Practicing Lent, Ash Wednesday, February 17

Practicing Lent

Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 51; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:3; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

The Rev. Catherine E. Schuyler

Catskill, Palenville, Quarryville UMCs; Ash Wednesday, February 17, 2021

 

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day set aside by the church to remind us not of our spirituality, but of our physicality, our body itself.  We are mortal, we are born, we live and we shall all die.  God gives us this gift of life and carries us as we travel life’s road.  And ultimately, it is the life we build with God that is what goes before us when we die. 

 

Ash Wednesday reminds us that our time is finite, limited, not forever.  When I place a cross of ashes on your forehead, I say, “you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  We can’t share ashes this year because of the presence of the corona virus, but that virus has imprinted the truth the ashes speak deeply on our hearts this year, nonetheless.  We are all mortal.  We live and we will die, all of us. 

 

We walk into Lent remembering our mortality.  And we walk into Lent remembering God’s faithfulness, God’s call and forgiveness, God’s willingness to walk with us each and every day of this mortal life.  And walking into Lent is why we observe this day, with or without the physicality of the ashes of last year’s palms on our foreheads.  Lent is a season to remember, to be sober and reflective on our lives and on the world.

 

Not surprisingly, none of us is looking forward to a sober and quiet Lent.  We’ve been in a season of reflection, repentance, and self-denial since Ash Wednesday last year.  How will Lenten self-denial this year be different from our life since the pandemic began?  There have been no parties, no chicken dinners, no concerts, and much loneliness over the past months.  What has Lent got to offer that we haven’t already got right now?

 

I hope you all have this booklet I mailed out, Practicing Lent.  It’s just a simple guide to prayer and reflection to take you through this season, week by week.  (If you didn’t get one in the mail, let me know.  I’ll mail one out to you.)  I don’t know what your Lenten practice has looked like in past years.  Maybe you’ve given up desserts for these forty days; maybe you’ve taken on a practice of giving to the poor or writing a note to a friend.  Maybe you’ve refrained from complaining for the six weeks before Easter.  Perhaps you’ve chosen to take on a new prayer practice, like journaling or drawing your hopes with beautiful colors in the presence of the Holy Spirit.  From these practices, or practices like them, we remember that Lent isn’t by definition a sad or lonely place to be.  Practicing Lent is primarily marked by intention, making a deliberate choice to focus our lives on something that, by the end of the time set aside, can bring us closer to the God who made us, the God who loves us and longs to spend time with us regularly.  Lent this year will be different from every-day life because we can choose to live our days growing deeper in love with God, for the next forty days.

 

Hear the words again of the prophet Isaiah. 

5Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 6Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

The words I’ll share with you from the liturgy for today, encouraging you to observe a holy Lent, speak of the traditions of fasting and self-denial.  Human beings have found such tools useful for their spiritual health, across the globe and across religious traditions.  Fasting pulls us away from our day-to-day routines and focuses our attention on something else.  In the Christian tradition, the intent of fasting is to focus our attention on Jesus Christ, on Christ’s grace and will for our lives, and on Christ’s own life and ministry.  Fasting for its own sake, to make us feel self-righteous or to ‘push’ God to notice us, is precisely the danger that the texts we heard warn us against.  The prophet Isaiah tells us that God is unimpressed, and rather annoyed, by shallow fasting that still leaves us ready to ‘fight with wicked fist.’  The behavior God longs for is a fast that leads us to works of mercy and justice – sharing food with the hungry and removing the yoke of oppression from those who suffer.  Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic church offers these ideas for a 21st century version of Isaiah’s wisdom:

 

Fast from hurting words and say kind words.

Fast from anger and be filled with patience.

Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.

Fast from worries and have trust in God.

Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.

Fast from pressures and be prayerful.

Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy.

Fast from selfishness and be compassionate toward others.

Fast from grudges and be reconciled.

 

How will this Lent be different from the days of the last several months?  By your work, your intention, your prayers.  Lent only matters in your life if you claim it, if you act, if you practice Lent by practicing love and forgiveness, compassion and mercy.  That is, if you practice, deliberately and with focus and intent, being a disciple of Jesus Christ.  I don’t know what the specifics of life will look like between now and Easter, just as I certainly didn’t know last year. The availability of the vaccine may allow us to gather sometime this Spring.  Or we may still be keeping social distance from each other until mid-May or later.  I do know that God longs to connect with you, to remind you that you are precious, even in your frailty and sin, in your finite mortal life.  Claim the time, friends.  Fall in love with God all over again this Lent.  Accept God’s forgiveness for what you have been and God’s grace to amend what you are, then welcome God’s power to move you to become an ambassador for Jesus Christ in all that you do.  Practice a holy Lent.  Amen.

 

 

Isaiah 58:1-12

58Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. 2Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

 

3“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. 4Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. 5Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 6Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

 

8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

 

 

Psalm 51

1Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;

according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

3For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

4Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight,

     so that you are justified in your sentence

     and blameless when you pass judgment.

5Indeed, I was born guilty,

a sinner when my mother conceived me.

6You desire truth in the inward being;

     therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

7Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;

     wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

8Let me hear joy and gladness;

     let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

9Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.

10Create in me a clean heart, O God,

     and put a new and right spirit within me.

11Do not cast me away from your presence,

     and do not take your holy spirit from me.

12Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

13Then I will teach transgressors your ways,

     and sinners will return to you.

14Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation,

     and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

15O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.

16For you have no delight in sacrifice;

     if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.

17The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;

     a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10

20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

 

6As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 3We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

 

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

6“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. …

 

16“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

 

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