Rend Your Hearts – The Rev. Michelle Meech
February 17, 2021
A sermon preached on Ash Wednesday, February 17 to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY. Click the button above to listen along.
The 13th century mystic and poet Jalaladdin Rumi says:
“Come, come whoever you are. Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Though you have broken your vows a thousand times, come yet again. Come.”
We are 11 months in. It was about 11 months ago that we were ordered to quarantine, to cease our public activities – like concerts and coffee shops and church. Eleven months of shifting and re-shifting, knowing and not-knowing, being together but unable to touch each other. 11 months of this pandemic has brought us to our knees in so many ways. The most significant part of that: millions of people dead.
We are tired. We are waiting. We are anxious. We are hoping. And we are grieving.
To think that we can just muscle our way through this, just find a way to cope and keep everything on an even keel, to think that we can push through this difficult experience… is folly. And I think we’ve come to understand that. If the pandemic hasn’t taught us that we are vulnerable creatures living in an unstable world, then the political and societal unrest surely has. We have learned that we cannot do this alone.
We don’t even need the ashes this year to remind us of our mortality. We know. We remember.
The prophet Joel speaks to us from the ancient past, from a time when Israel had grown sure of itself, too sure of itself, and came to see just how vulnerable it was as a plague infected their land. And Joel uses these words to call us back to God: “Blow the trumpet in Zion: sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of [God] is coming near… yet, even now, says [God], return to me with all your heart… rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to [God, who is] gracious and merciful.”
I used to think that these were the kinds of words only used, or rather, mis-used by the people who stood on street corners, preaching doom and gloom, anticipating an imagined end of the world scenario. But 11 months into this pandemic, I can see that these words apply directly to us. Today.
Joel’s phrase gives us a beautiful, poetic image about the task of returning to God: “Rend your hearts, not your clothing” because ancient Israelites would rend their clothing as a demonstration of grief, ripping their clothing apart violently in anguish and rage. And Joel is reminding us that the response to the anxiety and pain and grief we feel is to shift our inward orientation – to rend our hearts, instead of our clothing. To tear them open and lay open our whole self to God, to bare – to show God our pain, our anxiety, our exhaustion. Our stress. Our regret. Our blame. Our frustration, panic, and cynicism. To bring to God, our fear, our anger… and our hope.
We open our heart to God. Because, in so doing, we come to realize that the we cannot bear this alone. A simple turning, re-turning. A simple cry in the wilderness, brings us to God. Emmanu-el, the Hebrew phrase for God is with us. To rend our hearts is to share our heart, our whole heart, with God.
An invitation to leave behind the coping mechanism of “I’m ok”, along with whatever we have used to make this plight bearable, and we rend our heart by bringing the things we can no longer bear, the things we are most in need of bringing and, perhaps, most ashamed to share.
We bring the anger – over having to wear a mask and over those who flagrantly disregard this direction. The anger over mismanagement of the pandemic and mistreatment of our siblings of color.
We bring the pain over lost relationships and the shame that we carry. And the pain and grief of those who have died.
We bring the shame of white supremacy and all the ways we have benefitted from it or all the ways we have been beaten by it.
We bring our anxiety and our exhaustion from lying politicians, from a year of worry and the ever-changing landscape of a pandemic.
And we bring the loneliness and the despair, the things that we, perhaps, are most ashamed of. The parts of ourselves that have glimpsed a pit from which we fear we may never return. Our own wounded hearts.
We bring every single piece, every last disturbing thought, every single shred of every emotion that lies on our heart… we bring it all to God, the seat of mercy and compassion. The God of Life who waits for us. The God of Love who redeems our life from the grave and crowns us with mercy and loving-kindness.
For when we do, when we bring all of this to God, we can begin to let go of it all. When we bring this to God, we can unbind our own hearts and we can begin our walk toward new life. When we do, we bring ourselves to a feast of love so abundant, so boundless, so beautiful, so free.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of our Christian season of Lent and during this season, we traditionally use this time to repent – through fasting and spiritual practices we learn more about those things we are called to give up because they get in the way of our relationship with God. Things we may be addicted to, including people and activities. Ways of living that harm us spiritually… and more often than not, physically, mentally, and emotionally as well. This is what Lent is for us. A time of renewal.
There may be some practice that will help us along our way this Lent, some fasting may be in order. But spiritual practices and fasting are just ways of helping us toward the same realization we always come to. And that is, how deeply we have insisted that we can do this without God. That we do not need to pray to God. That we do not need to cry out to God. That we do not need to cry… at all.
What is on your heart?
What pain do you carry that you’re afraid to speak?
What anxiety is there that you don’t want to name?
What hope is there that you cannot express?
Come. Rend your hearts, my beloveds, not your garments.
Come. Bring your whole heart to God and lay it bare.
Be fully reconciled to God and, in so doing, be reconciled to yourself.
Come ye disconsolate, to the mercy seat. Bring your wounded hearts.
Come, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Though you have broken your vows a thousand times.