(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 not your clothing.
The heroine of the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston kills her husband. She loves him, and she doesn’t want to do it. But during a hurricane in the Florida Everglades, he saves her from a wild dog, and in doing so he comes down with rabies, too. In a fit of madness he attacks her and she kills him in self-defense.
After the jury acquits her of murdering her beloved husband, she sees to the funeral, wearing her overalls. “She was too busy feeling grief to dress like grief.”
“Rend your hearts and not your clothing.” It’s an interesting phrase, isn’t it? Tear your hearts. It’s kind of violent. It may even sound extreme to us. We like our hearts whole.
God speaks these words to the prophet Joel as a warning. It is not enough to know what to do to show outwardly that you are mourning your misfortune or your sin. People know how to do that. You rend your clothing—Job rends his clothing, the high priest rends his clothing in the trial of Jesus. Not that those people weren’t sincere in the grief they expressed—they were. But the problem with any ritual is that you can fake it. You can do the right thing and say the right thing and yet your truest self may be untouched. You can dress like grief without feeling grief.
I think the same thing is true with how we talk about things like failure, guilt, and sin. If you confess to feeling guilty about something you did or didn’t do, you will almost immediately be told “don’t feel bad” or “don’t blame yourself.” This is a way in which we try to be kind to one another. I probably do it once a day.
But when someone says it to me, I never really feel reassured. I think to myself, “Maybe I need to sit with this feeling of guilt for a minute.” I think, “Maybe there is some good reason for me to feel bad.”
Rend your hearts.
Today we begin the season of Lent, a yearly journey of fasting from self-indulgence, of giving alms for those in need, of praying more deliberately for the coming of God’s kingdom. It’s a powerful day. We are reminded of our Savior’s cross, which is marked in the ashes of our own inevitable death on our foreheads. We pray for those who are moving toward the fullness of life in Christ through baptism. And we confess our sins.
And it’s interesting: I’ve noticed that the ashes, which used to be strictly a Catholic practice, have become popular among all kinds of Christians. And I’ve noticed that the discipline of “giving something up” for Lent is, if anything, more popular than it was when I started paying attention to religious stuff. People who aren’t Christians or even especially religious will give things up. But the sin part—the rending of the heart, the willingness to feel bad in the hope of one day being better than you are—that’s tough.
But it’s what forgiveness requires. The world we live in is not very forgiving. It is very indulgent. It is in some ways very tolerant. It’s not that hard to get away with stuff if you want to, and it’s not that hard to take advantage of people’s desire not to be judgmental or offensive.
But that’s not what forgiveness is. Saying, “Sorry” is not asking for forgiveness. Instead, forgiveness starts with saying, even to ourselves, “I was wrong. I did wrong. I wish I hadn’t. I apologize.”
And extending forgiveness is not saying, “It’s ok. Don’t worry about it. Don’t feel bad.” Instead, it’s saying, “I forgive you. You have wronged me but I release you from the guilt of that wrongness. I love you.”
So I’m asking you to join me in a fast. This year, for Lent, I am going to fast from trivial apologies. I am not going to dress grief in my words. I’m not going to say, “Sorry.” When I have wronged God or my fellow human, I will try to name it to myself and to that person, and to own it, and to let myself feel bad if it’s something a person ought to feel bad about.
And likewise I will fast from giving you cheap assurances that you’re fine and you shouldn’t feel bad when you bless me with an expression of remorse or regret. Those feelings are yours, they are not mine to take away from you because they make me anxious. We will pray over them together.
And finally I am going to fast from offering meaningless expressions of forgiveness. I’m not going to say, “It’s ok” or “Don’t worry about it.” I’m going to accept apologies, not reject them with a fake sort of generosity.
“Rend your hearts and not your clothing.” I wonder if maybe we are so protective of our hearts because we don’t really trust in the possibility of being healed and forgiven.
Everything I’ve said to this point is good advice for anyone, Christian or not. But our great joy as Christians is that we can be honest about our need and desire for forgiveness, honest about the sin that smolders in us, and honest about our willingness to extend forgiveness to others because we know that God has already opened his heart to us. We don’t have to armor up our hearts; we can let them be torn, because God is the one who keeps our hearts in his hand. We can let ourselves experience the pain of remorse because we know that it does not have to lead to despair, but that it leads us to God—God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who sees our fasting in secret and hears our prayers in secret and keeps our treasure safe. Who perfectly accomplishes salvation even for dust and ashes. Amen.