaque and thanked you for your 30-odd years of service to the band. When they gave you the opportunity to say something, you didn’t give a speech like you hear at the Oscars where you thank “all the little people.” You stood there and asked everyone to join you in prayer. You thanked God for all of the ways that God had blessed you over the years, including all your family and friends. You put everything in the context of God’s gifts. That was so amazing, Grandpa. I feel like that was the kind of moment when God smiles down and says, “That’s the way…that’s the way.”

I’m working on a sermon for Ash Wednesday, and the service is tonight, Grandpa. You know, usually on Ash Wednesday, we all make decisions about what we’re going to give up for lent. Some people give up chocolate or soda or caffeine or some other kind of food. Some people give up a bad habit like smoking or biting their nails. Some people give up something they like to do like watching TV or biking or running. Some people decide to add a spiritual discipline like journaling or daily prayer or fasting. I don’t remember if you ever gave anything up, but I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. Well, as I was reading all the suggested scriptures for Ash Wednesday, I came across these words from Isaiah 58:

6Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

I feel like you would like these words, Grandpa. Here’s the thing, though: this kind of fast is so much harder to do than giving up soda. There’s so much injustice in the world that leads to oppression. How am I supposed to loose those bonds? I do my best to buy fair trade coffee and when I order t-shirts, I order sweat-free. I didn’t do so well on that Taco Bell boycott when the PCUSA was trying to help loose the bonds of injustice for tomato pickers in Florida. But, I do try.

And what about sharing my bread with the hungry? I wonder, is it good enough to just write a check to the second harvest food bank or to donate canned goods when the church has a food drive? Somehow that doesn’t feel like sharing my bread with the hungry.

Grandpa, I have never once brought the homeless poor into my house. Sure, I’ve spent the night at homeless shelters and helped out with Room in the Inn, but again, that isn’t my house. How does that compare to giving up caffeinated beverages for lent?

I’m pretty good at giving clothes to Goodwill, but really only the stuff I don’t want anymore, or stuff that has shrunk too much in the wash. How many times have I seen homeless men and women sleeping on the streets on a cold night and just kept walking or drove right by? It’s so hard to think about stopping and giving them the coat off my back or one of the blankets I have in my car. I remember being so astonished at how little clothing the men at the homeless shelters in Atlanta owned. What does God think about my closets full of clothing?

Oh, and the hiding, Grandpa. We’re all so good at that. Sometimes Mom and Dad ask me how I’m doing and when I say “fine,” I’m not. I don’t want them to worry. Sometimes I hide what I’m struggling with from my church family here at Harpeth, because I’m afraid to seem too vulnerable. I guess we all wear masks from time to time, Grandpa. Authenticity and integrity are virtues I strive to attain, but sometimes I hide myself from my own kin, and I imagine some of my kin hide themselves from me. I hope that lent can be a time for me to be more…transparent…that I will be more comfortable revealing who I really am to those who love me and care about my well-being.

After reading these words from Isaiah, Grandpa, it sounds like all the fasting and all the Lenten disciplines and all the devout worship and all the holiness in the world doesn’t amount to a hill of beans if injustice still exists and people are still oppressed and if people are still hungry and if people don’t have homes and if people are without clothing and if we all continue to wear masks and pretend to be something we’re not. These words leave me feeling a bit lost…like I’m wandering in the wilderness. And maybe that’s where I need to be for awhile. Maybe lent isn’t so much about taking control of some area of my life but letting go and wandering in the wilderness for a little while. It’s comforting to know that God promises to be with me in the wilderness…that:

The Lord will guide me continually,
and satisfy my needs in parched places,
and make my bones strong;
and I shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.

It’s time to go now, Grandpa. The YITS are coming. Thanks for all the golf and the playing catch and the early morning donut shop trips and for being a man I can look up to. Grandpa, I hope that my Lenten fast of wandering and struggling with the role I’m called to play in loosing, freeing, housing, clothing, and revealing will be pleasing to God. I hope that you’ll watch over me. Maybe you could tell God about holding out your hand until I gave you five like I meant it…so that God might hold out his loving hand and keep holding it out until I do things just right. I could sure use that kind of guidance from the Spirit.

With love and adoration,

Your Grandson, Alan


Ashley said...

That rocked. Totally rocked. And made me very uncomfortable which is, unfortunately, a good thing.

Jerilyn said...

Thanks for putting that out there, vulnerable and raw as it may be. Beautiful words, my friend.

Anonymous said...

good sermon, but it's WHOM I miss, not who i miss . . . our country sucks at grammar