Ash Wednesday service led by David Weintraub, following a community Love Your Neighbor vigil in response to KKK recruitment material being distributed in Lovettsville over the weekend.
First, I want to ask you to do something. It’s not mandatory, but if you are willing to, I want to ask you to remove your shoes. I’ll explain why in a minute.
So, this year the leadership at St. James had the same conversation we have every year.
Somebody says Are we gonna have an Ash Wednesday service this year?
Then, almost everybody groans and somebody says Do we have to? Nobody likes it. And then somebody agrees to lead it because the same three people insist.
I’m one of those three people.
It’s my favorite day, and favorite ritual in the church year. And in doing some reading for this I just found out that one of my favorite teachers, Nadia Bolz-Weber, unsurprisingly it’s her favorite one too. As she points out, nobody looks forward to watching “It’s Ash Wednesday, Charlie Brown!” The culture doesn’t want it. It belongs entirely to the church.
And we know the reason.
It’s like a dirge. It’s about how I am a wretched sinner, and it’s about the fact that we’re made of dirt, and that we need to repent, and we need to humble ourselves. And all of that is made to sound like it’s about our worthlessness.
And here’s where I want to talk about why I asked you to take off your shoes. You know that I live barefoot, and you probably know that there’s a religious component to that. Here’s what it is. It has to do with the real meaning of humility, and the meaning of what is maybe seen as vulnerability or powerlessness, and it’s also about the meaning of being seen as someone who is worthless. Because all of those things are the opposite of what you think they are.
The social history of footwear is interesting. One of the things that’s almost always present in shoe wearing cultures throughout history is the idea that you can debase someone and mark them as lowly by making them barefoot. Enslaved people and criminals have often been required to be barefoot, for example. It’s supposed to be a way of making a person feel powerless.
I heard a story, years ago, in a circle that was preparing to engage in an act of civil disobedience. The man’s story was that he and some others of his tribe were in the custody of law enforcement after a similar action, and the officers were being scornful and abusive towards them. The officers decided that a way to debase and humiliate them was to make them crouch on the ground. Like animals, they probably thought. What they didn’t understand, the storyteller said, is that crouching there together, touching and being close to the earth where we came from, doesn’t make us powerless, it’s where our power comes from. It was the very need to debase and humiliate these brothers and sisters that reminded them of their collective power and worth. Having someone need for you to feel powerless means that you have access to something very powerful.
If you’re like most people, you might feel vulnerable if you walked outside right now barefoot. You might even feel vulnerable in here. But vulnerable isn’t necessarily bad. Vulnerability can mean you’re open to feeling things. Vulnerability can make you open to connection, maybe in a way you don’t expect.
Maybe humility is different from what you’re thinking too. Maybe we don’t need to have humility because we’re worthless, wretched sinners – maybe we need humility to have an honest understanding of our place in the universe, because that understanding is powerful.
Maybe being made of dirt isn’t a sign of worthlessness, it’s just a sign that we’re not separate from everything else.
And repentance. We’ve heard often that what repentance means is ‘to see something in a new way.’ And the thing that we are always, always being called back to see in a new way is how well we are loving our neighbors. Some of us came here straight from a witness to the need to love our neighbors who are being terrorized, who are being told by others that they don’t belong on this earth.
And that is incredibly important and necessary to do. At the same time, if we are going to see loving our neighbor in a new way, to do it in a spirit of repentance, we have to also do the hard part. Because it’s easy to love the people who are on the receiving end of injustice, and demand justice for them. But I bet many of us have had the experience in the last couple days of struggling, struggling with loving the person who just doesn’t understand why anyone these days would be afraid of the Ku Klux Klan, and wishes everyone would stop making a fuss about it. Or possibly, with loving the person who read the KKK flyer, and thought there were things in it that made sense. Or maybe something even worse.
If that sounds crazy, it’s because it feels like the goal of loving someone like that means giving up some power and protection. What I’m saying is that, counter intuitively, giving up that power is subversive. It’s rejecting the normative order of things in which we save our love for people “like us.” Our tribe. Whether it’s the people walking around today with ashes on their heads, or the people in the ‘likeminded’ Facebook group, not the other one. And it’s hard. So we have this ritual to remind us that we need to be humble, we’re all made of dirt, and we’re all going back to the same condition – no matter what we think.