Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Joel 2:12What a dramatic rollercoaster ride the Church Year can provide!
Three days ago we were having a mountaintop experience with Peter, James and John as Jesus was transfigured, and today we find ourselves torn between a feast, St. Valentine’s Day, and the beginning of a fast, Ash Wednesday. Do we feast today or do we begin a fast today? Do we feel torn? It’s all very dramatic. How can it not be? The drama of romance and “weeping with mourning” are matters of the heart.Yet, if one thinks about it, there is sense of serendipity about these two seemingly opposite holy days falling on the same day. The highly commercialized Feast of St. Valentine has become a very human affair embraced by the religious and non-religious alike. Whether one identifies as religious or not, we’re all on the same page when it comes to human romance, the attraction of love, symbolized by hearts and expressions of appreciation for being who one is.
That is not bad and not something we should piously reject. Commercialized or not, St. Valentine’s Day has value – a brief moment that encourages everyone to send their love to others – a reminder to us who follow Jesus, that true love, the essence of God is all around.Then there’s Ash Wednesday – not everyone’s cup of tea, traditionally speaking. Some Christians honor it, others ignore it.
When I was younger, and a Lutheran, I use to find Lent annoying because it seemed depressing to me, all this talk about sin and repentance, weeping, mourning, suffering and dying. As far as that all went, I thought we Lutherans had Lent down really well. We Lutherans weren’t really into fasting, but we weren’t into feeling good about much of anything during Lent.When I attended a Lutheran pre-seminary in pursuit of becoming a Lutheran pastor there was a hymn we sang during Lent called “Stricken, smitten, and afflicted” a real downer as hymns go. While the hymn talked about the suffering of Jesus, I remember one of my classmates joke that stricken, smitten, and afflicted was exactly how he felt after going through forty days of Lent as a Lutheran.
I agreed, but looking back, I have to ask myself, “But wasn’t that the point?” Isn’t the point of Lent about having an experience that results in transfiguring who we are?There is a phrase that seems to have fallen from common use, “Learning by heart.” It seems to me, that learning things by heart is mostly applied to what children do or did. At least it was a phrase used when I had to memorize something for a Christmas pageant or for confirmation. I had to learn it by heart, by saying it over and over until I could say it verbatim as if it was a part of me; something I came up with.
Most of childhood learning is, experiential, is a matter of taking things to heart. The things we remember most; that stick with us, that taught us something on a deeper, feeling level come from the things we experienced. Memories of the mind can fade. Mine do occasionally, but the memory of the heart does not. Things, “learned by heart,” can be recited decades later by someone who no longer remembers the name of a spouse or a loved child.Lent is the most dramatic season of the Church Year for a reason and by drama I mean the art of drama, creating and enacting experiences through ritual that touch the heart and help us understand that we are, all of us, creations of Love. The earliest form of drama was ritual. Ritual remains important because it is experiential; involving ours senses and our emotions.
Ritual remains one of the oldest learning devices we humans continue to utilize. Before our ancient ancestors could write down their experiences, it was the experience of ritual that taught their hearts lessons that would not fade; lessons that could be passed from one generation to the next. Rituals became systemized into traditions; the recognizable seasons of shared experiences through the ages.Our traditions, our rituals are not intended to save us. They’re intended to teach us lessons of the heart.
Whether we are fasting or feasting will not affect God’s love for us, as we heard Paul tell the Corinthians three Sundays ago when asked about eating meat offered to idols. God is constant in love, but we are less so. We need constant reminders of God’s love and who we are so that we become a reflection of that love. We need experiences that reach the core of our being in order to do so.So the prophet Joel dramatically depicts God telling us, “Return to me with all your heart.” God says do it through fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. In other words, make a dramatic turn around, an experiential one; one that involves action and emotion; one that brings us back to who we truly are, children of God.
Fasting with weeping and mourning becomes our response to the experience of acting in ways that have lessened who we are. Sincere fasting is a natural response to a feeling that removes one’s desire for the things of this world; as in the “I’m just not hungry “response we hear from someone experiencing a sense of deep personal loss.That’s where God is going with this: God wants us to lose our appetite for what isn’t real. God want us to lose our appetite for what lessens who we truly are.
If I were to reduce the experience of sin to one word, that one word would be selfish. Any term that can be suffixed with “ish” is an indication that it’s not the real thing, but rather an approximation that is less than real or presented as being more than what it really is.Sin is anything that approximates who we truly are. To be selfish means to present an ambiguous portrayal of one’s true self; to act in a way that misses the point of our existence which is to be a reflection of God’s glory.
The Apostle Paul wrote in his Letter to the Romans, “All have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God.”  We are all selfish in that respect because whatever occludes the reflection of God’s creative glory in our lives is the essence of sin whether it is the selfish things we do or the selfish things we fail to do.Selfishness is a problem as old as Adam and Eve. It has affected our relationships with one another and with God ever since they bit into the idea that they could something they weren’t.
We’ve been running away from who we are, hiding behind facades to be something other than what we are ever since, and ever since, we have been chased, called back, wiped cleaned and made whole by a Love that will not let us go. This Godly pursuit to bring us back to who we are is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbors as ourselves and to love our enemies, for if we cannot love that which God loves, we cannot love God.Both selfishness and love are contagions affecting the heart; one a disease, the other its cure.
In our reading from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus approaches this spiritual disease from another perspective by addressing it with the religious of his day and to anyone who sits in a pew today. Jesus uses the word hypocrite three times to condemn the selfish practices of the religious who put on a display of piety to make themselves appear better, more holy than they are. Jesus is telling us that true piety is not meant to be a spectacle, but a secretive affair of the heart between the Creator and the created.
“Rend your hearts and not your garments.”
So on this day, February 14th 2018, a day in which there is confluence of two holy days focused on the heart, we are reminded that true love can only proceed from a true heart, a broke open and sincere heart; one that is true to self and true to God, one that has lost its appetite for all things selfish. On this day, we take to heart the traditional ritual of penance; of being marked by the carbon of our origin in a shape of Christ’s redeeming cross and hearing the words God said to Adam after Adam’s participation in humankind’s first selfish moment, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” – God’s poignant yet loving reminder of what we are and whose we are.
In this moment of ritual and tradition, we begin the journey into this turn-around season of Lent toward the reset point of new life in the risen Christ, by reciting the words of a psalmist whose contrite heart spoke millennial ago for the hearts of every contrite penitent and by confessing our selfish ways in order to push away from them to let the glory of God shine in and through our true selves.May this turn-around season of Lent be for us a journey into that Love which will not us go.
* * * * * * * * * *
Until next time, stay faithful.
 Thomas Kelly 1769-1855 set to the tune “O Mein Jesu, Ich Muss Sterben,” Geistliche Volkslieder 1850
 Romans 3:23