Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2007

Father Lee Nelson

“Yet even now,” says the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
From the Book of the Prophet Joel, I speak to you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.


In the spring of 1915, swarms of locusts buzzed about in the skies over Palestine. The sky turned dark, and droppings from these insects fell on the land for five days.
During this time, the males and females mated, and the females deposited egg clusters of 50 to 80 eggs apiece. After thirty to forty days, the eggs hatched, unleashing a ravenous horde of yet more locusts, hungry for one thing - crops.
In fact, all of the vegetation in the region was stripped bare in those days between
March and October of 1915, by millions upon millions of swarming locusts, each 5 to 7 inches long.

The result, of course, was famine.

“Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!”

Joel meant by these images of clouds, as he prophesies to the people of Israel, one thing - Locusts.

And locusts to the people in those days meant one thing - death.

For us, infestations of insects can be met with an arsenal of pesticides most of the time. In the case of locusts, there is no pesticide powerful enough.
But, in times of draught, we have the luxury of looking to international markets, and most of the time, we do not worry about such things. This is best left up to buyers at General Mills and Pillsbury.
What we might experience in time of famine is a small jump in prices, for cereal, for bread, and for flour. But, with food comprising, at any time, a mere %10 of any American’s budget, this is a mere blip on the radar screen.
When we think of death, we do not think of hunger. We think of the plagues of cancer, or heart disease, or of traffic accidents.
None of us has ever met starvation, let alone the trials of agricultural setbacks.
Very often, we receive news from Malawi - that famine has set in, and that they need financial help. This parish rises to the challenge, but not because of the threat of hunger.

The threat is not hunger - it is death.

And we, as a culture, have ignored death to our own demise. We romanticized about it, we have quarantined it into hospices and nursing homes, we have attempted to laugh about it, we have put off preparing for it. We have looked upon the occupations of undertakers and grave-plot salesmen as rather morbid ways to make a living. Doctors have lived under the assumption that if someone dies, they have failed in their duties.

And yet, we are a culture of death.

We murder, we abort, we euthanize.

We make wars, and manufacture weapons, we find new ways to malign, denigrate, and wield deadly control over, the processes of human life. Forgetting the God who made us, we kill and slaughter, and are bewildered when killed by natural disaster and famine. We have the gall to ask “Where is God?”

And the nature of our national guilt, our sin of complacency is such that we bear daily its consequences, the grave consequences of our apathy towards death and life together.

With stomachs full, it is difficult to imagine hunger. But, we know all to well spiritual hunger.

Spiritual hunger comes as a result of the anemia of our own hearts, that they are darkened and heavy, that they are closed to the grace of God.

“Rend your hearts, and not your garments...” says the LORD.

In the face of death and hunger, the human mind is all too ready to be frustrated and bewildered, to tear up clothing, and to despair.

In the face of spiritual death and spiritual hunger, hellish alienation from God, the temptation is the same - to revel in frustration, to ask “Where is God?,” to become closed and impenetrable, hardened to grace.

“Rend your hearts, and not your garments...” says the LORD.

The heart is the source of all evil. It is the source of evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and slander. We like to deceive ourselves into believing that evil is a thing external, but it not. Evil comes from the heart of man, more so than from any demon.

This is spiritual hunger.

To be without.

The void, we find, cannot be filled with money or sex or possessions, or building ourselves up in the sight of others. All these result in more and more despair, more and more spiritual death. They bring the soul into peril, they bring the soul happily to hell, to an eternity of hunger.

No, God alone can fill the void in the human heart.

But, the heart must be opened. It must, in fact, be torn open, painfully.

So, I bring to the fore on this Ash Wednesday the concept of Spiritual Heart Disease, both its symptoms and its cures.

Spiritual Heart Disease is first characterized by a lack of blood flow into the heart. There is a blockage in a vein, making the flow of blood to the heart difficult. The cures are many. Medications to thin the blood, operations to bypass blockages or expand the veins as to restore the flow.
In any case, blockages must be removed.

The first means to curing spiritual heart disease is the removal of blockages, namely sin. I cannot perform triple-bypass surgery on myself. I require a surgeon. And in this case, the surgeon is Jesus Christ operating through the apostolic ministry.
Jesus says to the apostles in the Gospel of John, Chapter 20: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
A priest friend of mine is fond of saying that if you have a heart attack - you don’t have to call 911. You don’t have to see a doctor. But, if you love your life, and don’t want to lose it, you will call 911, you will seek medical help.
So, the first step is to recognize the blockage - the sin which results in death, and to confess it.

