Sermon for Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017
One of my favorite American poets, James Weldon Johnson, opens his book God’s Trombones with a poetic prayer, which begins like this:
O Lord, we come this morning
Knee-bowed and body-bent
Before Thy throne of grace.
O Lord—this morning—
Bow our hearts beneath our knees,
And our knees in some lonesome valley.
We come this morning—
Like empty pitchers to a full fountain,
With no merits of our own.
O Lord—open up a window of heaven,
And lean out far over the battlements of glory,
And listen this morning.*
Today is the gateway to the season of Lent. Today is Ash Wednesday, and in a few minutes I will invite you, on behalf of the Church, to observe this season by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. We will do some of this together: each Sunday we will pray together the Litany of Penitence, which we will pray first this day. Such a collective prayer will help us with our self-examination and repentance. Our Lenten Meditations this year cover the whole sweeping story of scripture, and many parishioners have offered their wisdom upon reflecting on the Bible. So if you engage that resource you will be reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
Still there’s one more invitation that can pass us by if we let it: we can observe this holy season of Lent by fasting and self-denial. It is this invitation that I would like to speak to today and why I chose to begin with James Weldon Johnson. You see, the beginning of his poem is, for us, aspirational. He says,
“We come this morning—
Like empty pitchers to a full fountain”
I so wish that were true. The truth is we come today like full pitchers to a full fountain, unable to receive any of the liquid blessing the God-Fountain holds. We have so much rubbish built up around our souls, the flotsam and jetsam of a world filled with false promises. As a people, we have filled ourselves up with the junk food of prejudice and self-interest and indifference to injustice. We have filled ourselves up with the wrong priorities, the false gods of wealth and fame. We have filled ourselves up by ignoring the emptiness of others.
And so we come together on this Ash Wednesday; we hold a mirror up to our faces and see there the cross of Jesus drawn in soot; we remember how he emptied himself in order that we might be filled; and we repent. We repent that we allowed ourselves to be filled with the wrong things. We brought our pitchers to the wrong fountains, and when we realized our folly, there was no room left for the water of life.
So we are here today to start emptying our pitchers. And that is why we fast. A fast is a way to make a space, to open up a hole within ourselves, to dump out some of the brackish water of the world from our pitchers. A fast is an active and difficult denial of something that has influence over us. Traditionally this has been food, though fasts certainly are not limited to that area; indeed, denying ourselves food is often the outward sign of an even more difficult interior battle. When we fast, we forgo the things that we usually use to fill us up. And when we cease to fill ourselves up with all the junk of the world, we make room within ourselves for God. Our pitchers empty and we can once again bring them to the full God-Fountain, once again fill ourselves with the water of life.
Last year, Leah and I changed our diet. We moved from a diet dominated by animal products (meat and diary) to one reliant on plant-based foods. I started eating beans and kale and zucchini and all kinds of foods I had never in my life touched. At first I didn’t think of the new diet as a fast, but it was. I fasted from meat and discovered a whole new class of healthier food to fill me up. This is what fasting does for us on a spiritual level.
To change the metaphor, when you move from one place to another, you always have boxes piled up for a while. But then you unpack a little bit at a time and then sooner or later you can walk around the house unhindered by all your stuff. This is what fasting does for us. When we clear away the rubbish that has piled up in our interior selves, we make a space for God to come in and dwell. And the more interior square footage we devote to God, the better we will be able to listen and respond to God’s movement in our lives.
As you deny yourself the things that normally fill you up, actively invite God to enter the newly cleared space. Choose to fast. Clear away the rubbish, hollow out your insides, and give God a place to fill. Bring that empty pitcher back to the full God-Fountain and drink from the water of life. And when you are full of God, look around this world of empty promises and see where God is calling you to pour yourself out in love and service.
* Read the full poem “Listen, Lord: A Prayer” here.