The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Ash Wednesday—Year A (video link)
Joel 2:1-2; 12-17
II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Oh, we know this day is coming. Surely as the calendar turns its page, we know Ash Wednesday is going to come around again, but I don’t know that we are ever ready for the way this day breaks upon us like a wave, and all of the sudden we are swept off our feet and carried to places we may not wish to go. But it is good, and it is necessary that we allow this day to confront us in all the ways that it does so that we can get beyond the distractions of life, so that we can remember that we are more than the masks we present to the world.
And let’s be clear, while the lessons and the psalms and the Litany of Penitence are going to pull back the curtain on all of our behaviors with piercing clarity, really, this day is all about the heart. Jesus, quite rightly, warns us of the dangers of parading around good, pious, penitent behaviors—giving alms, praying fervently, fasting—changing the exteriors, but leaving the interior landscape of our hearts untouched. The danger is that we act religious and feed the insatiable hunger of our ego, reinforcing our small self who clamors to look good, hoping beyond hope to be acceptable to God. Hypocrite—pretender in the greek, the actor. We all have a hypocrite who lives inside of us; we all have a pretender, but God knows that we’ve got to get beneath those surface layers, got to get through our defenses, got to get through all these ways that we guard our hearts.
And God has complete and utter compassion for us, knowing how hard this journey will be. The LORD is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness…For he himself knows whereof we are made, he remembers that we are but dust. God remembers pulling that dust into being and breathing the very breath of life into our bundles of dust. God knows whereof we are made, but God also understands that all roads forward must pass through the heart.
So, the prophet Joel is blowing the trumpet in Zion; he’s sounding the alarm on God’s holy mountain; he’s sanctifying a fast; he’s calling a solemn assembly; he’s gathering the people—the aged and the children, the infants at the breast and the bridegroom and the bride, the priests, the ministers of the LORD—everyone. And the prophet proclaims, “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.”
Rend your hearts. Rend—to tear, to tear open, to make wide, to make large.
In his book Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer makes this distinction between the heart broken apart and the heart broken open. He says: “If you hold your knowledge of self and world wholeheartedly, your heart will at times get broken by loss, failure, defeat, betrayal, or death. What happens next in you and the world around you depends on how your heart breaks. If it breaks apart into a thousand pieces, the result may be anger, depression, and disengagement. If it breaks open into greater capacity to hold the complexities and contradictions of human experience, the result may be new life…”
Palmer continues, “What shall we do with our suffering…Violence is what we get when we do not know what else to do with our suffering. But when the human heart is open and allowed to work its alchemy, suffering can generate vitality instead of violence…When the heart is supple, it can be ‘broken open’ into a greater capacity to hold our own and the world’s pain: it happens every day. When we hold our suffering in a way that opens us to greater compassion, heartbreak becomes a source of healing, deepening our empathy for others who suffer and extending our ability to reach out to them.”
Rend your hearts. Allow them to be torn open. Allow them to be broken, but let them break open and not apart. Let them be torn open so that they may be widened and enlarged.
I have been thinking for weeks about a story I heard on the BBC that occurred at Dulles Airport. It occurred on January 28th, that Saturday when people flying into the United States and people from the seven Countries of Particular Concern were being detained and protests erupted in airports across the nation. And just for a moment, please, set aside the bigger issues in play here, and just hear this story of what happened between two people.
An Iraq army veteran named Jeffrey Buchalter had gone to Home Depot; he was reflooring his foyer at his home in Maryland—he got back home and the tv was on, and he saw protests happening in the New York airports. Something stirred in his heart. Jeffrey felt that the Iraqi translators had enabled him to get back home alive. Jeffrey had suffered several wounds in combat, including a traumatic brain injury and several shrapnel wounds; he’d spend two years in Walter Reed Hospital. He’d been awarded four purple hearts. He gathered up his two young children and drove two hours to Dulles Airport.
He found an Iraqi man named Alaa who’d been waiting for his wife, Jenin. Alaa had worked in the embassy in Iraq and had been given an immigrant visa; his wife was a green card holder returning home to the US; she’d been detained and questioned for hours. Alaa was upset.
Jeffrey made his way to Alaa; he just wanted this man who was having a bad experience to experience something good, but he also wanted to give something to the man that was important to him. So, Jeffrey’s young son stepped forward, with his dad by his side, and gave Alaa one of his dad’s most treasured possessions; the boy gave Alaa his dad’s Purple Heart. That act of generosity and kindness blew Alaa away—he said that it was the most precious gift he’d ever received in his life, and that it would be on display in his home, and that it would also be a story, a story that he would keep telling. A tear in Jeffrey’s heart broke him open and enabled him to step forward and offer a precious gift that would be balm to Alaa’s broken heart. That exchange between strangers changed both of those men, and their families, forever.
And that story changed me; it did something to my heart. Just the image of offering a Purple Heart—a medal awarded to a wounded soldier. Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Jeffrey understood that in his bones. He may not have even known he understood that until he handed his Purple Heart over, but his soul had grasped that truth long before he got in his car and drove two hours to that airport.
Could we take this Lent as a time to come to terms with our broken, wounded hearts? Could we rend our hearts and explore the contours of the tears all across them? Could we trust that exploring our broken hearts doesn’t have to break us apart, shattering our hearts into a thousand shards slicing everyone in our path as they fly, but rather, could we trust that exploring this brokenness can make our hearts supple, soft, can break them open, allowing them to pump love back into the world again, enabling us to offer our wounded hearts to one another that the wounds between us might be healed.
God, Jesus—they can’t do much with hard heart. A broken heart broken open—that can change the world.
Allow the rending to occur. Don’t fight it. Explore the tears and wounds to your heart. Entrust your heart into the Master Healer’s hands. Let him guide you as you come to terms with your particular wounds. And as your heart breaks open, and is made wider, and grows larger, know that a well of life is springing up from within you that is full of power and light and love and life.
Then, sit in awe as the wave that broke over you and threw you down becomes the water that carries you forward in a flow of compassion and mercy.
Rend your heart, place those wounds and tears in God’s hands, and then let God show you how to offer your wounded, open heart as balm to this hurting world. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 1, 2017