The Journey of Lent: the Phoenix

Welcome to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.

Lent is a solemn time in the church year, which for most seems gloomy, depressing, and dark.

I love Lent. I, actually, find it life-giving but I will get to that in a moment.

There are many ways Lent has been celebrated with different practices for the forty days of fasting, different philosophies and theories on the why and how. This is the normal direction of my Ash Wednesday sermons, but bear with me because we are doing something a little different tonight.

I was thinking what is the true intent of Ash Wednesday and Lent, not simply how we practice it. There is a poem in “Celtic Praise”* that, well, more poetically poses my question. It is entitled Controlling the Heart.

The priests tell me
that if I sin with my will and inclination,
it is as if the deed is done.
My conscience tells me,
that if I want to sin but restrain myself,
God will bless me for my virtue.
Does sin lie in the heart or in action?
Minute by minute I can control my actions,
but it takes a lifetime and more to control the heart.

It takes a lifetime and more to control the heart, after all that is where our intentions lie. Right?

I love Lent, I said I did.

Lent is a time when we journey and travel to the darkest depths of who we are in all of our messy, flawed, broken, and sinfulness that we are. Ash Wednesday, the crosses of ash on our foreheads force a mirror in front of us that reminds:

You are human.
You are flawed.
You are a sinner.
This life will end.

OR as I would call it a “come to Jesus moment”.

Today, there was a whole conversation on my Facebook wall about Ash Wednesday and preaching it. It all started with “What are you doing for Valentine’s Day?” There are several pastors saying “Well, I will be reminding people that they will die”. {Congregational Laughter}.

It is not exactly the message you want to give to (or receive from) people on Valentine’s Day. So, it begged the question ‘what does Ash Wednesday and Lent truly mean’.
This was my response, which took a minute to draft and I was proud of it, so I am sharing it:

I like to think of Ash Wednesday as a real #Come2JesusMoment, remembering that we are human, this life is temporary, and we need to re-prioritize our time, and energy, and life to what truly matters instead of being easily distracted.

THAT is what I love about Lent. In all my OCD-ness (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), Lent lets me make a list, concentrating and reflecting on what truly matters rather than all the tasks that have piled up.

What truly matters?

A couple years ago, I shared a quote on Facebook and I shared it again this year when reminded. I also quoted it in my sermon on Sunday, which you would have only seen/heard on Facebook (because Church had been cancelled). BUT I am sharing it again tonight because it is not only the intention of what the church should be, but it summaries the purpose of the Lenten season. It is written by Richard Rohr, a Roman Catholic theologian, it reads:

We worshiped Jesus instead of following him on his same path.
We made Jesus into a mere religion instead of a journey towards union with God and everything else.
This shift made us into a religion of “belonging and believing” instead of a religion of transformation.

I have said that Lent is a journey, it is a path that we are called to walk in the hope of getting closer to what is the heart of our heart? What is the most important thing in our life? What truly matters? Why are we as a people here?

That is the purpose of Lent to take that journey.

I had an image in mind the last couple of days, but thought it was too weird to include in this sermon. However, a friend told me “no, it actually works and you can pull it off”.

During the past year, I have had people tell me that I am a unicorn because I am ‘rare’. Apparently, they do not know other people who are quite like me. BUT if I am to be a mythical creature, I do NOT want to be a unicorn. I want to be a PHOENIX. {Congregational Laughter}.

I want to be a phoenix.
{member in her pew: “it is way cooler”}

Right?! It is way cooler to be a phoenix.
{another member in her pew: “rising out of the ashes”}.

Exactly! Rising from the ashes.

There are several references and images in scripture about fire purifying, burning away all those distractions, all those things holding us back from being the people God has been, is, and will continue to call us to be, the ones walking that path following in the footsteps of Christ, the ones in that journey seeking to be reconnected and united with God and Christ in such a way that from the burnt pile of ashes that remain we emerge as restored, a renewed creation, a phoenix. AND what is it about a phoenix emerging from the ashes… they are even stronger and better than they were before.

As we put ashes on our forehead tonight and think about how we are human and in need of God and God’s transforming love… let us think about the phoenix that we can rise from the ashes as by God’s grace alone. Amen.

Originally preached on Feb. 14, 2018 at Trinity Lutheran Church (Union City, IN).

* Celtic Praise: A Book of Celtic Devotion, Daily Prayers, and Blessings by Robert Van de Weyer (Abingdon Press, (c) 1998).

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