Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 51:1-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

 

It is never easy to leave people you love. That was true when Jackie and I were dating and had a long-distance relationship and we had to say good-bye after a visit, and it is true now.

When I accepted the call to come to Our Saviour, there were a few people I was particularly mindful of. Coming to Our Saviour was the right thing because we in the church talk about what God wants, and I did not come to a new job but answered a call. Furthermore, staying at Peace would have suggested some kind of idolatry, for staying may have suggested that I am indispensable yet ministry is about God and God’s reign, not about me.

I did, however, offer to teach confirmation for this year, and in fact I do.

Last week one of the girls said that she liked all her subjects in school, but the one subject she did not care for was history. “History is so boring,” she said, “and it’s all past. What’s the point of it?”

I have to admit to you that I once thought the same. I was in grade seven and a number of us argued with our history teacher. While our teacher prevailed in teaching the class, we failed to be convinced by her arguments.

Today is a day that would be unthinkable without a sense of history. For how could we ask forgiveness without a sense of the past? How could we understand the human condition without knowledge of history, or remembering the story of the emancipation from God and each other in the Garden?

Ash Wednesday is about remembering. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” These are the words God speaks to Adam in Genesis 3.

In the most fundamental way, Ash Wednesday is the day on which we remember that we are not self-sufficient. And to realize that we are not self-sufficient is life-giving because it frees us from false assumptions and it frees us for God.

A while ago I thought of Reverend Jeremiah Wright. He was the Obama’s pastor in Chicago. When Obama ran for the Democratic nomination, Wright was scrutinized by the media, and there was particularly one sentence from a sermon the media honed in on.

Wright had given this sermon in 2003 in the wake of the Iraq invasion. He had said, “No, no, no. Not God bless America. God damn America!”

Wright was speaking in a black religious and political tradition that condemns America for its treatment of black and brown people, for the genocide of First Nations, the enslavement of Africans, for internment and displacement. In Wright’s eyes, America was sinful, and until it atoned for those sins, God would deny God’s blessings.

Taken out of context in a country that practices a kind of civil religion where national symbols are sacred and identified with God’s election, this had to give offense to people who did not know the context nor understood black religious tradition.

The attack on Wright was really an attack on Obama and in his defense Obama distanced himself from Wright. In his now famous “A better Union” speech1 Obama said that Wright’s mistake had not been to speak about racism but that ‘he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country (…) is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.’2

Obama rejected Wright’s indictment, professed his faith in moral progress, but never really explained how one can get to this moral progress. In fact, remembering our sins seemed no longer desired.

Ash Wednesday stands against such optimism in the human capacity to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps. Ash Wednesday intends for us to remember and name our sin, for as Genesis tells us, in our sin lies our mortality.

Our Gospel reading speaks of the traditional disciplines of Lent, the care for the poor, prayer, and fasting. In and of themselves, these are not new things. They are commonly held as worthy pursuits. In our passage we notice that Jesus focuses on doing all these things with humility, not letting anyone know that we are doing them.

Why? Because if you think you already are doing them, you are more likely to stop doing them than if you don’t.

All three activities are deeply social activities, not only intended to help us do good but to teach us that we are not self-sufficient. The theologian John Swinton says that knowing God is a social activity.

Contemplating Jesus’ words about not being self-righteous in the practice of our faith (because if you think you are righteous, you will be inclined to think that it’s the poor people’s fault that they are poor, you are more likely to blame others), I thought of something Obama said on his last visit to Canada. He flattered us by saying, “The world needed more Canada.” This was echoed by others and we were all glad to hear it. And yet it is the same cultural optimism that will make us blind to our own sin and complacent toward the needs of others.

To say that the world needs more Canada is easy to say in our current world. Truly, I never expected to become a fan of John McCain’s either, or to be impressed by George W. Bush’s defence of the press. (Bush recently said, “I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy. We need an independent media to hold people like me to account.

Power can be very addictive and it can be corrosive and it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse power, whether it be here or elsewhere.”3 Good words for Ash Wednesday.

But to come back to Tatiana’s question about why we need to study history: Because without history we will forget who we are and who we need to become.

That is why it is important to remember on whose land we are, why it is important to remember that we once believed that because the people here were not Christian we could take what was theirs, why it is important to remember the Komagatu Maru, the Chinese head tax, German Jews on the ‘St Louis’ on our Atlantic coast in 1939, and internment camps for the Japanese. Without such memory we may think we would need no Ash Wednesday, would need no repentance, would need no Lent, and we would need no redemption.

The memory of our sins, however, serves not to enslave us but to recognize our need for salvation, to recognize that we are not self-sufficient and that without such discernment the trajectory of history is more likely to be downward than upward.

The world does not need more Canada, what the world needs is more Jesus. Thankfully, that is exactly what God offers, and it is he who invites us to accompany him on his journey.

Amen.