Gloria Dei Lutheran Church
6632 Chapman Highway
Knoxville, TN 37920
A Congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Ash Wednesday, Year C, 3-6-2019
Gloria Dei Lutheran Church - South Knoxville, Tennessee
Title: Some thoughts on Lent and Ash Wednesday
Here are some thoughts on Lent and Ash Wednesday:
Lent has got to be my least favorite season of the church year. Maybe spending the first 25 years of my life in a non-liturgical church had something to do with that, but there’s other things that figure into this equation. I don’t like purple, the color of the Lenten season. I don’t even own a purple stole. What I’m using tonight is one of Leslie’s old stoles, and how I managed to make it through almost 30 years of ordained service without a purple stole is still a mystery, even to me.
And then there’s that little matter of Lenten discipline. When it comes to Lent, I’m not all that disciplined. Perhaps I’m still rebelling against my intern church in Chicago where the weeks before Easter were very dark, very cold, and they had Lent coming out their ears with all the gloom and despair that only true Lutherans can muster. It’s the only church I’ve ever seen that took the flowers out of the sanctuary and replaced them with twisted dead tree saplings for Lent.
And then there’s that little thing about ashes.
How many of you have ever tried to burn palm leaves to make your own ashes for Ash Wednesday? Actually, in this congregation, perhaps a few of you have.
I’m sure that somewhere there’s instructions for the correct procedure for burning palm leaves for Ash Wednesday’s ashes, and I’m sure that somewhere somebody follows those correct procedures. I always preferred to keep things simple. I used to burn the palm leaves on my grill. I’d cut ‘em up, put ‘em in a big cast iron pot, put the pot outside on the grill and then I set fire to it. WHOOOSH!
Always looking for the most efficient way to burn palm leaves, I once asked Leslie if she thought dousing them in lighter fluid would work well. She seemed horrified by that thought, and so I dropped the idea. But these days, I’m not burning palm leaves for ashes. My landlord won’t let me. So, whenever I’m the one providing the palm ashes, I buy them from a church supply store. It’s a lot simpler all the way around, and no lighter fluid is involved.
Perhaps one of the things I have the most trouble with in Lent is the emotional content of the season. Traditionally, Lent is a penitential season. For that reason, it has been very low key. Very humble. Very somber. And that’s fine. But, it seems to me, Lent is also very sad, empty, and lonely as church seasons go.
That really didn’t bother me until I did my intern year in Chicago. Priding themselves on being a sort of artistic liturgical church, they went all out during Lent to create a genuine somber, penitential Lenten atmosphere in the church. Dead trees and dried, withered, brown bull rushes filled the flower wells of the sanctuary. They sand the most dismal sounding hymns in the hymnal. The choir anthems and incidental music were very low key. Don’t ask about my intern supervisor’s sermons.
Perhaps they over did it. They certainly succeeded in creating a sense of despair, desolation, dismay, and a loss of hope. I don’t like the idea finding that kind of meaning in the symbols a church uses for worship. And yet, what those symbols portray is a realistic profile of what the world under human domination has become.
This world is a world in which countless people live in the ashes of ruined and destroyed lives with despair, desolation, dismay, and a loss of hope on a daily basis.
But this world of ashes and despair is the world that Jesus has compassion for, the world that God originally created and loves, the world that the Son will die for on a cross that it may be saved and transfigured into a new creation.
That despair is real and it is all around us if we are willing to see it, but it was not meant to be and it is contrary to the will of God. In this world, those who hear the Word of God are called to live lives of integrity and to embrace a faith life worth living. This is the life that the readings from Isaiah and Matthew call us to live.
Isaiah is very blunt about this: "Look, 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."
Isaiah speaks directly to the leaders and the people of Judah shortly before they were conquered and led into exile. Their faith was false because it was arrogant, self-centered, self-righteous, and bullying of others. They had a poor attitude when it came to their religion. And ultimately that was what got them into the ultimate trouble: they lost their nation, their king, their temple, and their city, Jerusalem. Now, that's greatly oversimplifying that part of Judah's history, but I think it makes the point that Isaiah was trying to make. False, superficial, self-serving piety is bad news. It does not impress God. It definitely does not impress our neighbors, and it does nothing to bring compassion into the world. In fact, it brings about the opposite in this world, causing more pain and despair.
The readings of Ash Wednesday are not meant to speak to this matter, not to pass judgment on us, but to open our eyes, our hearts, and our minds to what God desires for us. And now we’re getting to what I like about Ash Wednesday and Lent.
Whether or not one receives the imposition of ashes is not the issue.
Whether or not one observes Ash Wednesday in any fashion at all is not the issue.
Whether or not one practices a living, genuine faith, a faith with integrity, and does so not out of a sense of mindless duty or out of vain human pride - that is the real issue. This is the real focus of Lent, without which any appear of penitence is pointless. Jesus and Isaiah make that point loud and clear.
In the Gospel of Matthew, we see that Jesus calls on his disciples to live their lives of faith with humility, deep integrity, and genuineness, regardless of whether or not other people may see it. Indeed, it seems that Jesus is saying that it is even more genuine if no one but God sees it. And this is done in expectation of what Jesus calls a "reward from your Father in heaven."
"Reward" here does not mean eternal salvation, in case anyone gets confused; Matthew, traditionally the Gospel of the tax collector, is using a word that rightfully means “limited payment,” your daily wages for your daily work, here, today, in this world, the kind of thing that Matthew, the tax collector, might have taxed.
In the long term, Jesus tells his disciples to store up for themselves "treasure in heaven," but that doesn't appear to be the same thing as their "reward" for living a faith life of integrity. Instead, this seems to be more an expectation of God's will, something that is good and is to be expected, which finally, after everything, will be done for us all, on earth as in heaven.
Jesus leaves this whole matter without the deep explanation that we want, leaving room for what we might call the "creative response" of his disciples. Isaiah has more to say about all this; I think that what Jesus had in mind was what we find in Isaiah.
For Isaiah, the only alternative to false piety is to lose the bonds of injustice and let the oppressed go free. This is exactly the thing that Jesus said he had come to do. And it is what he calls us to do as people who live with integrity as his disciples. It is in feeding the hungry and giving shelter to the homeless that the will of God is done, when light rises in the darkness, when the Lord guides us continually, and this is something that can happen in our south Knoxville community.
It's not about doing something to make ourselves more acceptable to God, as if making our foreheads dirty tonight will somehow, like magic, improve our odds of salvation.
It's about entering into a journey, a Lenten journey that becomes a lifetime journey, a journey marked by our doing what is needful and appropriate to help our neighbor.
In the end, it's about showing our neighbors that same compassion that Christ practiced for others, the compassion of the cross and the tomb and the life that lay beyond, doing this as a living part of God's will as it unfolds through our lives and into the lives of others, expecting that, in the end, God's "treasure in heaven" becomes reality for us all.
So, as a community of disciples we search for those ways that are realistic, meaningful, and lasting in which to share our bread with the hungry, provide shelter for the homeless, and offer assistance to the distressed. That is the kind of fasting that God would chose for us, a fast of self-sacrifice and service to our community.
If the ashes that we receive tonight mean anything at all, if they are not pretend and for the sake of appearances only, then let the ashes show that we have been called, not to “disfigure ourselves as the attention-getting pretenders do,” but that we have been singled out and called to serve as servants of Christ, as people who bear the Good News of his living compassion to a world yearning to be set free from sin, death, and despair.
Peace be with you!