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Sermon for Ash Wednesday, March 6 2019

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, Year C
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector
March 6, 2019

Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

There’s an ancient tradition of “giving up” something for Lent – and it used to be that the Church would make suggestions about what that should be.  In the late medieval period, the Church was persuaded to help the fishing industry in the Hanseatic League countries, those that bordered on the Baltic Sea, by outlawing meat on Fridays, and at some times of the year on Wednesdays and Fridays, and in Lent, to rule out meat for the full 40 days.  Fish was, obviously okay.

That was a political power move, but the Church couched the meat fast in terms of making a sacrifice that would help bring our spirits closer to the Spirit of Christ.  And for a lot of people, that’s how it worked, and still works today.

The idea of making sacrifices for God – not in the old ways of the Temple rituals in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day, which involved the killing of livestock – but sacrifices in terms giving up something we enjoy or value, is about taking steps to remind us of Jesus’ sacrifice for all of us. 

It is to put us in touch with lack, to remind us that things we do enjoy or value may not be available to all people. 

It is to put us in touch with suffering, to remind us that others suffer, and what that feels like.

It is to put us in touch with our pride, to remind us that we are prone to abuse our power to our own advantage, and what it feels like to try living without it

It is to remind us what humility is, what mercy is, what grace is, and what joy may come from simply stopping our rush toward more-ness, even for a little while.  If we are satisfied with less, why not do with less?  If we are comfortable with doing without, why not do without?

Why do we need more and more and more?  Lent says: We don’t.  Lent says: Do not be anxious about tomorrow.  Lent says:  Take a break from rushing about.  Lent says: Breathe.  Lent says:  Remember who you are – remember that you are made from the very earth on which you live, and when your days are ended, your body will return to the earth.  Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

That’s not a bad thing.  That’s just the way things are. 

All the rest is window-dressing.  And much of all the rest is beautiful and enjoyable and gracious, but it is not the point of our existence.  The point of our existence, from God’s perspective, is our turning toward God, to gratitude and grace, to peace-building and peace-finding and peace-keeping with God and the world, with people, and other living things, and the land, water, and air.

There would be enough for all, if we didn’t claim all we see and ask for more.

The other side of Lent involves taking on something – some spiritual discipline: perhaps Bible study, or new prayer exercises, or journaling the grace of the day and your gratitude for it.  Perhaps it means greeting each day with fresh eyes, with an expectation that today will be a good day.  Maya Angelou put it this way:  “Today is a wonderful day.  I have never seen this day before!”

Whatever you choose to do or not do in Lent, don’t do it just because it’s Lent. Remember the counsel of Isaiah and Paul and Jesus: it’s not about what others think of you; it’s not about your desire to show what a good Lent-keeper you are.  It’s always and only about letting go of what holds you back from a deeper relationship with God, and finding ways to seek a deeper relationship with God. 

We’re going to spend quite a bit of time over the next several weeks reading scripture passages that talk of the ways in which we might fall short of the glory of God, but countered with ways in which God is merciful.  It’s not about brow-beating, but about self-examination accompanied by assurance that whatever our faults, God is always ready and desirous of healing the breaches we can’t seem to help ourselves from creating. 

We are beloved of God; and in that loving embrace, we are invited to shed our burdens, our angers and hatreds, our fears and biases, our sorrows and hurts, our wants and desires, and turn to God who is gracious, a lover of souls, whose sole desire for us is that we are filled with love to overflowing, for God, for ourselves, and for all those around us.  That’s what Lent is about.  That’s our journey, our path, our goal, our who-what-when-where-why and how. 

God is love, and where true love is, God is.  Be of good courage.  Take a step, try giving up something, try taking on something, and reflect on what you learn about what is of the greatest value to your heart, soul, and mind.  I pray a Good Lent for you.