Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Ash Wednesday, Year A, 9 March 2011

Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

Before it was about anything else, the church season of Lent was about getting ready. The event had been on the calendar for months, even years in advance, and this was the time to make the final preparations for the great day.

At first it was just a day or two of preparation—the kind of last minute anticipation that makes it almost impossible to eat or sleep, because you’re just so excited. Over time it became a week of anticipation, and the whole church family would assist by preparing themselves as well, with prayers and rereading the great stories of Scripture, and worrying less about “what shall we eat, or what shall we drink” just as Jesus had said in the Sermon on the Mount. Simpler food means less time spent in the kitchen, and therefore more time to pray and study and be together; less meat on the table means less money spent on groceries, and therefore more money to give to the poor and needy.

All this fasting and prayer, reading of the Bible and caring for those in need, had a goal in mind. These were never meant to be activities for their own sake, or for the super-religious people within a given congregation. All this was—and still is—about preparing us for the event we call Easter.

And it is “event” by the way, not a series of “events.” They are all one unit. Good Friday and the Resurrection are two sides of the same coin— one cannot exist without the other. Without the Resurrection, Good Friday merely commemorates another violent death among the millions that have occurred since the world began. Without Good Friday, the Resurrection is simply a celebration of spring and flowers and birds migrating north; or as I have called it before: “Bunnies and bonnets and brunch.”

It is more—so much more than that. And the fasting and prayers, the bible study and almsgiving, are all encouraged to help us get ready for the Easter event. And particularly, all these good things to do in the season of preparation are leading toward the event we know as Holy Baptism.

Long before baptism had any associations with white lacy christening gowns, and photographs with the baby, and a special dinner, and a big beautiful cake…it was about conversion. It was about Metanoia: the realization that you were going in the wrong direction, and the moment of turning around. Not only that you were going in the wrong direction, but that you might be about to drive off of a cliff!

Wake up! Heads up! Pay attention! This is the shout of Isaiah in the first reading: All your good-doing may look very well, but you’re not changing your hearts or minds or attitudes in the slightest. Never mind all the religious activities—what about how you deal with one another? What about how you deal with those nearest to you—and those it would be easy to ignore or overlook? What about how you deal with yourselves?

Sometimes we go very far out of the way before we realize we’re lost and need to turn around. The Recovery Minstry folks among us would use the language of “hitting bottom”, when we finally, at last, figure out that to go any further in some direction will lead to death—physical or otherwise.

Sometimes it’s not nearly as dramatic as that. We realize earlier, when it is much easier to change direction, that we want to follow the way of God. When I was in middle and high school, my family attended a couple of churches that had spring and fall revival meetings. A speaker would come to preach the services, often a famous evangelist, who would share his (always his) testimony about God’s saving help delivering him from the powers of drugs or alcohol or some depravity or other—and it was always very exciting. And I remember thinking three things—all at once:

1) That’s really great—thank God for this mighty work!
2) I’m really glad I didn’t have to go through all that!
3) I kind of wish I had a story like that…that would be cool!

What I didn’t realize then was that I did have a story—about how God had worked in my life. And so do you. So do all of us.

We each have our own story to tell, to share with other people. Not to force on them by sheer brute willpower, or with the threat of damnation if they don’t accept it immediately. Not at all. But to tell someone who is going in the wrong direction, “Hey, I think I know what you’re going through. I’ve been there…let me show you something wonderful, that might help.”

For those of us who have already been baptized, Lent offers a chance to re-examine what that means.
So what—that we are washed with water and adopted into the family of Jesus?
So what—that we are anointed with oil and sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever?
So what—that sins are forgiven, and we are restored to grace and holiness of life?

So—what, indeed? What about it? What do we do with it?
What does that reality call us to do? And how are we already doing it, maybe without knowing it?

Because this is NOT about “Doing More Stuff” in order to earn God’s approval. In fact, that may be a sort of moral hoarding—salvation by busyness.

Maybe God’s call is for us to DO less. One year Shannon and I gave up church for Lent. We realized that every night of the week one or the other of us had some church activity or appointment on the calendar, and we said “this is nuts.” We agreed to come on Sundays, and Thursday night was choir rehearsal, but everything else we just said “See you after Easter.” And we spent that time together—walking and reading to each other and reconnecting. That was a very good Lent for us.

The getting-ready season is just that—getting ready for what is to come. It’s about simplifying the clutter, clearing away the trivial and the unnecessary, to make room for what is truly Important. Maybe taking on something as a cultivated habit—daily prayer, or Bible reading, or acts of service to the poor and needy—in order to honor what is truly Important. Above all it is about Paying Attention—to the story of God, revealed in the Bible, and discovering where our story—yours and mine, and ours together—is woven into that great Story.

May it be so for us; may it be so among us.

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