Wednesday, February 25, 2009
This is my Ash Wednesday sermon (for the morning service)
Today the city is quiet. All those who have spent the past few days dancing and drinking and carrying on are probably still asleep; while we, the faithful, have come together to begin the Holy Season of Lent. We have come together to hear God’s Word proclaimed, we have come to ask God for forgiveness of our sins, we have come to have ashes put on our foreheads as a sign of our penitence.
We now enter a season of penitence and fasting. Fasting is a means of concentration one’s mind on prayer. Fasting is not required, it should be a discipline that one decides to accept,not something imposed. Muslims have an entire month of fasting, and they don’t simply give up chocolate for that month; they are not allowed to eat from sunrise to sunset. They go throughout the daylight hours without any food and drinking only water. However, they make up for it every evening when the sun sets and they have a feast every night! Our tradition is to “give something up” for Lent, to fast in that manner. However, if one doesn’t feel called to fasting, I think that one can also take on a spiritual discipline. We have the opportunity to walk the Way of the Cross every Friday evening; I know some people who read theological or devotional literature during Lent; perhaps you may want to say the Rosary or the Prayer of the Heart, the Jesus prayer during this season. Perhaps you may want to put alms aside or help the less fortunate during the next forty days. There are many options to help us set this Holy Season apart.But one of the most important aspects of Lent is the call to repentance. Now, I believe that God calls us to repentance every day, but it is during the season of Lent that we are called to make public repentance. That is what penitence is all about: we are performing public acts of repentance. That is what our fasting, almsgiving, and prayer represent, they are signs that we have repented.
Our reading from the prophet Joel is about repentance and the need to return to the Lord. Joel was talking during a time of severe shortage due to a plague of locusts. Huge swarms of locusts had descended upon Israel and ate everything; the crops and every leaf and plant in their path, leaving nothing. Joel saw this plague as punishment from God and he called everyone to repent. The word used in the Hebrew text is "shubh" which means "turn," to turn to the Lord. In this context, "turn" is translated as a complete conversion of the heart, not just the outpouring of remorse for one’s wrongdoing.The Lord spoke through Joel and told the people of Israel to return to God, with weeping and fasting and mourning. They were to call everyone together, young and old, and were to make offerings to the Lord. The priests were to stand between the vestibule and the altar, and they were to weep and say, "Spare your people, oh Lord!" The priests of Israel were intermediaries between the people and God, so they had to ask God to spare them. Since Jesus came and died for our sins, we no longer need a priest to intervene; Jesus is the one who intervenes for us now. Christian priests are people selected to perform certain tasks within the community, tasks for which we have certain gifts, but we don’t speak to God on your behalf. Another sign of repentance in ancient Israel was to tear one’s clothing and to sit in a pile of ashes or to pile ashes on one’s head. In remembrance of that ancient practice, I will be putting some ashes on your forehead today.
I’ve been thinking about repentance, and I’ve been thinking about why we need to repent. We aren’t bad people; no one here is stealing or killing or committing what we all may consider The Big Sins, but we all have sin in our lives, we all fall short of the mark. There are those sins we commit on a personal level, you know, being selfish, ignoring the needs of others, saying cruel things to those around us, and other stuff that we all do but don’t want to admit to. I have been thinking also about the sins we commit as a Church. Even though we Christians are called to live in a certain way, we all fall short of the mark and we as a Church can fall short of the mark. At one time the Church, (and by Church I don’t mean or parish, I mean the Church Universal, Christians throughout the ages), condoned the buying and selling of human beings,the Church supported slavery and even used the Bible to justify such activity. A few years ago the Primados of the Anglican Communion participated in a Holy Eucharist held in a church in Zanzibar in which the altar is built over the place where slaves were sold. The Eucharist was held in honor of the last slave sold on that spot,and the end of slavery one hundred years ago. The Church has repented for participating in this terrible activity,an activity that they believed God condoned until one hundred years ago.
Over the centuries the Church has advocated mistreatment of women, it has advocated the persecution of Jews and those who are not Christians, and there were those who used the scriptures to support such views and the Church has had to repent of those evils. Right now there are those in the Church who want to ostracise and exclude people because of their sexuality, and they are able to find support of this exclusion in the scriptures. I believe that we, the Church, will eventually repent of this attitude, too. We all need to repent of the way we treat others,we as humans and as the Church need to repent for the way we have treated this planetand how we have polluted it and how the Developed World has exploited the earth’s resources to enrich their societies to the exclusion, oppression, and poverty of the Two Thirds World.The Church must repent of any support it has given to the government of the United States and its war in Iraq.
Repentance is more that wearing ashes on our foreheads, repentance is more than saying, “I’m sorry,” repentance is more than fasting and praying and giving alms. Repentance is a change of mind and heart it is the decision to follow God’s way instead of our own way. It requires discernment; we need to discern what is God’s way and what is society’s way. When we decide to follow God’s way instead of our own way, we will follow the Ten Commandments which we so often ignore. But when Jesus was asked what the most important commandment was, he said we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and with all our strength and to love our neighbor as our selves. It seems to me that if we as people and as a Church truly repent, if we truly follow God’s way instead of our own, if we do love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and love our neighbors as ourselves, we won’t have the problems we have today, the Church will not be dividing along lines of sexuality and different understandings of authority, because we would be doing what God calls us to do, we would not be concentrating on things which divide us but we would be working for those things which unite us.
Practicing fasting, alms giving, and prayer are important aspects of Lent, and these practices can deepen our spiritual lives and strengthen our connection with the Lord, but what is most important is our intention in doing these things. Are we doing this to show how holy and righteous and wonderful we are, are we doing this to show we are so much better than those people who aren’t wearing ashes, or are we doing this as a sign of true repentance? Are we practicing prayer, fasting and almsgiving as a means of showing the world that we are pious, or are we doing this in order to strengthen our relationship with God? God knows our hearts, God knows what is going on in our lives. We may fool our neighbors but we can't fool God.If our Lenten practices are a means of bringing attention to ourselves, then we will already have our reward. But if we do this as a means of coming closer to God, as a means of increasing our own spiritual life and that of this parish, if these acts reflect true repentance on our parts, we will then be experiencing a true and holy Lent.
May our intentions and motives this Lent be pure. May we use this time as a means of spiritual preparation. May we use this time to grow in our love of God and each other. May we all keep a holy Lent.
I See You!
Sign by Danasoft - Get Your Free Sign