The Rev. Casey dunsworth

serves as Associate Campus Pastor to the Belfry, the Lutheran-Episcopal Campus Ministry to UC Davis

and as Program Director for LEVN, the Lutheran Episcopal Volunteer Network.

Quick and Dirty or Fasting and Dusty—A Sermon on Ash Wednesday

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

Don’t take this the wrong way, but, you are dying. Every day, as you live, you also die. Cells are reproducing rapidly, and you’re sloughing off unneeded ones all the while. You inhale deep luscious oxygen, and exhale that which your body does not need, cannot use. In the moments after your every exhale, it could be that you never inhale again. Life and death are like that.

You and I, by most standards, are very young. We have our whole lives ahead of us. We are, God willing, going to live out our full, lengthy, natural lives in freedom and fullness. That is what God desires for us. To talk about our impending death, then, feels jarring. But for those who have lived a long, hard life, it can be a comfort to know that God awaits us beyond this life. And as the great sage Albus Dumbledore once said, “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”

Most days, though, we don’t talk about such things. I don’t usually remind you of your mortality. But today is not most days. Today is Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday, we mark the entrance of the season of Lent, in preparation for the holiest of days, Easter Sunday. We’ll spend the next six weeks praying, reflecting, fasting, reading, learning, growing, repenting.

We come to this holy season from many different places. Sure, we’re all sitting in the Ranstrom Chapel, but we got here by a variety of roads. Y’all grew up in different cities across the United States, in different religious communities or not-so-religious communities. Did you grow up in a family that marked the season of Lent at all? Did you grow up “giving up” stuff for Lent? Did you learn that that fast—and these six weeks—were for the experience of sadness, and self-flagellation, and shame? You may have. Or you may have learned that these six weeks were for getting rid of the garbage that got in the way of your closeness to God.

What do we routinely consume that is harmful? Sometimes we know it’s harmful—like eating food that’s bad for us—or its harm is a little sneakier—like only reading news articles that confirm our biases. Two years ago, I kept a holy Lent by fasting from white media. Like, I unfollowed white people on twitter and didn’t watch cable news and only read books or watched movies made by people of color. It was hard, because I am white and our world is targeted toward whiteness and so you have to go out of your way to get information that isn’t white. Last year, I committed for the whole year to only read books written by women, and during Lent I only read books written by women of color. I did these things and continue to critically assess my reading list and twitter timeline and podcast listening and information intake because it is harmful to me—and to my understanding of the body of Christ—to live in the falseness of a white world.

I read a blog post last night by Candice Benbow, a black woman theologian I started following on twitter during my aforementioned whiteness fast. The blog post is called “For Sisters With Nothing Left to Give Up For Lent.” She writes about entering into Lent from a state of exhaustion and emptiness, and not knowing what else there is to fast from. You may feel this way. You may feel overrun. You may feel overwhelmed by the onslaught of political news every day. You may feel paralyzed by the sheer number of directions from which danger is managing to come at you. You may feel overwhelmed by responsibilities at home and at work and at school and in your family, which would be enough to stress you out even the calmest of political realities. You may have recently suffered an awful loss. And so coming up with something in your life to “give up” seems like a joke.

Candice writes that “Some of us are being asked to give up things and activities during Lent that are literally keeping us alive during seasons of great loss and deep pain.” God does not desire your suffering. God desires your life, your abundant life. God desires your wholeness and your wellness. “Perhaps this Lenten season will not be about fasting,” Candice says, “but giving ourselves permission to be refueled in the pursuit of joy. Could it be possible that, instead of ‘dying to ourselves’, we find ways to live into the abundant life Jesus came to give?”

If you want to fast in this season, do it. I do not mean to suggest that you shouldn’t. I mean to tell you that you do not have to if you feel you cannot. You can give up eating meat in order to learn more about what the best foods are to feed your body. You can give up drinking alcohol in order to focus on the fullness of life without substances that cause you pain and regret. You can give up gossip in order to reflect on the ways that words hurt. You can give up swearing in order to cogitate about the plethora of other locutions in the vernacular that you might utilize. You cannot, I regret to inform you, give up homework or going to work for Lent.

In this Lenten season, I am going to be fasting. I am going to be fasting from frenzy. I am going to spend the next six weeks doing fewer, better things. I am going to resist the urge to get whipped into a panic about things that do not need to be panicked about. I am going to read more poetry and more scripture and pray more prayers because, the truth is, I have time. I have always had time. I run out of time because I waste time. During this season, I am going to resist the false narrative that I must do everything and do it now. I am going to be present—to myself, to you, and to God.

This is my new phone background, for at least the next 40 days.

That’s what this season is about. Returning to God. Wherever you’ve gotten away to, you can turn around and come back. Ash Wednesday is, in this way, about remembering that you are human. You are not a superhuman; you are not expected to do anything perfectly, or even correctly the first time. You are human. And you are beloved.

You are dust of the earth, dear ones! God our Creator breathed life into you! Jesus, our Redeemer, put on this flesh and liberated you! The Spirit moves in and among you! You, and all the beloved, are alive in the grace of God—and you will die in it.

This season of Lent can be a dreary one, if you so choose. Dwelling for 40 days in the muck of your sin is a righteous discipline. But telling the truth about who and whose you are is a radical act in this world. We live in a culture of lies and half-truths and "alternative facts" and miracle cures and self-help and self-loathing. We do that every day. That’s not a Lenten discipline.

For these six weeks, permit yourself to be fully human. Listen quietly to the voice of God. Make a joyful noise to the Lord! Fast and pray and give alms. Rejoice in the the truth of your salvation.


Fasting From Frenzy

#Blessed—An Audience-Participation-Required Sermon on the Beatitudes