Ash Wednesday: Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 51:1-17, 1 Peter 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practised righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgements,
they delight to draw near to God.
‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
Happy Ash Wednesday everyone. AND happy Valentine’s Day too. While I’ve read both sides of the argument this week, I personally don’t think we should fight against this collision of these two days which hasn’t happened since the 1940’s.
Given what they call this “calendar mash-up” the guys at Forward Movement Press who are the creators of Lent Madness went so far as to offer some suggestions for “how to share the Lenten love.” Their ideas include things like “Giving someone some fancy chocolates that will be stale by the time they can finally be consumed after 40 days and 40 nights (because you did give up chocolate for Lent this year, right?).” Or, “writing cards with cute messages like “Roses are red, Violets are blue, I’m a worm and no man, and you are too” or “Be my Valentine but first, let’s say The Great Litany together.” At which point their suggestions became pretty obnoxious Episcopal nerd humor and I figured it was only a group of liturgically obsessive preachers reading the post that far in. So while I can nerd with the best of’m, I’ll spare you the rest of their list.
But I do like their initial inspiration, “how to share the Lenten love” because I think that for all of that which this season is known for, and how Lent is often practiced, the language of love is ironically and very commonly lost.
One popular approach to this season of Lent is to make it so very, very hard that it doesn’t feel or look like love at all, even tough love. I’m sure many of you have seen if not experienced this approach where spiritual disciplines are employed for the sake of beating oneself up rather than building oneself and one another up in Christ. I think the logic behind that goes something like, “when we are beaten up, or denying ourselves we need God and therefore reach out for him more. And so making this very, very hard will bring us closer to God.” Now of course that carries some truth – the part of needing God and reaching out for God – but it’s not quite the whole picture and creating those circumstances ourselves probably doesn’t provide us with the best approach to growing in faith.
Challenging oneself is an appropriate dimension of spiritual growth to be sure. Soon in fact we’ll be invited to make this season a time of self-examination, prayer, and repentance, none of which is easy work. The disciplines taken on, however, both personal and communal, need to be of the sort that through them we grow into a greater, deeper awareness and embodiment of God’s love for us and God’s love for this world. That’s the goal here. Words like forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration run through the very heart of this season. And we should do whatever it takes to let them run through us and come alive in our hearts too. In that regard, Lent is a time of awakening and re-awakening, if we only we let it be.
All of which is what the prophet Isaiah was talking about in the passage we just heard. There too the faithful had come to believe that the personal pain felt resulting from the practice of spiritual disciplines would draw them closer to God. And when that didn’t work, they let God have it (because that apparently made sense in the moment.) “Why do we fast, but you do not see?” they railed at the heavens! “Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” The same theme was echoed in the gospel of Matthew where the extremely religious were being extra loud in their praying and looking extra dismal in their fasting and Jesus set out to redirect them entirely. In both cases, the faithful were indeed working very, very hard to be very, very good. But in both cases they were neither feeling the love, nor were they getting any better at sharing it.
“Look,” God told them through Isaiah, “Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high,” and then the tough love as he broke it to them even more directly, “you serve your own interest on your fast day, and [still] oppress all your workers. Look, you fast but then you quarrel and fight and strike with a wicked fist.” Not really the effect for which God was looking. And so the Almighty went on, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
Forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration. That’s how you share the Lenten love, the “always” love to which the season of Lent offers to awaken us all.
“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,” God said, “Then your healing shall spring up quickly,” and I can hear the people breathe a huge sigh of relief. If for no other reason than their efforts at being faithful were exhausting them at every turn and God was renewing their hope. “Simply remove the yoke from among you,” God said, “the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. \The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail… you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”
Repairers. Restorers. Reconcilers. Embodiments of God’s love for us and God’s love for this world. That’s the goal here.
Winnie Varghese who will provide our Lenten read through her book, Church Meets World says it like this:
“…we have the privilege of combining these two movements: the personal and the social. We seek a personal transformation or reorientation of our lives in light of whom we are made to be in god. We seek self-understanding and revelation, which relates to our place in the society within which we live … [and] we begin by engaging the lived reality of real people, including ourselves, working to understand the forces around us that impact human suffering and flourishing.”
Repair. Forgive. Restore. Reconcile.
That’s how to share the Lenten love, a love which created us out of dust and will receive us and offer resurrection when we are dust once again. That’s how to share the always love that sustains us and promises to redeem us and this world over and over again.
Then shall our light break forth like the dawn. May the breaking forth begin.