Ash Wednesday Sermon: The Crap We Give Our Hearts To

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.

 

Today we begin a 40 day period of wilderness wandering.  40 days because that’s how long Jesus was tempted in the wilderness.  Even those in our society who have never really observed Lent know that it’s the time of year when us pious people suffer and give things up so God will be impressed with us.  So that passage we just heard from the prophet Joel – return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; seems to set things up pretty well.  Fasting weeping Mourning.  For those of us who act like Lent is a competitive sport, this text from Joel is a pretty awesome starting place.

But, this week I began to wonder why God says to return to God with all of our heart rather than return to God when we get our crap together. I mean in Lent we tend to really focus on our behavior, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but if God says return to me with all your heart, I think that maybe the implication is that we give our hearts to a whole lot of things that are not God. So if we think Lent is about giving things up so we can impress God maybe we should ask ourselves: which is harder – the fasting part or the returning to God with all our heart part?

Because I don’t think that my problem is that I eat too much sugar or I spend too much time on Facebook.  My problem…and maybe yours too is that I sort of piece my heart out to things that cannot love me back.   Don’t we piece our hearts out to the unrequited love of so many false promises and self-indulgences and doesn’t the toxicity of all of it all seem to preserve those little pieces of our heart like formaldehyde.

I mean, by the time I even get to the table of God’s grace I’ve made lovers of so many things and ideas and hopes and doubts – I’ve given myself to them so completely that there’s so little left.  So little to be fed by God’s grace since my starving little heart is doled out in so many pieces trying to get it’s own needs met.

And so, thank God once a year we gather to speak the truth of how we piece out our hearts, how we sin and fall short, how we rely on every single other thing to love us – everything but God.  How we love each other and are loved by each other so poorly with the small leftover bits of our hearts after we’ve given most of them and time to career advancement and saving the world and saving for our future and destroying gems and buying fake cows on Facebook and the dull pain of chemical dependency and internet porn and sugar binges and crossfit and the next spiritual practice or restricted diet that promises to make us whole. It’s not our time that’s so wasted with all of it…I think it’s something so much more valuable… I think it’s our hearts.

So together again this Ash Wednesday with the faithful all across the world we gather all the pieces of our broken selves…all the broken you deserve a break today pieces of our starving little hearts and we come again here to be told, of all things, that we are dust and to dust we shall return. The very thing we are trying to pretend is not true.  Because I think we give our hearts away because we’re afraid of the limits of our self-hood… so we create endless ways to either avoid our self-hood or expand our self-hood.  In other words, we sin. And all of it…and I hate to be so cliché, but basically, when it comes down to it, all of it is about the fact that we’re afraid to die. And as a giving our hearts away afraid to die people you’d think hearing you are dust and to dust you shall return would be pretty bad news, but not so.  Because here’s the thing: in the creation story in Genesis 2 it says that the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

So, yes, children of God…you are dust and to dust you shall return.

But remember this:  it is from dust and the very breath of God that you were created out of divine love. A divine love which mends the pieces of your heart back together whenever you return to it.   Always, always always.

And to do this, to gather the given away pieces of our hearts so that in returning to God God can make them whole, well, there’s a term for that …it’s repentance.

I used to think that repentance meant to feel so bad about being bad that you promise to not be bad anymore.

But now I see repentance as just returning again to God. Our contemplative in residence, James Wall tells about how difficult a certain Carmelite nun found contemplative prayer to be because her thoughts would wander a thousand times during a 20 minute prayer session. She was sure her teacher Thomas Merton would rebuke her for such a failure, so she was surprised when instead Merton said that her wandering thoughts were just 1,000 opportunities to return to God.

That’s what Ash Wednesday and Lent is…a thousand opportunities to return to God with all you heart. Returning again to the only thing in which we have any true self-hood …and that is the eternal and divine love of God. The eternal and divine love of God which created you from dust and breath.  The eternal and divine love of God to which you will return after your last breath when again you are dust.

12Yet even now, says the Lord,

return to me with all your heart,

with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;

13rend your hearts and not your clothing.

Return to the LORD, your God,

for he is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

Amen.

 

 

About Nadia Bolz Weber

I am the founding Pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. We are an urban liturgical community with a progressive yet deeply rooted theological imagination. Learn more at www.houseforall.org

  • http://www.sheldoncurry.com Scurrior

    Thank you for this sister.
    1,000 roads to return to the way. I may need more than that, but that’s probably enough to get me started. Heard Vicki Hesse preach in Tucson yesterday (A.W.)

  • Glenn

    We may not see eye to eye on every thing, but I tell you, that was a great sermon and it is is the truth.

  • Glen

    This is why I love Nadia.

  • Janet

    Just what I needed to hear this morning…and it is true in my case….time to get to repentence and heal the heart….make it whole…thanks for the reassurance of his abounding love. happy Valentine’s Day….Wish I could send Him a valentine.
    JC

  • http://www.laurelmasse.typepad.com Laurel Massé

    Thank you. Thank you. I understand something I did not quite understand before. Thank you.

  • eliza jane getman

    just read this on fb and thought you would love it too.

    Blessing the Dust, by Jan Richardson

    All those days
    you felt like dust,
    like dirt,
    as if all you had to do
    was turn your face
    toward the wind
    and be scattered
    to the four corners

    or swept away
    by the smallest breath
    as insubstantial—

    Did you not know
    what the Holy One
    can do with dust?

    This is the day
    we freely say
    we are scorched.

