22 February 2023 – Ash Wednesday
by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
That’s the title of one of the best books I read last year. The full title is Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. It’s written by Oliver Burkeman, a self-professed “recovering productivity addict,” and the premise is pretty simple…and the sub-title is a (pun intended) dead give away.
4,000 weeks is an average human lifespan (a little more than 76 years). Of course, not all of us get that much, some have more, some have much less, but no matter how long or short your life is…considering it this way…in weeks…really helps to focus on the fact that, to quote Burkeman, “the average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short.”
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Burkeman admits that seeing our lives—and the brevity of them—in this way is like, “an icy blast of reality.” But his argument throughout the book is that this icy blast, “isn’t a reason for unremitting despair, or for living in an anxiety-fueled panic about making the most of your limited time.”
On the contrary, as he carefully lays out, the knowledge of our mortality, and the limited amount of time we actually do have, is, “a cause for relief. [Because] you get to give up on something that was always impossible.”
And what is that? You see, he says: “The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control—when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do lists have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life; when nobody’s angry with you for missing a deadline or dropping the ball; and when the fully optimized person you’ve become can turn, at long last, to the things life is really supposed to be about.”
“None of this,” he says, “is ever going to happen.” [Deep breath] But you know what? The fact that none of that is ever going to happen…that you are never going to do all the things, or achieve everything that you dream of…That, he says “is actually very, very good news.”
It’s good news because letting go of all that means that you can begin to focus on what is really, actually, “gloriously possible.”
No doubt, confronting our mortality is sobering…and maybe frightening…and maybe a little depressing…and as Burkeman writes, “We [naturally] recoil from the notion that this is it—that this life, with all its flaws and inescapable vulnerabilities, its extreme brevity, and our limited influence over how it unfolds, is the only one we’ll get a shot at. …It’s painful to confront how limited your time is, because it means that tough choices are inevitable” but again, knowing that…seeing that clearly…is also incredibly freeing…liberating…
We all have limited choices. We all have to make tough choices, but we all do that anyway…just living our lives…we are always making choices about one thing or another…isn’t it better to make those choices consciously…with the knowledge that, because you can’t do it all…you might as well do what is really possible…what really matters most…freely deciding what to focus on and what to neglect, rather than making all of those choices by default?
Look at the choices presented in our Gospel reading…you can give alms in secret, or you can do it with a fanfare…but not both. You can pray in secret or where everyone can can praise you for how holy you are…but not both. You can fast in secret, or go out looking dismal so everyone knows how dedicated you are…but not both. Jesus is pretty clear that getting public accolades for our piety is seriously missing the point of all faithful practice. But the desire to have it all…be both pious and publicly acknowledged…get to inbox zero and check all the boxes on the bucket list…and have a stress-free family dinner six nights a week…to have it all…whatever that “all” is… Whatever those choices are…the desire to have it all is deep and insidious and I’ll say it again… it’s never going to happen.
Jesus is always encouraging us to let go of all these unrealistic expectations, and trying to get us to simply focus on what is actually possible in our lives: sharing resources with those who need it; giving time and attention to those who are right in front of us…including God; devoting more of our whole selves to whatever practices draws us closer to God and one another. Those things are possible, and we can have them…can freely choose them…if we let go of the fantasy of being fully optimized…of having it all…of having unlimited time.
Ash Wednesday is our annual reminder of our mortality. The ashes we apply are a visual and tactile reminders that our time here is limited. And the season of Lent is designed to be a time for reassessing, and rearranging our priorities with that ultimate limitation in mind…to refocus our attention on what really matters…on what ultimately matters…and what—given all of our limitations—is actually possible.
Once you give up on the impossible…surrender to your limits…and understand deep down, that you really can’t do it all (and that no one is asking you to!)…the question of what is actually possible?…What will you actually do?…What can only you do “with your one wild and precious life,” that question naturally emerges. And as that question becomes more and more the focus of your time and energy…that is what becomes truly life-changing.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. And may you have a holy and blessed Lent.