Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday 2012

Joel 2:12-17
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Lenten practices are foreign concepts for many of our Protestant Christian friends who do not share our traditions but do, in fact, share our biblical heritage.  It is unfortunate that even within the traditions that used to employ these practices on a grand and disciplined scale, Lenten practices such as fasting and other acts of abstinence as well as disciplined and structured time for prayer and reflection seem to have gone the way of the horseless carriage and for many of the same reasons we've granted ourselves; outdated, out of touch, unrealistic, impractical ... perhaps even useless.  Or worse; these practices such as "giving something up for Lent" as means to an end - become the "end" themselves. 

Some have even suggested that "grace" negates the necessity of such practices and has actually rendered these acts to be meaningless and futile acts of "religion".  Nothing could be further from the truth for if this were true, there would no longer be a need for Scripture study, prayer, worship, Holy Communion, or even baptism or the Church herself!  If anything, 'grace' should be THE compelling reason not only to do these things - but to do them with enthusiasm as a response to divine grace

This is the very reason why our Wesleyan heritage refers to such practices as "means of grace"; 'grace' is a small taste of a very large thing.  These "means of grace" draw us closer and closer still so that the closer we do get, the more of this wondrous thing we receive - and - the more we come to depend on it and want more of it!  Instead of looking for reasons and excuses not to participate, we should be eagerly anticipating the opportunities and the "rewards" that will surely come "from our Father who sees in secret" (Matthew 6:4) ... provided, of course, that Jesus actually knows what He is talking about!  

It is clear by Matthew's account that Jesus not only recognizes these "means" as legitimate spiritual practices, He actually commends them to us.  "Whenever (not "if") you give alms", "Whenever (not "if") you pray", and "Whenever (not "if") you fast" indicates Jesus is not suggesting we may or may not do these things.  Instead it seems a given that the Lord's people are already so engaged in practices that date back to the time of Moses - practices that are NOT "lawful curses" but "acts of righteousness"; acts even Jesus Himself took part in.  Jesus never says we don't "have" to give alms or pray or fast.  Rather it seems He assumes we already are doing these things as part of that common heritage we all share!

More than a religious practice as just something we do for its own sake, however, is the genuine need we have to reconnect with our Holy Father in a humble yet powerful way, remembering as we must the "Fall" from "grace" when humanity was ejected from Eden, evicted from "paradise" for willful disobedience, for making a "popular" choice rather than the "righteous" one. 

 Adam was so reminded, "Because you have heeded the voice of your wife [instead of remembering what I told you!] and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you saying, 'you shall not eat of it' ... cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life ... by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:17, 19).

That is the CURSE of falling away from the Lord.  That is the choice we make each time we willfully disregard His Word of "righteousness" in favor of "cultural popularity", and it is this choice which ensures that once we become "dust" we remain "dust", perhaps the very "dust" the serpent himself is cursed to "eat all the days of [his] life" (Genesis 3:14); the "dust" from whence we shall never again see the light of life.

Yet GRACE calls us forward to remember.  GRACE calls us forward to repentance, to acts of repentance, and to "bear fruit worthy of repentance" (Luke 3:8) with the confidence of the Eternal Promise that forgiveness is one sorrowful yet sweet prayer away.  GRACE is the "Lord's compassion for those who fear Him" (Psalm 103:13), as the psalmist writes: 

*Read Psalm 103:10-18
If our connection is lost as it was lost to Adam, if there are things or practices that we put more emphasis on than on the time needed to spend with the Lord, nothing of lasting value can or will come from us and we will eventually be "consumed" by the natural forces of this world (Psalm 103:16) or be cast aside as useless (Matthew 25:30).  Our Holy Father, however, has refused to surrender His beloved to such a fate without a fight and came to us in Christ, as the Eucharistic prayer goes, "to share in our humanity so that we may one day share in His divinity."  This GRACE requires more than a simple acknowledgment; this Divine Grace demands a response.

Ash Wednesday seems a rather dark day, but it is in fact and in spirit a day in which we are reminded that we have not been utterly forsaken, but we are equally reminded that perhaps we - by our chosen practices and spiritual neglect - have forsaken Him.  We are reminded that our Lord claims the better part of us even on that imminent day when we are returned to the dust from whence we came.  Let these ashes remind us - as we remind one another - that our human self will indeed perish and there is nothing we can do to stop our mortal return to the ground, but our spiritual, immortal self that was created  - and re-created in Christ - in the Divine Image, "to [those who] keep His covenant and to those who remember His commandments to do them" (Psalm 130:18) will be raised into everlasting life in the "Last Day".

Praise to our Lord, God and Father of Heaven and Earth; to Him be glory and honor forever and ever as we pray:

Almighty God and Father, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.  You are our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble.  Grant us Your blessing in this hour we share and help us to put our trust in You, that our spirits may be calmed in this world of chaos and our hearts may be comforted in this time of distress.  Lift our eyes beyond the shadows of the earth, and help us to see the light of eternity so we may find grace and strength for this and every time of need.  We ask this through Christ our Lord, Your beloved Son, Your holy and eternal Covenant.  Amen. (UM Book of Worship, #159)

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