And this sounds kind of strange to us today, perhaps. But for Luther, salvation was a human impossibility. Every road we could choose would take us away from God. You can ignore God and go from bad to worse, or you can try to please God and only learn pride, or become more painfully aware of your own failings. And it’s all hopeless, except that God makes the impossible, possible. God gives his Holy Spirit to me so that I may believe things that are beyond my own power to believe. So that I can come to a Jesus I cannot recognize on my own. And every little bit of faith I have is the gift of this Spirit. It’s not something I could have ever gone out and found for myself, however small it feels.

Jesus is steering himself straight into the heart of that great fear that lurks in the human heart: not just of death, but of humiliation; not just of pain, but of abandonment and rejection; not just the fear of failure, but the fear of breaking the solemn silent code among humans: you stay seated, and you stay seated, and you stay seated, and you stay seated, and I stay seated, and all of us will stare at the floor together. And whatever happens, happens.

It wasn’t until I’d been preaching and writing like this for a number of years that the pathos of John Ames’s sermons in Gilead, boxed up in the attic and waiting for his post-mortem bonfire, really hit home. I was exposed to a massive dose of T.S. Eliot at an off-label age, and I was perhaps too complacent with his running theme of the life and death of words and their meanings. “These things have served their purpose; let them be,” I learned by heart before I had made much of anything to be attached to in the first place. Now I’m a million-odd words deep into a vocation whose tangible products are subject to nearly instant forgetting, recycling, the half-life of modest virality, and the onset of linkrot, and I am tempted to be less philosophical.

Slavery was, to come back to where we started, more than the people could handle. It was devastating, it was criminal, it was inhuman. And when the people cried out to God, God did not answer by giving them a little more patience. God did not give them the inner strength to endure the endless days of work and the abuse of the overseers. God did not give them a glimpse of a better world that awaited them beyond death.

God did something else: God set them free.

Being a faithful person involves some loss. It involves letting the flood of baptism wash some things out of our hands. It involves dying to our desire for domination, dying to our need to always be right and wise in our own minds, dying to our need to have more and do more, dying to our desire to possess the world even at the expense of others. Being a faithful person means letting God rip those things from our hands, just as surely as it means being embraced by God and raised up by God and clothed in righteousness by God.

The season’s meager forays into discomfort can only show how very different fasting is from true hunger, let alone hunger imposed and enforced as a policy. Self-imposed penance for the sins of the world is an impossibility; it can even be a perverse delusion. Nothing in that world can be assimilated to our prostrations or hair shirts. “Weep not for me, but for yourselves,” as Jesus says

So it happens that skipping one meal on Ash Wednesday, another on Friday, and eating neither meat nor sweets at all, leaves me feeling like Gandhi by Saturday. One of the implicit bargains I’ve made with life is that I do my work and meet my responsibilities, however onerous, and in exchange I eat whatever I feel like, whenever I wish to. And it’s not just me. This is the structure of daily life in the twilight of the middle class: sacrifice sleep, family time, personal interests, and peace of mind, but grant yourself any of a million coruscating indulgences.

(Note: I wrote, but apparently did not finish, this post in March, 2013.) We may well never know what proximate cause led Pope Benedict XVI to resign when he did, but without a doubt, such an unusual announcement had a special resonance landing shortly before Ash Wednesday (a resonance that was noted). It occasioned a flurry […]

“Hardness of heart” is a powerful metaphor. Because that’s how we live and make our choices: one at a time, little by little, day by day. We don’t feel the sclerosis of our hearts because it doesn’t happen all at once. We just lose that softness a little bit each day. We lose that responsiveness to God, or to conscience, or to our neighbor. At first it was hard to ignore the voice of God, but it got easier every time. A hard spiritual heart, like a hard physical one, eventually just stops working.

(Note: I preached this sermon at Messiah Lutheran Church on Ash Wednesday, 2015) Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and […]