Following is the Reverend Mary Mackin’s 2018 Ash Wednesday sermon at St. John’s Episcopal, Roanoke, Va.
In Dorothy Sayers’s novel Gaudy Night, one of the characters remembers the prayer of a rather incoherent curate, who prayed, “Lord, teach us to take our hearts and look them in the face, however difficult it may be.” Now while the curate may have used an unusual figure of speech, he understood something of how the human heart works. We sometimes find it difficult to honestly and courageously look into our hearts and face what is there. But as we enter the season of Lent, that is exactly what we are called to do—to take our hearts and look them in the face, to honestly ask ourselves, what do we see? To get below the level of our conventional responses and easily held beliefs, to acknowledge what we find, and to bring them to God in repentance and prayer.
To undertake this journey into the heart, we need time, we need stillness, we need the quiet of the desert. We know that, after his baptism, Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. He was driven; he didn’t have a choice; he needed to go there and sort out who he was and what his work would be. He needed to look into his heart and face what he found there. And because our fears, our illusions, our inertia can keep us from undertaking this journey, we too need to be driven by the spirit into the quietness and stillness of the desert in order to look into our hearts.
We not only need time and quiet for this journey, but we also need to give up control, to lay down our resistance to the one who loves us more than we can ever know. For it is only when we surrender to the Spirt, that the Spirit can lead us into the truth about ourselves that we are ready for now, at this point in our lives.
If we allow the Spirit to lead us, the Spirit will guide us into the truth that sets us free. As the gospel of John says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.” Each year during Lent, as we lay down our resistance, the Spirit leads us into a deeper level of truth. The Spirit reveals the temptations of our hearts, the falsehoods we tell ourselves, the meanness and pettiness we harbor. The Spirit strips away the illusions, the insulations, the barriers that we have erected to protect ourselves, but which separate us from ourselves, from others and from God.
And this is the work of Lent—to find the time and quiet to look into our hearts and face what we find, to surrender to the Spirit’s guidance, to look courageously into our hearts, and to bring to God all that we find there, to repent, to turn around, to repair our relationship with those we’ve hurt, to come closer to the living God in trust and love. And we know that the God who loves us and gave himself for us is a God of compassion and grace. He loves us and knows us better than we know ourselves. In his immeasurable mercy, he forgives us and draws us ever closer to himself. And then we understand what it means, when we say, yes, the truth has set us free.
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21