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Ash Wednesday February 13, 2013

Nobody has ever come to me to say how much they are looking forward to the season of Lent. The crowds at the pancake supper dwindle to a few hearty souls who come for Holy Eucharist and the Imposition of Ashes on Ash Wednesday. Lent is not a fun season. Liturgically, it means we may sing the Great Litany, which many think of as a long and boring prayer, though some people really like it. It means slower songs sung in minor keys. No flowers on the altar and no alleluias in the service.

Lent is about Jesus going to Jerusalem to die for our sins. Its emphasis is on penitence. As the collect says, we ask for help to “worthily lament our sins and acknowledge our wretchedness”. But, we say to ourselves, am I really wretched? I know I sin, but I don’t murder, I don’t steal and I don’t commit adultery. What is so bad about me that I have to keep beating my breast for forty long days before I can celebrate Easter? Why do we put emphasis on such a judgmental God?

But Lent is not just about sin. The collect goes on to say that if we repent and return to God, God’s grace will give us perfect remission of our sins. Lent is really about the cycle of judgment, repentance and reconciliation that goes on every day in the relationship between God and humans that has been instituted at God’s initiative by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are transformed from dividers to reconcilers, from hypocrites to sincerely faithful followers, from those storing treasure up on earth to those storing up treasure in heaven. We cannot become all God intends us to be without judgment. Then there would be no knowledge of wrongdoing. We cannot stop doing the wrong things and start doing the right ones if we do not hear God’s judgment and turn away from sin and toward God, and we cannot be reconciled without God’s grace making it possible.

In Isaiah, the people are practicing outward forms of religious piety, specifically fasting, without having the inward attitudes or the outward behaviors to go with it. They oppress their workers and they quarrel and fight. God wants them to fast not from food but from their unrighteous behavior. God is much more vested in their being reconciled to one another and working as one united community to free the oppressed. God wants God’s transformed people to break down the institutions and systems that are causing marginalization, oppression and captivity and do all they can to include people as full members of the community – to feed, clothe and shelter the poor so that everyone may be on equal footing. If they do that, they will please God. They will be the repairers of the breach – the gulf that divides the “haves” from the “have-nots”. God will be with them in their work, and their light will shine out as an example to everyone.

The Corinthians are having trouble with hypocrisy and self-centeredness too. They are baptized Christians who have been offered the grace of God and yet they will not accept it (Charles Cousar). Jesus died and was raised for them so their lives might be transformed and they might become the righteousness of God. They would focus not on themselves, but on making their community an example for others to follow by spreading the gospel to those around them. If they are not moving forward in this mission, they are moving backward and falling into the trap of the principalities and powers that are trying to draw them back to their old unrighteous ways. Paul urges the Corinthians to accept the salvation they are offered now and to get to the business of being God’s people in the world. If the Corinthians have any doubts about how to do this, Paul offers himself and his colleagues as an example. They have put no obstacles in anyone’s way and borne spiritual fruit even when beset by the ills of the world for their message. They are seen by the world as imposters, as punished, as dying, sorrowful and poor, yet they know their message is true, and their hearts are filled with joy.

Jesus’ theme is the same – a sinful community who is confusing what they need with what they want. Human beings are needy by nature (James Alison). Jesus is not telling them that this basic instinct is wrong, but that they are getting their needs met in the wrong place. Prayer, fasting and alms-giving are good spiritual disciplines, but he wants people to seek the approval of God and not other human beings. People cannot fill their need the way God can, and the self-centered focus on trying to belong to the “in” crowd takes away from the outward focus on working with and for God’s people. Storing up treasure in heaven is a much better way to go, Jesus says, because it puts people in right relationship with God and others.

Another reason people don’t like Lent is because it talks about dangerous things. Paul and his companions suffered for the sake of the gospel, and no baptized Christian who carries the message is immune to suffering either. Being a repairer of the breach, as Martin Luther King Jr. tried to do can cost you your life.

Last Saturday, many of us helped prepare oral rehydration packets for children in Africa. It was an act of righteousness that we were led to by God’s reconciling Spirit and it was fulfilling too. This Lent we can show penitence for our sins by doing what we can to help people. There are many opportunities in the community to fast from hypocrisy, self-centeredness and other sins. Or you can bring food to St. John’s for AFAC. Lent is a time to repent of our sins, but it is also a time to be grateful for the possibility of reconciliation God has provided us in Jesus. I encourage you to observe a faithful Lent so that you may experience fully the joy and triumph of Easter.


  - Rev. Ann Barker


Works Cited
Charles Cousar, Texts for Preaching, Ash Wednesday, p.185
James Alison, Ash Wednesday, from a blog post on The Christian Century web site