Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
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Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015

I have a friend who just downsized to move into a retirement community. All she could talk about for months before was giving up her things. She is an inveterate shopper and antiquer and over the years has collected many items that were displayed in her home. Last week I went to visit her in her new place, and I was amazed. Even after a big estate sale, even after bemoaning the loss of many things she treasured, there was not one blank surface in that generously sized three-bedroom apartment. The walls were full of pictures and hangings, cabinets were full of knick knacks and furniture was covered with all kinds of objects. Wow, I thought. This house is too full – and she mentioned she still had more pictures to hang! I suppose my friend really wants to make sure she has all her things around her and in that way she never feels empty.

None of us likes to be empty. Babies cry for food when they are hungry. Children cry for emotional comfort when they are hurt. Teens and adults want attention when they are broken-hearted. When bad things happen we cry for God’s help. We try to avoid all manner of hungers – physical, emotional and spiritual – so that we stay comfortable and well-satisfied.

Yet here we are in Lent, and Lent is a season of purposeful self-emptying. In Lent we are especially called to observe the disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, three practices in which we deliberately empty ourselves so that God can fill us. Jews in Jesus’ time as well as Jews and Christians in Matthew’s time observed these practices as a regular thing, but for us Lent is an especially appropriate time to hear about them because it is a season of penitence, one in which we mourn how far away we are from God and ask God’s forgiveness and God’s nearer presence in our lives again.

To practice prayer, fasting and almsgiving in a way that pleases God, we have to be vulnerable, humble and trusting.

The first thing we have to do is let go of something. We have to give up food, we have to give up money and/or we have to give up the time and control to put prayer directed by God in our lives. These acts make us vulnerable. We are letting go and hoping we will still have enough of whatever we have given up to live our lives healthily and happily. We are giving up something, not knowing whether we will get anything in return for our sacrifice – whether as I have said, we will receive an Easter gift for our Lenten fast.

We have to be humble. Jesus warns against becoming a hypocrite, which is easy to do, by wanting to be recognized by people for your spiritual disciplines. Giving up chocolate to lose a few pounds instead of because you want to make space for God comes perilously close to hypocrisy. That empty space we make for God can often become hard to bear and we want it filled with something right away. The recognition of society may work for a while, but it is not the spiritual sustenance we need. Being humble means that through our chosen emptiness, we are recognizing our dependence on God to meet all our needs. We are saying that we understand God made us from dust and that we are grateful for life and all its gifts. Being humble also means being teachable – ready to learn whatever God would impart to us in that empty space we have created for God.

Finally, to practice spiritual disciplines we need to be trusting. To be afraid of what God will do is to clutter up the space we have deliberately opened. The anxiety that comes in will paralyze us, inhibiting us from taking any action that God may direct. We have to trust what Jesus says, that God will reward us for our piety as long as we practice it for God and not for others. We have to trust that God wants what is best for us and will direct us to our heart’s desire, whether we know it or not. We have to trust that God will make our empty space into a God shaped hole and come closer to us in this life and the life to come.

Lent is a time of reflection on the state of our relationship with God. It is a time to become willing to be changed more and more into the image and likeness of the One who made us and loves us beyond our wildest dreams. It is a time to be thankful for the love and mercy God has shown us in allowing Jesus, who taught us to love, to suffer and die because of our unloving behavior. This Lent I urge you to make yourself empty somehow so that God’s love may enter your life in a bigger way. The God who made your discipline possible will reward you for your efforts.

AMEN

     - Rev. Ann Barker