Fr. Bill Carroll – Ash Wednesday, March 2, 2022
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“I appeal to you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Paul’s message of peace and reconciliation could not be more urgent today. The time for peace is always now. “See! (Paul writes, on fire with the Spirit of God). See! Now is the acceptable time. Now is the hour of salvation.” While there is still time. Now! Today!
More than a decade ago, when I was still a young priest, I spent lots of time with members of the Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers. There was an active Quaker meeting in the town where I was serving. And I had once considered joining the Society of Friends myself. On my mother’s side of the family, I come from a long, long line of Quakers. My ancestors came to Pennsylvania in the seventeenth century, fleeing persecution from the people who founded the Episcopal Church.
Now, the Quakers are pacifists. They refuse to participate in warfare, or violence of any kind. And I used to be one too. But I changed my mind, when I became convinced that it’s sometimes necessary to use force to defend the most vulnerable. Today, we see the dauntless courage of the Ukrainian people, standing up to Russian aggression.
Even so, there’s a slogan that I learned from the Quakers that still speaks to me. It applies especially on Ash Wednesday, and it goes like this: “How does your life help remove the causes of war?” I used to have a sticker with those words in my office. And so, I read them every day for about seven years.
We don’t need to be pacifists to put them into practice. We don’t need to abstain from all violence, in order to take these words to heart. As our Baptismal Covenant reminds us, God calls us to “strive for justice and peace among all people—and respect the dignity of every human being.” Whatever our feelings about the use of force, we all could profit from a more peaceful world. We long for it. We long for Jesus, the Prince of Peace.
Those among us who’ve served in the armed forces know this better than anyone else. For they bear the true costs of war. And combat veterans, in particular, are forever marked by their experience of violence.
“How does your life help remove the causes of war?” For a long time, that was part of my daily spiritual discipline—to examine my conscience in light of these words. As we watch the war unfolding in Ukraine, I’m taking this discipline up again. It will be my Lenten discipline this year.
I used to adapt these words to speak to other concerns as well. As in: “How does your life help remove the causes of poverty?” Or “How does your life help remove the causes of hunger?” “How does your life help remove the causes of racism?” The list goes on and on and on. How does your life (how will your life) help remove these evils from God’s world?
All too often, the answer is “not much.” Even when we’ve done something to make a difference, the answer is often “not enough.”
Ash Wednesday is a time to admit that we are part of the problem. For we live in ways that harm other people and put real people at risk. On Ash Wednesday, we admit that out loud. We also acknowledge all the more ordinary types of sin—the unkindness, the resentment, the greed, the hatred—all the other forms of self-centered behavior by which we harm one another (and ourselves) every day.
Today, we confess our sins in more detail than usual. We consider the facts of our weakness and mortality. A cross of ashes is placed on our foreheads as a sign of our need for God’s forgiveness.
But it would be the wrong lesson to learn only that we are wretched sinners. That’s not what this day is about. God hates “nothing” he has made, we hear in our opening collect. Today, God also reminds us that we are his beloved children.
Today, we gather to consider the state of our souls. As we do so, we discover within us the ancient struggle between good and evil. And then, we look above ourselves to the God of all mercy, and we ask him for help.
Today, we remember that we are only dust and ashes, but that God loves us anyway. (God loves us with a fierce and forgiving love.) And today, we recommit ourselves to the works of mercy, and the works of justice. As Isaiah reminds us, the fast that God really wants is a “fast from injustice.” God wants us to become the kind of people that share our bread and house the homeless poor. God wants us to become the kind of people that clothe our naked neighbors—and remember that they are members of our own family.
The season of Lent reminds us of our profound need for each other—and for God.
And so, today (now, today) we turn back to God.
And we commit ourselves to following Jesus in the way of love.
It is the way of peace.