Seven Works of Mercy, by Pieter Bruegel., from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.
The following is the sermon preached by Rev. Susan on Ash Wednesday at St. Paul’s Ventura, March 1, 2017 (Year A).
No one can be more lowly than me,
for I am dust and to dust I shall return. Amen.
Today is Ash Wednesday; the first day of Lent. Lent is a period of 40 days, not including Sundays, during which we are called to take a long, hard look at ourselves, our lives and our priorities. It’s an important time to set aside the worldly perspectives by which our successes or failures are measured. It is a time to repent and return to the Lord.
Some people need to repent because they have done wrong in the sense of having committed evil or vicious acts. For most of us, though, the things we regret are more subtle. Some of us need to repent for the time we have wasted chasing after things that, at the end of our life, won’t seem so important. Some of us need to repent for making our relationship with God such a low priority. Some of us need to repent for neglecting our relationships with friends or family or for turning our backs on our brothers and sisters and failing to speak up for those who have no voice.
And it’s not too late to change all that. This is a great time to reevaluate and set different priorities. This is a time of prayer and of fasting, a time to reconcile ourselves with God and with one another.
We begin our Lenten journey each year with the imposition of ashes. It’s a strange and powerful reminder of who we are and from where we come. As ashes are smeared on our foreheads in the shape of the cross, we are reminded, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We are nothing, nothing but dust. I don’t mention that today because I’m trying to put you down, but rather, because I am trying to point out that it is God who pulls you up. God saw you as dust and recognized your potential. God breathed life into you, filled you with gifts and talents, blessed you with memory, reason and skill and from here, God provides for you the bread and wine made holy and then sends you out to love and serve the world.
Today is an important day to remember something we often forget; that it is God who gives us the opportunity to be more than just dust. What we will do with that opportunity is entirely up to us. Lent is a time to reevaluate your priorities. Are you using this precious gift, the life you have been given, in the ways and on the things you think are most important?
Think about it, and stop for a minute to look at what God has made of simple dust. Human beings are truly special. We are each amazing, wonderful, beloved children of God. Isn’t it remarkable that God chooses as beloved children the lowliest of all things, dust? Lent is a time to consider what we can learn from that idea, and to consider what else we can learn by focusing on the ways of God.
Let us dare, for a season, to turn away from business as usual. Let us put our relationship with God and with one another as our first, our highest priority. And let’s see what happens. Let’s remember who we are and how we started out. And after we have spent some time meditating on this, I pray that we will come to understand that all people are equal. We all are dust and we all are beloved children of God; each bestowed with different gifts, each experiencing different challenges but each loved and treasured just the same.
Through our lessons today, we are encouraged to delight to draw near to God. Fast, but not as one who seeks the attention of the world. Fast as one who seeks to honor God and draw into a closer and deeper relationship with the One who formed us from the dust, the One who reached down, molded the clay of the earth, and breathed the life into it that is you and that is me.
I encourage you to commit to making this Lenten season a holy one. Make the commitment to give up or take on practices that will help you deepen your relationship with God. And before you make those commitments, ask yourself an important question. Think about what you imagine God would choose for you to do. Think about it. Spend some time in prayer listening for the inspiration you need to make this important decision.
As I considered what my Lenten commitment should be this year, I found a list of ideas published by The Rev. Ann Fontaine to be very helpful. She calls it a Lenten Fast List. Perhaps you’ve already heard or read this list. Even if you have, I promise, it’s worth considering, again. I encourage you to relax and listen deeply as I read through the list. See if any of these ideas calls out to you:
Lenten Fast List
Fast from judgment, Feast on compassion
Fast from greed, Feast on sharing
Fast from scarcity, Feast on abundance
Fast from fear, Feast on peace
Fast from lies, Feast on truth
Fast from gossip, Feast on praise
Fast from anxiety, Feast on patience
Fast from evil, Feast on kindness
Fast from apathy, Feast on engagement
Fast from discontent, Feast on gratitude
Fast from noise, Feast on silence
Fast from discouragement, Feast on hope
Fast from hatred, Feast on love
What will be your fast? What will be your feast?
May this Lenten season deepen your faith, strengthen your relationship with God, and stir you to service.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Rev. Susan Bek is a graduate of Claremont School of Theology as well as Bloy House, the Episcopal Theological School at Claremont. She received a Master of Divinity degree (MDiv) along with the Award for Highest Academic Achievement in 2009. Susan currently serves as Rector at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Ventura. She is proficient in both English and American Sign Language (ASL). Susan and her husband, Jon, live in Ventura and enjoy spending time with their four children and three grandchildren.