Taking out the Recycling—Ash Wednesday

Sermon delivered at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, Perkasie, PA

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

In my apartment—in my dining room—there is a massive pile of recycling. Paper grocery bags filled with cans and bottles, some flattened boxes, other delivery boxes, not broken down, stacked within each other, everything piled high. The pile is so big the cats often find their way into the empty boxes and make for themselves secret napping spots.

My wife and I have grown almost completely blind to this ridiculous, recurring mess. Once and a while I will see it for what it is, a fantastic lazy failure, and say to myself, “Yep, I better take that out.” Sometimes I do. But most often some other task overwhelms my attention—the baby is crying, the laundry needs changing, I’ve got a meeting for church, something needs to get done.

Sometimes, when the day is done, dinner is cooked and eaten, the dishwasher loaded and swishing, the baby is asleep—I simply don’t have the strength. Do I really want to pull on my boots, strap on my mask? (Yes, my mask, because I live in an apartment building with many elderly at-risk folks, and it’s not responsible to go in the hallways without a mask.) Do I really want to take all these clumsy bags in my arms, risk waking the baby with the clatter of dropping them, get in the elevator, go down to the basement, and then, there, risk the recycling dumpsters being already full, or now, risking the lids being immovable with snow.

And so, there, sits the recycling, in the dining room adjacent the kitchen, growing in size, spilling out into my way. (Thank God there’s a trash chute on our floor that makes it so easy to take that out.) But this recycling pile up is a perfect image for the cracks in our lives. The tiny little fissures brought on now by the weight, the stress, the exhaustion, and the distraction, too—of this phase of COVID.

And that is what the season of Lent is about too. Now, we turn our eyes honestly to the “recycling piles” of our lives—whatever they may be—we confess they are there, made a thousand times worse because of the stress of this past year, and we set about asking God to give us the strength to build new habits and practices to take them out.

I’m beginning to see that, while earlier in the pandemic we all focused on the adrenaline of survival and the boredom of lockdowns, now, once again that familiar busy-ness has engulfed us all again: caring for children, or for elderly parents, caring for ourselves and our spouses; day jobs and night jobs, retirement projects and grandchildren. We say to ourselves: if we can’t socialize with friends or loved ones, if we can’t heal the wounds of separation if we can’t heal the wounds of the nation, we can at least have work to distract ourselves with. We at least can think of the future, our financial health.

All this is good. St Andrew’s even has a great group of young adults in a pilot program on money from the ELCA. But I want to suggest that all this, essentially, denies our metaphorical “recycling piles.” I’m quite sure that you all have your own version of the recycling pile: something simple, something benign, that completely overwhelms you, something you know you should do, but you cannot. Maybe it’s an act or a charade that you know you can’t keep up forever.

Sooner or later, I won’t be able to get to the kitchen if that pile of recycling gets too big. So often, in our lives, I think the ignored recycling pile is something having to do with pain. Our pain, our weariness, our weirdness, our grief, plastered over with busy-ness. So often, in our lives, the recycling pile is a result of a disconnect with God. What does it take to restore order?

What does it take? In my case it means admitted I am drowning. And the recycling is the first thing to get dropped. But living with piles of, essentially, trash around is absurd! I think you all might feel like you are drowning too. Many might refuse to admit it. Many simply cannot admit it because it’s too painful and you’ve managed to keep things together and you’re not going to let go now.

That’s ok. Wherever you’re at with this, it’s ok.

Lent, whatever it is, is not an invitation to be perfect, or even to tidying up. It’s not a call to “get better” or “get your house in order.” Jesus’ call in the Gospel of Matthew, and the prophet Joel’s call to the people of Israel is to turn to God. Turning to God means to turn away from ourselves for just a second. Turn to what matters, what is the bedrock. It’s not a turn to performance.

Taking out the recycling, putting our lives in order, quickly morphs into only a performance. For example, you might think, maybe all I need is to go to IKEA or Target and get some plastic storage bins! No. Joel begs the Israelites to “rend your hearts and not your clothing,” tearing the clothing was an outward performance of mourning. Jesus teaches his disciples not to sound alarms about charitable giving, not to display fasting on their faces, not to make a performance of their changes and improvements, but simply to transform with God in secret, in their hearts.

Jesus certainly does teach us to give away our wealth, Jesus teaches us to fast—which means periodically rid ourselves of what does not matter—and teaches us to pray. But not because these things, by themselves, will make us whole or better. Jesus says return to your source in God. Return to your true, unchangeable identity as the baptized, members of Jesus’ body.

In Joel, this return is a tearful surrender. Joel advises the Israelites to admit they have gone wrong collectively: to assemble everyone—from babies to the elderly—to surrender, to let their leaders weep over them. Jesus says don’t focus on things that will pass away, on stuff, on performance. Focus on what is lasting.

How do we focus on what is lasting? How can we add one more activity to a bursting schedule? The answer is actually to surrender. Don’t add, but take away: let things drop. That is what the ashes on our foreheads this evening help remind us. We are dust. We and our piles of recycling will pass away as snow melts and flowers fade.

But the life breathed into us by God—the life restored in us by Jesus—will not. The cross we were marked with in baptism is a promise of what is lasting. Our deaths are dead in Christ’s death. And our lives live in his life.

I will say an extreme thing to start our Lenten journey: nothing else matters than this truth from God. Yes, of course, debt matters, jobs matter, hard work and grandkids and mortgages all matter. I’m not a fool. Taking out the recycling matters. But none of this will save us. We are not saved by being “put together.” We are saved by God. Created, forgiven, renewed by God and God’s power. Being saved is being set free from needing to be put together, the gift of knowing this is our eternal treasure. Our treasure is the presence of God here and now, and into eternity. Does all this help us to take out the proverbial “recycling”? Maybe.

In my case, having written this reflection, I did go and take out the recycling. It felt good. It felt like a spiritual practice because I knew it didn’t matter if I did or not. But I felt able, so I did. May the Holy Spirit fill us all with God’s presence and give us the strength we need in the days ahead. Amen.