A sermon may seem a bit redundant on this particular Ash Wednesday, as we live through a grim reminder that we are frail and mortal. In all my years of ministry in Illinois I never thought to talk about the fact that Dante Alligheri, in the Inferno, depicts the very bottom of Hell as a place of frozen cold. As both my old friends up north and my new friends in Texas have reminded me, weather like this is familiar to me and should be no big deal.
And of course they’re right. I’ve been through plenty of weather like this before, at times in my life when I had to spend a lot more time outdoors than I do now. There have even been a few moments this week when I was tending to something outside at my house and the sheer bracing hardness of the cold air gave me an almost nostalgic feeling. Yes, I used to feel this way at least once each winter. The snow sinking under my feet. The gloves drying out by the air vent. The moment of defiance of the elements--I’m outside and I’m not defeated, I’m enduring.
But as we all know, and as I am learning for the first time, there’s a lot more to it than tolerating cold air. I didn’t bring my big winter boots or almost any heavy winter clothes down here in the first place. We don’t keep a giant fleet of snow plows and salt trucks on standby all year for this. Our electrical grid, which I’ve learned more about in the last few days than I had learned in my entire life to that point, is not designed for this.
So we, or our neighbors, lose power. Pipes freeze. Movement becomes dangerous. This weather might be in some places an inconvenience or a discomfort. For kids it could be a delightful opportunity to play in the snow while school is out. Instead it becomes a crisis. And we get stuck. I would like to have opened the church as a warming site, but our building has often been without power over the last few days. I would like to go out and help people from the relative security of my own home, but the roads are untouched by a plow and I don’t want to end up needing rescue myself.
In Dante’s vision of Hell, those stuck at the absolute bottom are literally frozen. They can’t move. They can’t free themselves. As I learned in ninth-grade science, heat makes particles move. Cold makes them slow down. At a point of absolute zero, there’s no movement at all. No union of separated particles. No coming together. No advance or retreat.
And as we begin this season of Lent, it’s worth remembering how sin does this to us. It separates us from each other. It isolates us. It freezes us. The Devil wants each of us on our own. The Devil wants us stuck in place rather than moving toward our Creator. When you fast or pray or give alms, Jesus says today, don’t do it like the hypocrites who want to make a show of their piety. Don’t try to put yourself apart, for the admiration of other people. Our fasting should be out of love, to draw us closer to God and to one another. Our prayer should be made out of love, to draw us closer to God and to one another. Our giving should not be to our individual glory but for the relief of human need and the glory of God’s kingdom.
If sin freezes us, Lent should be a season of spiritual thawing out. A season when we resume, or speed up, our movement toward God. And this is something we can only do together. This is why we make a public confession of sin, today and throughout Lent. It’s why we pray and fast and give together, our prayers and works of mercy imparting energy and power to each other.
The cold weather will pass soon. The snow will be gone. I’ll forget that nostalgic sharp feeling of the bitter wind on my face. Life will resume the painful level of normality it had last week. But we, in the church, will only begin to stretch ourselves toward God. To be set free from the cold prison of sin and death, and to do it together. Amen.