    This is the hour
    we are marked
    by what has made it
    through the burning.

    This is the moment
    we ask for the blessing
    that lives within
    the ancient ashes,
    that makes its home
    inside the soil of
    this sacred earth.

    So let us be marked
    not for sorrow.
    And let us be marked
    not for shame.
    Let us be marked
    not for false humility
    or for thinking
    we are less
    than we are

    but for claiming
    what God can do
    within the dust,
    within the dirt,
    within the stuff
    of which the world
    is made,
    and the stars that blaze
    in our bones,
    and the galaxies that spiral
    inside the smudge
    we bear.

  • Ronda

    Laughing at “Lent is a competitive sport”
    Gasping at “Lent is a time when we give things up to impress God” (ouch)
    Repenting over “…we piece our hearts out to the unrequited love of ….”
    Worshipping thru your sermon and the “Blessing the dust” poem.
    Thank goodness Nadia isnot an archer or I’d be run clear thru.
    Then again, maybe she is an archer.

  • Pilgrimstudy

    Personally I am adverse to the view that “this is what I needed to hear right now” because it connotes either a view that all the planets and stars were aligned just right for this to happen or (worse) that some supernatural watchman determined that I should encounter a particular thing at this exact moment in space and time. I regularly read anything Nadia writes that I can find. Her Ash Wednesday sermon was refreshing and shined a new light on Ash Wednesday for me as I have loitered all morning about the continuing mounting of legislative power in NC against those who have no voice and increasingly fewer advocates. To which “love” am I to respond? Poverty? Health care? Homelessness? Education? Immigrants? Corporate fraud? The list is very long. Perhaps there will be an answer in turning back to god for 40 days.

  • Mary Katherine

    This post is such solid teaching. Thank you so very much!

  • Dan McDermott

    I think you need to consult a dictionary. Piety is not an exclusively Christian thing.

    • fws

      Dan:

      The Lutheran Confessions completely agree with you, and so, I suspect, Pastor B-W does as well:

      “Concerning morality, nothing can be demanded beyond the Ethics of Aristotle”
      (Apology to the Augsburg Confessions, art IV “On Justification”)
      http://www.bookofconcord.org

      Luther: “Christianity is use-less in our earthly existence , except to God and a guilty conscience.”
      (Sermon delivered 9th sunday after Trinity at Marburg in 1528)

      Apology to the Augsburg Confession article 18 “Free Will”
      (Paraphrase) “The natural man, alone with his free will, human powers and reason is able to know and do all righteousness and virtue (Rom 2:15). No Holy Spirit or Christ are at all necessary for these things.

      Free will , human power, and reason are useless , alone, in doing, alone, one thing only :
      Having the heart movements that are true fear, love and trust (Faith) in the Works of Another.

      “Such a distribution is useful to know where the Holy Spirit is necessary” (direct quote).

  • http://avanomaly.blogspot.com/ Jamie Wright Bagley

    Thank you for sharing this truth. You’ve given me a new (and better) perspective on what repentance means and why it is an important spiritual discipline. I love your blog and I’m always excited to see a new sermon. I saw your testimony video a few months ago. Your spoken words caught me at the brink of total disillusionment with the church (in general) and brought me back.

  • fws

    21] Likewise this faith of which we speak exists in repentance:
    it is conceived in the terrors of conscience, which feels the wrath of God against our sins, and…
    it seeks the remission of sins, and to be freed from sin.

    And it is right there in the midst of just such terrors and other afflictions that this faith ought to grow and be strengthened.

    http://bookofconcord.org/defense_5_love.php#para21

  • http://theverdanthome.wordpress.com Kathryn V.

    Wow! Once again you nailed it. Dear sweet loving God, I am so glad I found your blog!

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  • http://margaretfeinberg.com Margaret Feinberg

    Beautiful post Nadia. Needed that reminder today.

  • http://www.joncarpenterphotography.com Jon Carpenter

    I like your article and agree with it. Returning to God is the first step and the symptoms of eating too much and wasting time online and watching TV will start to be resolved if we return to him. (the prodigal son in all of us)
    BUT the section I pasted in below is just a bit awkwardly written, mostly the first paragraph, and the meaning was a little lost on me in this section because of the grammar…and ellipse….were kind of…over used…. It is just my opinion so take it or leave it. You have some great thoughts and started out the whole article really well and it kept me reading. Here is the section I am referring to.

    “So together again this Ash Wednesday with the faithful all across the world we gather all the pieces of our broken selves…all the broken you deserve a break today pieces of our starving little hearts and we come again here to be told, of all things, that we are dust and to dust we shall return. The very thing we are trying to pretend is not true. Because I think we give our hearts away because we’re afraid of the limits of our self-hood… so we create endless ways to either avoid our self-hood or expand our self-hood. In other words, we sin. And all of it…and I hate to be so cliché, but basically, when it comes down to it, all of it is about the fact that we’re afraid to die. And as a giving our hearts away afraid to die people you’d think hearing you are dust and to dust you shall return would be pretty bad news, but not so. Because here’s the thing: in the creation story in Genesis 2 it says that the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” **the last sentence makes sense**

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  • Lisa

    “Because I think we give our hearts away because we’re afraid of the limits of our self-hood… so we create endless ways to either avoid our self-hood or expand our self-hood. ”

    I had this image of Voldemort ripping this soul into pieces in his attempt to become immortal, and how each rip diminished his humanity and personhood. It’s a startling image when combined with your words.

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