Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday, 2018: Choosing Lent

Ash Wednesday: Choosing New Life to be Formed in Us

Lectionary: Joel 2:1-2,12-17; Psalm 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

(Note: If the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for a different audio format.)

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent. On this day, we gather as a people in solemn assembly to pray and answer God's continuing call to us to return with all our hearts.

We fast (if we can), and we mark the sign of our salvation - the cross of Christ – on our foreheads with the dust of ashes. These are traditional symbols of repentance and humility before God. By doing these things today, we also mark these next five weeks of Lent as different.

Lent is not a time for us to wallow in the misery of our wretchedness as hopeless sinners (despite what you heard in the Collect), and we don't fast in order to suffer, or as punishment for sin. We fast to allow ourselves to experience emptiness. In the deep, dark center of ourselves, we willingly choose to make space for something new, something nourishing and life-giving that God will supply.

That is what our Lenten journey is about.

Lent is a time to get honest about the God of all mercy who is full of compassion, slow to anger, forgives our sins, and cares for us deeply, intimately, with a sacrificial love that knows no bounds. Lent is also the time we get honest about ourselves. We are all wonderfully made by our Creator, who hates us not.

But we often forget to live as if that's true – in other words, we sin. Every one of us will find ourselves, at times, lacking the will to be compassionate toward someone else especially when it involves some amount of sacrifice on our part. There are (or will be) times in our lives when our anger erupts quickly, while forgiveness comes slowly – if at all.

And we can be, at times, so preoccupied with ourselves and our own – stuff, people, thoughts - that we become blind to the fact that all around us, others of God's kin are suffering – lacking food, friendship, or hope. Sometimes, our preoccupation with ourselves takes the form of addiction – and we can be addicted to many things: being the center of attention, food, alcohol or drugs, work, the news, misery, or power. We can even be addicted to “good” things like exercise, vitamin-taking, or otherwise healthy endeavors.

Whatever takes our attention and distracts us from our purpose… that’s what addiction does.

The word "Lent" means spring. It is a time when new life is being formed; and the one forming that new life is the same one who forms all life: God.

The temptation we face is in thinking that we need to choose what to do or stop doing for Lent. We don't do Lent. God does it. We simply choose to let Lent (new life) be formed in us and we do that by faith.

The hard work of Lent is emptying ourselves of all that already fills us, including the need to be full and satisfied. As Americans, this is probably our greatest besetting sin. But emptiness scares us – the nothingness of it feels kind of like death, so we tend to avoid it.

That's why Lent is different. Knowing that by our baptism we have entered into Jesus' death and resurrection, we have no fear of death, not even the little ones like the death of a habit, or the death of an idea we hold about God, ourselves, or our neighbors.

The traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are tested and reliable ways we can use to respond to God's call to us to return with our whole hearts. Prayer brings us into the presence of God, the same God who created us, knows our humanity, and hates us not. The same God who gave up his life on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. The same God whose Spirit dwells in us and invites us to receive a seed of new life in our hearts.

Fasting reminds us of our mortality and our real limitations as humans, and it provides a way for us to experience solidarity with those who truly hunger. Most of us here know we will have another meal… and when we will have it. So when we remember how real and compelling hunger is, we are moved by compassion to do something to relieve it – even if it means making a bit of a sacrifice, and alsmgiving is the way we can do that.

Our Lenten practices aren't about success or failure. You can’t fail Lent! If you are diabetic, on medication, or for some other reason you can't fast from food –don't. That’s not what this is about. We can fast from lots of other things: criticizing, complaining, or estrangement. Last year I asked my husband to fast from the news because the constant exposure to the stressful information was raising his blood pressure and I want him around for a long time.

Remember when we used to watch the news twice a day… in the morning and in the evening? Now the news is 24-hours a day, non-stop. We are over-exposed. And much of it isn’t news at all – its commentary. So, if watching the news distracts you from your Lenten self-emptying, limit your exposure to it. If anything of real import happens, one of us will let you know.

One last thing… Our bishop, +José McLoughlin, posted a video – his message to us for Lent. Bishop José asks us to consider adding to our Lenten discipline some practice of “taking up” such as taking up a new ministry, or a new attitude. He offers that the practice of “taking up” is about a new way of being, for example, being a voice of good news in the midst of uncertainty or being present and speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves.

Self-emptying and taking up. This is our Lenten journey.

We don't score points for praying or fasting or taking up a new way of being, and we don't get demerits for not doing those things, because, remember, we don't DO Lent. We choose it: we choose to make space in our lives and in our hearts for God to form new life in us.

Let us pray…

God of all, you love all you have made. Show us how to empty ourselves of all that isn’t loving and plant the seeds of new life, new love in us. For we desire to love as you have loved us in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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