Saturday, March 08, 2014

We Need a Little Easter Now (Ash Wed 2014 sermon)

We Need a Little Easter Now
Rev Dr Durrell Watkins
Ash Wednesday 2014

In the play and movie, Auntie Mame, Mame decides that Christmas needs to come early and so she and her nephew and staff celebrate Christmas when they need all that it offers, all that it represents, rather than waiting for when the calendar says it’s time.

I like that. The miracle of Christmas is available whenever we need it. When we need hope, joy, celebration, togetherness, seeing sparks of possibilities in the midst of despair, then it’s time to “haul out the holly” and “deck the halls.”

But just as Christmas is about the hope of liberation being born in the midst of empire, marginalized shepherds hearing angel voices and far away strangers finding holiness after a long journey, Easter, too, is a symbol of hope that breaks forth in spite of seeming hopelessness.

Easter is life that death can’t keep from expressing.
Easter is freedom from entombment and stones of limitation being removed.
Easter is knowing that tragedy strikes but shouting Hallelujah anyway because life is a never-ending story and so the hope for healing and restoration is always real.

I don’t think it serves us to make Lent a forced time of gloom, sacrifice, or feigned sadness. Bad things happen often enough without our needing to pretend a moment is less joyful than it could be (e.g., hangings in Iran, anti-gay legislation in Nigeria and Uganda, attempts to halt progress on LBGT rights in the US, etc).

Let’s make Lent a time of celebrating Easter early, a time of affirming life, a time of expecting the best, a time of choosing to be more generous, more joyful, more optimistic, more committed to justice, more excited about the possibilities of life right now and always.

Tonight, of course, is Ash Wednesday.
Whenever I hear Ash Wednesday I remember a sunken area outside on the campus of the seminary where I earned my doctorate. The school was smoke free indoors, and so the smokers would gather at that sunken area outside to smoke and visit. Since it was the smoking area, and since it was a sunken sort of pit, they affectionately called it the Ash Hole.

Ash Wednesday begins the Season of Lent. Lent is a time of preparation leading to Easter. During Lent we are encouraged to be especially faithful to spiritual disciplines such as meditation, study, prayer, worship, and sharing. It is, therefore, a time of spiritual renewal.
Renewal, isn’t that what Easter is about?

Lent isn’t holding off on joy; Lent can be about rehearsing for unending joy. Let’s not wait. Let’s get the party started now and call it Lent!

Traditionally Ash Wednesday calls us to consider our mortality and redeem our fear of it, but it can also challenge us to heal many of our attitudes and commit to living in the power of hope.

Sister Joan Chittister  says this about Lent:
“Lent is about becoming, doing and changing whatever it is that is blocking the fullness of life in us right now.
Lent is a summons to live anew.
Lent is the time to let life in again…”
Live anew? Let life in again? Sounds like Easter! Maybe Lent isn’t Easter delayed but Easter come early!

In our reading tonight, the Apostle Paul said, “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”
NOW is the time. Why wait?

Easter isn't something that happened once long ago, nor is it something that may happen in 7 weeks; Easter is a reality we can acknowledge, embrace, and live into at any time.

Easter, actually named for the Saxon spring goddess Eostre, represents life that cannot end.

Winter can cover our lives with snow and ice and darkness but the cold must give way once again to the life that Spring calls forth. Life doesn't go away; it is actually being nurtured in the darkness of winter so that it can flourish in the Spring and be forever strong and bountiful.

So, we aren't making Spring happen and we aren't hoping that it will happen, we are choosing to know that it is a reality that cannot be kept from us, so even when winter seems dark and gloomy, it is really just providing the rest needed for never-ending renewal. Life will prevail. Winter is part of life. Lent, then, can be part of Easter. We are always Spring people, people alive with divine Life, Easter people, Resurrection people. Why pretend otherwise simply because tradition says its Lent?

