Lent A, 2002
Joel 2:12-17. Matthew 6:1-6

A Liturgy is also available


The powerful symbolism of ashes this year seems to need little explanation.
For all of us in NSW and the ACT who have had the smell of smoke
        in our nostrils these past couple of months,
        know, even without thinking, what ashes imply.

They have filled our television screens,
our newspapers,
our minds,
our hearts,
our discussions, with raw reality.

Joel's words, written almost two-and-a-half millennia ago,
seem to touch us uncomfortably close to home.
        It is as though these words could have been written
        in the aftermath of Burnt Christmas.

For the prophet Joel, in the company of all prophets,
knows the transitory nature of all life.
        And here lies both a comfort for us this Lent as well as a challenge.

The comfort
we are not alone in our experience of tragedy
and that we will not be forgotten by a merciful God.

The challenge
we are called to put our self-serving aside if only for a moment
and reflect on who we are in the deepest places.

But there's even more.
Lent is not just to be a time for introspection,
which could play neatly into the hands of our sometimes
        over-individualistic culture.

Neither is Lent just surviving what tragedy may come our way.

Instead, Lent is a very real time where we can once again,
in an intentional or disciplined way, seek out the
        presentness of the Creativity God,
        discovered in the most unlikely of places,
        and waiting to be uncovered, found, and embraced.

Or in the traditional language of the church:
‘to turn our hearts towards the God in our neighbour’.


There is a story about a Zen teacher who said to his students:
‘If you raise a speck of dust, the nation flourishes,
but the elders furrow their brows.

‘If you don’t raise a speck of dust, the nation perishes,
but the elders relax their brows.’

A speck of dust - what is that?
What kind of power lies in a speck of dust?

Well... if you talk to anyone with dust in her or his computer,
or digital sound system, or under a contact lens
        you will certainly get one kind of answer.

But I suggest this Zen teacher had a different answer in mind.
To raise a speck of dust is to
stir up goodness,
struggle for justice,
speak up for those who stutter
or do not speak the languages of power,
to band together to stand resolutely and non violently before evil 
and refuse to be absorbed into it
or intimidated by it.

Do this, and the powers furrow their brows with consternation.
Neglect the dust specks and the elders in charge breathe easy, relax their brows…
        And the people perish.

This Zen story sounds very like Joel’s call
to stir the spirit,
to practise compassion,
to confound the horrors of inhuman living.


Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent.

This Lent, in the spirit of both the Zen story and Joel’s call,
let it not be a time of sorry self-deprecation.

This Lent, in the spirit of both the Zen story and Joel’s call,
let it be a time when our actions enable others to flourish.

This Lent, in the spirit of both the Zen story and Joel’s call,
let it be a time when our selfless actions seep into the world
like the scent of perfume distilled in the air…
        encouraging and giving fresh heart to those around us,
        strengthening the bonds of community,
        reminding everyone that no one need face tragedy alone.