Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
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Ash Wednesday, February 10, 2016

You have a recipe that you have made so many times, you can do it from memory. You put in all the ingredients and you cook it up. It tastes wonderful every time. But suppose you didn’t make the recipe for a while. You forgot some of the ingredients. When you try to make it again you do your best, but it doesn’t taste very good. You wonder what is missing and try to remember the instructions, but it is no good.

The Israelites were faced with a recipe they didn’t know the ingredients for. They had returned from exile, where they may not have made the item for a while. They are doing what they know to do, but since they can’t see the recipe in front of them, they screw it up. What the Jews remember about getting God’s attention is the ritual. They remember the fasting and the sack cloth and ashes. They remember these symbols of mourning and try this to see if God will answer their prayers. They act like they want to know God’s will and have God delight in them. But they are met with a blank wall. Their prayers are not answered. They think God has separated Godself from them. It leaves a bad taste in their mouths and they complain bitterly.

It turns out that they have not just forgotten some minor parts of the recipe to be close to God; they have forgotten the major stuff. They have forgotten to see their neighbors as beloved children of God as well. They have forgotten to see their neighbors at all. They are blind to anyone’s needs but their own. Their memory of the recipe has produced a fallen cake, a runny quiche, a lumpy batch of mashed potatoes.

So God sends Isaiah to tell them that their recipe for a rich life with God is wrong, and their attitude needs a serious adjustment for the recipe to work right. Doing the rituals alone won’t work. God does not condemn the ritual, but it is empty without righteous action. God condemns their fast days in the first place. They oppress their workers and selfishly serve their own interests. They are not self-reflective or penitent, but do the very things they shouldn’t do – they quarrel and fight. It seems like these would be obvious no-nos, but it is what they have come to know – they just fit the ritual in around their self-centered business as usual. They are turned inward, trying to have a deeper knowledge of God on their own, but not really very serious about it. In fact they don’t even seem to want to know God’s ways very much. They are pretty happy with their own, and can’t understand the connection between the bad taste of the recipe and their cavalier attitude toward God.

God proceeds to refresh them on the recipe. Their job is to liberate people from bondage – the Jews are to free others who are laden with heavy burdens. They are to look toward the interests of their neighbors. This liberation includes feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and clothing the naked. Needless to say, this part of the recipe is hard. It is kneading the bread dough so it will rise; it is sifting the flour twice so the cake will be fluffy and light, it is rolling out a pie crust that is not too thick or too thin. Not only is it hard, it is not possible for the Jews to do it themselves without seeking God’s help. Righteous action is something people do in concert with God, to show love for God, their neighbor and themselves.

If you follow the recipe just right God says, good things will happen. You will be focusing outward instead of inward and you will see that I have been there all the time. Not only will your light break forth but I will go in front of and behind you and you will see the light that is my glory. I will guide you continually and you will be aware of it and feel close to me. Previously, when you were not following the recipe, I was there but you were pushing me away. I was the one who made you aware that the recipe was wrong, that it tasted bad, that it did not work. I was the one that prompted you to ask the questions about why I was not there when in fact it was not I who turned from you, but you who turned from me. But the right recipe, the care for the neighbor, leads you to turn back toward me. You need healing and I will bring it to you because my desire for my people is that you become whole. I will satisfy you when you are parched. I will make your bones strong; I will bring you emotional and spiritual fulfillment. You will feel the blessings of my love and open up to me as a garden thirstily drinks in water. Because of your relationship with me, you will be like a spring of water that never fails. You will never dry up again because of your connection to me and to your neighbor. And the added bonus to all this is not only will the recipe taste wonderful to you again, it will taste wonderful for all the people you help. You shall be blessed by them and called repairers of the breach and restorers of streets to live in. Your actions on behalf of others will send forth my blessings on all.

In Lent, we are called to examine our recipe cards. Are there items that are smudged out or we have forgotten? If we have jotted out a recipe we have learned by heart, are there items missing? Is Lent business as usual or do we take special time to examine our consciences, ask forgiveness where we are wrong and amend our lives? Are we going through the ritual motions, which is not a bad thing, or are we combining ritual with righteous action, which requires our money, our time and our talent to repair what is broken, to bring in the kingdom of God. In our liturgy for Ash Wednesday, we are invited to keep a faithful Lent, to use this time to prepare ourselves for our Lord’s sacrifice on the cross for our sins and his resurrection that leads us to eternal life with God. We need to be following God’s complete recipe for a holy life to experience fully God’s presence with us. I pray for us all individually and for our church as a whole that we have a holy Lent so that we may fully experience the joy of Easter.




     --- Rev. Ann Barker