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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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02.23.20

Pronouns—and Penance

Category: Bishop's Sermons

Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington

Tags: apocalypse, emergency, pronoun

The Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity, Paris

February 26, 2020  +  Ash Wednesday (Evening service)

Joel 2:13a: “Rend your hearts and not your garments.”

An apocalypse is upon us. That is the warning of the Prophet Joel this evening. We hardly ever hear from Joel during the course of the three-year lectionary; but year after year, on this day, at this hour, we hear again the sound of the alarm on the holy mountain.

Throughout most of the years of our lives, we have heard these words on Ash Wednesday and—because we are Anglicans—we have immediately used literary skills to dull their edge. Joel is speaking in an allegory. The whole first part of Joel uses the image of a plague of locusts to describe a military invasion. Surely there must be some interpretive trick we can use to set ourselves apart from the emergency that Joel is proclaiming.

But these days, that comforting idea is harder and harder to prop up for ourselves. If we bring to this Ash Wednesday any sense of history, our times feel apocalyptic. Our moment feels apocalyptic.

The basic ideas that have been the foundation stones of the modern West—ideas that trace their lineage directly to the radical ideas first articulated in the scriptures of the Christian church—seem to be open to question.

The institutions we built for ourselves, believing that being part of something larger than ourselves was a noble aspiration, we are now hard at work tearing apart—and making ourselves smaller in the process.

The bonds of trust between citizens and the governments they create are weakening, and in their place a new generation of Caesars has emerged.

Even our sense of common weal, our social contract, no longer seems to us to have anything to do with our individual destiny and our desire to flourish. We trust no one, and therefore we shall let no one depend on us.

As if all that were not enough, an epidemic utterly unimpressed by international borders or language barriers is sweeping across the globe. And the same public squares where people have protested the wearing of the niqab, thousands of people now willingly go about in masks.

Every year on this day we are presented with apocalyptic language. That has been true for decades, if not centuries. Surely these words fell differently on the ears of those who worshiped here on February 7, 1940—the date of Ash Wednesday in that year—than it did on the ears of those who gathered here on February 14th of 1945. And this year they sound different to me, and perhaps to you, than ever before.

Remember that the Greek word apocalypsis does not mean “disaster” or “catastrophe.” What it means is “unveiling,” “revealing,” the making clear of something that had been hidden.

What then is it that this day is trying to reveal to us? What is the Ash Wednesday apocalypse offered to us?

I think we make a mistake if we read these words and understand them as a means of accessing or interpreting the events of the world in our day. Our times may feel unsettled or explosive, yes. But that is not the focus of the church’s intention in bringing us in this way to the threshold of a season of self-examination and penitence.

The revelation within this apocalypse is one much closer to home. We are invited by the church to a deeper and much more difficult revelation—the revealing of our true selves, our true nature, not just the parts we are prepared to bring to church.

So yes, there is an emergency Joel is proclaiming to us. But it is not a generalized, socialized emergency from which we can create a comfortable, analytical distance. The emergency is us. The emergency is in your soul.

In a very direct way, the invitation you are about to receive is an invitation to make more sense, more meaning, out of Easter. It is to grasp anew, and more fully, just why what we say is “good news” is profoundly, radically, good—so good that, if you actually understand it, it will indelibly change your life.

Which is exactly why most people want no part of understanding it. We would prefer to have control over our lives.

The emergency we are in is simply this: We are running out of time. All of us. Each of us. Me. You. No matter how young you are, no matter how healthy you are, no matter how wealthy you are—we are running out of time. We are only given so much time.

Ash Wednesday is an invitation. Any time you receive an invitation, you are required to make a choice. You can accept it; you can decline it; but you have to choose. Today is not a demand, not a requirement, not a collection notice; it is an simply an invitation by the church.

It sets before you a choice: You may enter into this season of self-examination fully and fearlessly, and come more deeply to understand just why what happens on Easter Day really is the best good news you will ever get; or you can pass on by and miss your chance for another year.

And no one, not even the church, can guarantee you that you will get another chance.

Okay, so I’m in an emergency. What do you expect me to do? How do I make the most of this? How do I keep a good Lent—maybe for the first time?

There are shelves and shelves of books that offer answers to that question, and I will not trouble you with a review of them here. But I will tell you what I plan to do, and I offer it to you for whatever little it may be worth.

My life often feels like a desperate attempt to organize chaos and defeat the forces of entropy, and I spend, or waste, a lot of time trying to organize things. So if I tried to categorize my countless sins for the past year, one thing would immediately become very clear: The single largest category of my recent sins would be sins against language.

I have been working on, and often failing at, learning new languages. As soon as I get a basic handle on one, I am on the road to a place where a different one is spoken. It is all I can do to just try to get the pronouns right.

And there is the clue.

For as long as any of us have been formed by the life and worship of this church, our language of confession is always expressed in the collective first-person pronoun. We even call what we say on Sunday morning the “General Confession.”

“We confess that we have sinned against you....by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” “We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent.”

The broad reach of that “we” is immensely encompassing. It is so big that we can lose ourselves completely in it—and most of us eagerly do exactly that. More often than not, when I am praying the confession in that way, that “we” looks an awful lot like “them,” or “you”—and not very much at all like “me.”

It might change your experience of church—it might change your experience of faith—if just for this small time, just for this season of days,  you instead narrowed that pronoun down to just—“I.” How might that sound in your head, and in your heart?

“I confess that I have sinned against you...by what I have done, and by what I have left undone. I have not loved you with my whole heart. I have not loved my neighbors as myself.”

That is what I plan to do. What might be revealed to you about yourself if you took on that small change, just for the small space of the season ahead?

I give you the assurance that the church will continue to offer the aid and comfort of the general confession, not least to accommodate those people who are not yet ready, or not yet willing, to risk this for themselves.

But you—the sort of people who come out on a Wednesday evening in late February to come to church—you must might be prepared to try.

I do not know what this apocalypse might reveal to you. I only know there is nothing you will find, no corner you will explore, that is beyond the reach of God’s love, and beyond the forgiveness of God’s mercy. Nothing.

That is what the prophet means when he sets before you invitation to rend your heart, and not garments—to forget about making the external signs of piety, and instead take seriously the emergency within.

And that is how, when Lent is over, we will have a ready answer to the mocking world’s question—“Where is their God?”

Our God is here with us. Binding up our wounds. Leading us to acknowledge and accept our dependence on God’s love, which we receive and know through the community we make with others. And preparing us to share, in this time given to us only by grace, the good news that is surely coming. Amen.