Tonight we aren't just contemplating mortality; we are redeeming it. Life must live and isn’t limited by physical conditions. Life isn’t physical, it is energy, spirit, and while we experience it in our bodies, it is in no way limited to our bodies. We are choosing to remember that Life is indomitable, omnipresent, eternal; and to remember that is to experience Easter. We can have a little Easter right now. And not only do we trust that life is eternal, we also trust that we can make the most of it by being intentional, deliberate, faithful on our life-journeys.

We make mistakes, but we also learn from them.
We experience suffering, but we also overcome it.
We face uncertainty, but we have the power to hope even when certainty evades us. Easter blessings are always at hand.

I have friends who are giving their last Facebook post between now and Easter (but reminding the world they are nevertheless available via email and Twitter). Really? Why bother?
Give up chocolate for 40 days? Why? If it’s bad, give it up forever. If it’s good, why give it up for even a day?

Oh, there are things I would encourage us to give up, but not because it’s Lent, but because useless baggage that weighs us down should be jettisoned whenever we have the opportunity to get rid of it!

Give up the idea that you were born a sinner. Of course you make mistakes, but you can also learn from them and heal from them and wind up better than before. But making mistakes doesn’t make us a mistake. We are God’s miracle and not God’s mistake!

Give up self-loathing.
Give up false guilt and needless shame.
Give up fear of the unknown.
Give up regret over what can’t be changed.
Give up anxiety about what hasn’t happened yet and may never happen at all.
There are many things to give up that could make a big difference. Sodas and chocolate and Facebook, however, do not make it very high on that list.

This is as good a time as any to challenge ourselves to be more generous, more hopeful, more reflective, more open to possibilities, but this is not a time give up anything other than whatever is stealing our joy.  

I have a friend from seminary, a heterosexual, married with children, Baptist minister in Los Angeles. He’s in trouble right now because he married a lesbian couple in a state where same-sex marriage is legal. He opened his church to interfaith groups for dialogue and he welcomed humanists, agnostics, and atheists to the discussions. Most recently, and apparently this was the final straw, he published a letter in a local paper advocating for lesbian and gay rights.

My friend has given up a lot as Lent approaches. Not movies or texting or sodas after sundown. He’s given up security for the sake of those who never had it. He’s given up privilege for those who had been hurt by it. He’s given up knowing if he will have job tomorrow because he’d rather stand on the side of justice that profit from oppressive theologies left unchallenged.

I’m not opposed to giving up things for Lent, but does the giving up make a difference? How easy it is to pat ourselves on the back for not chewing gum for a few weeks! But wouldn’t a more meaningful sacrifice be to speak out on behalf of undocumented workers, to show kindness to someone suffering from depression, to affirm the validity and sanctity of transgender people and the families they create, to oppose war, and to work to end poverty rather than punish people for being poor?  

When I hear of people congratulating themselves for abstaining from scratch off lottery tickets or pasta for a few weeks, I think of the prophet of Isaiah who imagined God saying, “What do I care about the number of your sacrifices?...Instead, make justice your aim, redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.”
That’s what my friend in Los Angeles has done. Instead of sacrificing things that won’t matter if he enjoys them or not, he has taken up the cause of justice to help those he could have chosen to ignore. But with the heart of a pastor and the soul of a prophet, he chose to believe in the sacred value of all people and give up anything that might hinder that life-giving good news.

Traditionally, the ashes on Ash Wednesday represent finality, but remember, it’s from the ashes that the Phoenix will rise. No matter what has happened, believe in your goodness and choose to have hope for the future.

If you think you watch too much television then watch less, but don’t call it a religious discipline. If you want to eat healthier, see a nutritionist or a trainer or join Weight Watchers…it will work better and last longer than trying to give up carbs for Lent. But if you want to experience more joy in life then give up beliefs that make you feel badly about yourself, and once you believe in yourself, you will be better able to be an agent of positive change and healing in the world.

NOW is the time of God's favor; now is the day of salvation (wholeness, liberation, true happiness). We need a little Easter now. Let’s start the Easter celebration tonight and build on it throughout Lent so that on Easter Sunday the joy and the energy and the hope will be so strong it will be like an atomic blast of grace and goodness, and Sunshine Cathedral will be ground zero. THIS is the good news. Amen.

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