Monday, March 14, 2011

Ash Wednesday Sermon

March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday

There must be a gazillion reasons why human beings break down and have a good cry now and again. Some of us have our tear ducts so close to our eyes, that we can, as they say, cry at the drop of a hat. It was said that CBS anchorman, Dan Rather, however, did not. This hard-biting journalist is widely known for his aloofness and apparent imperturbability in times of crises. That's why the country was amazed to watch Rather cry when appearing on the Letterman Show in September, 2001, following the terrorist's attack. Dan Rather simply doesn't cry.
Crying isn't so hard for a lot of us. Our kids cry when their feelings are injured, when their mother leaves them with the sitter, or when the teacher scolds them for being disruptive in class. We cry during arguments, at the loss of a loved one, when watching a movie, listening to a song, when a passing thought runs across our minds, when we've hit the lotto jackpot, when we're slapped with a lawsuit, when our children do us proud, when the daughter gets married or because the daughter isn't married. We cry tears of revenge, seduction, escape and empathy; tears of pleasure and pain. The biblical history of tears shows us David crying at the death of Absalom, Abraham over the death of Sarah. Joseph cried when meeting Benjamin. Even Jesus, according to that famously short verse in John's gospel, wept.

Some even have the ability to get moist in public on cue. Jimmy Swaggart wept profusely in an attempt to keep his ministry afloat. Sally Struthers gets moist on TV as she pleads for your support for Save the Children. George Bush could tear up during moving invocations of patriotism. And the mother of all weepers, Tammy Faye, was prone to weeping adventures that alone assure Estee Lauder a long and bright economic future.

Tears are always arouse us to action, observes Tom Lutz in Crying, a book that details the history of tears from the 14th century B.C. to the present day. The tears of public figures can spur people to pity or empathy, and then to action. Although tears were once seen as a sign of emotional instability in men, they are now considered to be proof that a particular man has feelings, and that he's strong enough to show deep emotion.

So what's this crying game all about? That's a good question as we observe Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent - the season of the church year that might bring us to a tearful or sorrowful state of emotion. To start things off, the prophet Joel issues a call for tears, for repentance. Divine judgment is on its way, and so God says through the prophet, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning". Although the people of Judah are terribly threatened by the coming of the day of the Lord, God offers them the opportunity to repent with fasting and weeping, and to return to communion with him.

Joel is convinced that these tears must be genuine. His God isn't interested in crocodile tears, or in any weeping that is designed to manipulate others. God is not looking for the kind of crying that is simply a biological event, a form of bodily elimination that may have the effect of evacuating ulcer-causing chemicals and proteins. No, God is interested in the type of weeping that accompanies an authentic change of heart.

In the middle of this state of crying, the prophet Joel calls for a particular kind of weeping: That which is genuine, and which leads to repentance. To repent is to turn your life around and begin to walk in a new direction; it means to turn away from sin and idolatry, and turn toward God's will and God's way. "Return to the LORD, your God," implores the prophet, "for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love".

Here's where the crying gets complex: It is not only a sign of sorrow over sin, but can be an expression of joy over God's goodness. We are invited to turn toward a gracious and forgiving God, not toward a vengeful and punishing Lord. God is "gracious," full of goodwill; "merciful," showing the love of a mother for her child; "slow to anger," waiting patiently for repentance; and full of "steadfast love," love which is grounded in God's promises to his people.

Think of the parable of the Prodigal Son. In it, the prodigal goes to a distant country, squanders his fortune in dissolute living, and then he "repents" - that is, he decides to turn himself around and return to his father. Here, we envision God - God's forgiveness knows no boundaries. His joy knows no restraint. He runs to meet us, according to the parable. Puts his arms around us. Kisses us. Welcomes us home.

The key thing to remember is that our crying - whether happy or sad - should result in changed behavior. The prophet Joel says, "Rend your hearts and not your clothing"; change your insides and not just your outsides; make sure your fasting and weeping and mourning are part of a new walk, not just a new talk. What Joel really hates is hypocrisy: People who say they are repenting but then fail to turn their lives around.

Barbara Brown Taylor argues that repentance is not complete until confession and pardon lead to "penance" - penance being a set of actions that allow community to be restored. "Just for a lark," she suggests, "imagine going to your pastor and confessing your rampant materialism, your devotion to things instead of people, and your isolation from the poor whom Jesus loved." Picture yourself confessing, with tears, all those things that you have done to rip the fabric of your community.

"Then imagine being forgiven and given your penance: To select five of your favorite things - including perhaps your Bose radio and your new Coach book bag - and to match them up with five people who you know would turn cartwheels to have them. Then on Saturday, put your lawn mower in your trunk, drive down to that transitional neighborhood where all the old people live and offer to mow lawns for free until dark." Notice that none of this is standard punishment. None of it is designed to inflict pain on yourself. Instead, it is penance, which is for the purpose of showing that your life is now turned around and that you are devoted to repairing relationships and restoring community.

If you find yourself crying over a lost valuable, just remember: When you weep in the process of true repentance, you're crying the tears of new life.

Tears and new life - they are inextricably linked in the promises of our faith. In this mournful season of Lent, we can believe that if we return to our gracious God with all our heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning, then we will discover a fullness of life that we have never known before. If we turn our lives around and work hard for the restoration of our relationships and our community, we'll know a joy that we never thought possible.

Our tears will lead to resurrection life. That's something to cry about!

God Love You +
+ The most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.

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