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Ash Wednesday February 22, 2012

 

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

Our first reading today is from the prophet Joel. He is one of the so-called Minor Prophets whose writings are found at the end of the Hebrew Scriptures. We know very little about Joel except that he is the son of Pethuel and his name means “the Lord is God.” Scholars are not sure about the time of his ministry, but their best research at this point says that Joel was a prophet closely acquainted with the temple whose ministry took place sometime after the return from the Babylonian Exile in 539 B.C.

 There is some kind of a crisis. It is described in agricultural terms as a plague of locusts and also in terms that suggest the approach of a threatening enemy.  In any case, Joel, speaking for God, calls the people to return to God with all our heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning. God says to the people, “Rend your hearts, not your clothing.” Apparently the people have drifted away from God, and God is calling them to an inward renewal of the spirit. God is also assuring them of God’s steadfast love and mercy. The whole congregation is called to this “solemn assembly,” from the oldest to the youngest, even infants who are still nursing.

 In our epistle, Paul calls us to be reconciled to God. Now is the time for us to focus our attention on growing as close to God as we can and to accept God’s grace as fully as we can. Paul tells us of all the many challenges and calamities he has suffered in his life and ministry, and yet he is still persevering and rejoicing.

 In our gospel, Jesus is giving us so much wisdom about our Lenten journey. In his time, there were people who made a big show about their religious practices. He tells us to work on our spiritual discipline quietly, almost secretly, because it is between each of us and our loving God. He tells us not to store up for ourselves treasures on earth, treasures that will not last, but to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven. And he says that wonderful thing: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If we recognize that God and our life with God is our great treasure, right up there with our love for our families and friends, and, if we remember that the reason we are committed to this Lenten journey is because we want to respond to God’s love and grace, which have freed us from all that imprisons us, God’s love and grace, which have given us eternal life, we will have something like the proper focus for Lent.

 Lent comes from the root word for spring. Lent is a time for growth. It is a time to let go of anything that gets between us and God or between us and other people, in other words, sin. Sin is anything that gets between us and God, between us and other people, or between us and our true self. And Lent is a time to take on any discipline or practice that will help us to get closer to God, closer to other people, and closer to becoming our true self, the person God is calling us to be. Each of us is unique, and each of us is going to be giving up or taking on different things for Lent.

 

This past Sunday we saw who Jesus really is, and when we came down the mountain we realized that we are going to be walking the way of the cross.  Jesus says that, if we really want to follow him, we have to take up our cross and follow him. He also says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Back in Jesus’ time, when a carpenter made a yoke for an ox, the carpenter custom made that yoke to fit every bump and every contour and every little idiosyncratic aspect of that ox’s neck and shoulders. That yoke was carefully fitted so that the ox could do its work. That’s how our Lenten discipline and our daily spiritual discipline needs to be fitted.

 And, yes, we are to take up our cross. We are called in some way to take on a discipline that will involve sacrifice. There is no way in which it could possibly be the kind of sacrifice or self-offering that our Lord made. He is divine and we are human. But the idea is to participate in his self-giving on some level.

 

Our goal is to become more like our Lord. We can keep in mind the need to grow in the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, and in the theological virtues: faith, hope, and love and to move away from the seven root sins: pride, wrath, envy, greed, gluttony. lust, and sloth. We can remember the very helpful framework of the Ten Commandments. We can focus on our Lord’s summary of the law: “Love God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. All of these are tried and true guidelines as we navigate the journey of the spirit.

 We are walking with Jesus toward Jerusalem, toward the cross. I would like to share with you some thoughts by Barbara Brown Taylor, from her book God in Pain.

Christianity is the only world religion that confesses a God who suffers. It is not all that popular an idea, even among Christians. We prefer a God who prevents suffering, only that is not the God We have got. What the cross teaches us is that God’s power is not The power to force human choices and end human pain. It is, instead, the power to pick up the shattered pieces and make something holy out of them—not from a distance but right close up.

 By entering into the experience of the cross, God took the man-made wreckage of the world inside himself and labored with it –a long labor, almost three days–and he did not let go of it until he could transform it and return it to us as life. That is the power of a suffering God, not to prevent pain, but to redeem it, by going through it with us. (God in Pain, p. 118)

 This passage is extraordinary, I think, because it helps us to begin to understand that when we focus on God, when we walk the way of the cross, when we follow a serious spiritual discipline, we are living into the redemptive work of our Lord. By doing the work of growing closer to God, we are asking God to help us pick up the pieces of our lives so that we can put those pieces in God’s hands and invite God to transform our brokenness into wholeness and life. Lent is a time to move from death to life.

 May we have a Lent full of growth and new life.

                                                                    Amen.

 

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