Eastering and Ashen Ways

Did you hear the echoes in the texts read this morning—echoes of the Easter story?  Did you hear the current of alleluias running under the words we just heard?  Take a minute.  Shift your perspective just a bit.  Look out at Lent not from Ash Wednesday but from Easter morning.  Work your way back from the last Sunday in Lent to that first Sunday.

On the last Sunday in Lent, the gospel ends with Jesus saying in loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”   This week, we hear the story of the man born blind; we hear him say, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  Our epistle this week ends with the words, “Sleeper, awake!”   And just last week, we watched that Samaritan woman receiving Jesus’ living water—water that brought her to a whole new way of living in her world.   Perhaps you remember the story we hear each year as we begin our Lenten journey.  It’s the story of Jesus in the wilderness—Jesus being tempted by Satan, Jesus holding tight to the words of scripture, and Jesus being ministered to by angels.

The dead rising, the blind seeing, waters of new life bubbling up.  Sleepers waking, angels ministering. Echoes of renewal and rebirth reverberating through our Lenten texts.  Can you hear the distant alleluias?  Can you see that ribbon of Easter wending its way through Lent?

And yet there’s that other side of Lent—the one you see when you look out from the Ash Wednesday vantage point.  You know that side of lent—the one that calls us to face squarely our bruises and our brokenness.   The vein we tap into as we begin our worship with confession.   Its ashen current runs through the scriptures too—temptations in the wilderness; a woman shunned by those with whom she lives—her neighbors and her kin; disciples looking for sin and Pharisees assigning blame.  Do you hear the echoes of our ashen ways in the words of scripture?

Eastering and ashen ways—the two go hand and hand in Lent, and I suspect in life as well.  For how can we face our ashen ways without the hope of Eastering?  How can we acknowledge our brokenness without the promise of new life?  How can we walk through those dark valleys without confidence that God’s welcome table awaits us?

I don’t think we can. I don’t think we can go through Lent or life hewing just to pole of focusing on our ashen ways.  There’s no hope in that approach.  And no destination either.  That’s staying mired in the muck of life.  But taking the opposite approach doesn’t work either.  Think about it:  Eastering without the ashes would be impossible.  Eastering only comes when we look squarely at our ashen ways; when we see ourselves and God sees us—broken and beloved.

Yet far too often we tend to personalize and privatize all this ashenness.  Too often we forget the communal focus Lent demands.  And so we overlook the ashen ways abroad in our land and in our world as well—our fear, our self-absorption and our indifference to the plight of others, our resignation and our despair, our hesitancy to trust and our reluctance to act.

Forty-three years ago today, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke in Memphis, Tennessee, to a crowd of sanitation workers and their supporters.  Though pundits called it a speech it was really a sermon—a sermon reminding both the people of Memphis and the people of our country of our ashen ways and pointing to the promise of God’s eastering.

King said, “…the world is all messed up.  The nation is sick.  Trouble is in the land.  Confusion is all around….But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”  Think about it:  in the middle of all that ashenness, King saw the promise of God’s eastering ways.

Towards the end of that sermon, King called the people gathered in the hall that night and the people of our country to a “dangerous unselfishness”—“one that asks not ‘If I stop what will happen to me?’ but rather, ‘If I don’t stop, what will happen to those who need my help?’” and he called us to a “greater readiness” as well—a readiness to step into the fray.

As we look out on our ashen ways and on the ashen ways abroad in our land today may our Lenten prayer be, “Easter us to a dangerous unselfishness that we might see the pain and need and sadness in our midst; Easter us to a greater readiness to act to ease the pain and serve the needs and soothe the wounds we see.”  Amen.

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