Father Crary and I are always at the ready to hear your confessions, whether at the appointed times, or any other time. Unlike the workers of Allied Waste, we never go on strike. We will never have something more important to do than disposing of your garbage.

Fasting is never recommended for those who are anemic. Fasting quickly speeds up the deficiency of iron in the blood. But from the perspective of Spiritual Heart Disease, the inverse is the case. Fasting allows the bloodflow to the heart to become rich, not in food, but in heavenly treasure. By denying the bodily appetites, we give more energy to the spiritual appetites, allowing them to feast upon the riches of Jesus Christ. So the cure - if you have never fasted before, consider taking on what the Church considers to be the bare minimum of fasting - abstinence from meat on Fridays and a eucharistic fast prior to mass.

If you have already done this and would like to do more - consider fasting on a specific day, perhaps Wednesdays. What you will find is that the room in your stomach really and truly makes room in your heart.

Another condition of the heart is Hypertension.

Hypertension results from a heart that is overworked. Essentially, the heart begins to chase after so many other things that the essential task - the pumping of oxygen rich blood to the body - is sidelined. Obesity, over-consumption of alcohol, increased salt intake, and over-stimulation all contribute to hypertension, which can result in stroke, heart-attack, and chronic renal failure.
Very often, our hearts get overworked, and become hardened, unable to pump correctly. There are simply so many things after which the heart can chase.
This is the case of a straying heart - the heart that loves what is not God.

The cure, interestingly enough, is to give to the poor.

The rich young ruler for instance. His problem was not sin, per se, it was that his affections were not rightly ordered. He loved his money more than God, he loved his possessions more than God. Jesus prescribes for this almsgiving - “one thing you lack, one thing that is making you incomplete - go sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”

The cure is almsgiving.

There are, incidentally, two kinds of almsgivers.

The first maintains his standard of living, and gives to the poor out of an excess of cash. This is a good thing, but there is a better way.

The second decreases his standard of living and gives the decrease to the poor. This is far better. This is the sort of almsgiving that really and truly brings about softer hearts that are open to God’s love and grace.
What we find is that in giving to the poor, the human heart is opened in poverty to spirit to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Here at Saint Laurence, we offer a number of ways during Lent to give to the poor. The first is the mite box offering for Ugandan orphans. This is a worthwhile endeavor, one which Father Blewett spearheads each year, and for which Bishop Sekkeda and the people in Uganda, especially the children are extremely thankful. It doesn’t cost much, in fact, it’s probably less than you would think, and every little bit helps.

The second way we offer is a trip to the Union Gospel Mission on Good Friday. This is a means, not only of giving money to the poor, but of giving yourself to the poor, in fact the poorest of the poor.

Almsgiving, you will find, reorients the overworked and overburdened heart towards loving God.

The fourth and final disease of the heart is caused by a lack of exercise. The heart is a muscle, is must be conditioned just like any other. Cardiovascular diseases caused by such factors as high cholesterol, can often be treated with simply exercise and healthy eating habits.

So, really the cure to this spiritual heart disease is two-fold.

First - prayer - the exercising of the heart in loving God.
Second - healthy eating - the feeding of the intellect towards loving God, mainly with Holy Scripture.

As to the first, you should be praying daily. If you are not, set aside time to pray every day and alone. Let your mind and heart focus upon God alone. Tell the distractions like little children interrupting adult conversation, to go away and come back later. Meditate upon the sufferings of Christ and his miracles. If you have trouble, and it is natural, ask God to help you.

Prayer is hard work, and it takes determination.

Second, take up the reading of the Scriptures. If you’re a beginner, take up one of the Gospels and read it slowly, maybe five or six verses a day. If you desire more, read the Psalms, maybe two or three a day. Then truly study the texts. If you want more, then memorize verses.

We must be about the business of having our hearts steeped in the Scriptures, for in them we find not only the how of eternal life - we find the whom of eternal life - Jesus Christ, who is the author of all life and who, in death, is the only one with the power to save.

To Him be glory and honor, now and forevermore.


Post a Comment

<< Home