Thursday, March 02, 2017

Finding the Secret Place - a sermon for Ash Wednesday 2017

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

“The Lord spoke to Adam in the Garden, “Because you have … eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it’, cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of the ground all the days of your life.  Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the plants of the field.  By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of [the ground] you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Genesis 3:17-19 NRSV

In that proclamation of our reality apart from our Creator, “You are dust”, a profound separation was being acknowledged which had taken place in the Garden not only between Heaven and earth, but also between human existence and Divine purpose.  Humanity had been given all which would be needed for sustenance, but it would still not come as easily as we may imagine.  The man was very deliberately placed in the Garden “to till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15).  The Lord then determined the man would need help, so the woman was created from the man as a “helper and a partner” (Genesis 2:18); each created interdependently one to the other and both to The Lord, the Creator Himself.  Both created with deliberate intention and purpose.

We should see, then, that humanity did not crawl from a swamp by some evolutionary accident to do nothing more than to exist until the next cycle of evolution would take place.  There was – there is - Divine Purpose in all of Creation from the start.  It was Life itself, the breadth and depth and fullness and meaning of which would come only from the Creator.

So Life itself and all its fullness was set into motion by the Hand and Breath of God with a measure of independence but also with certain restrictions - not as a means of testing faith but as a means of strengthening the interdependence of the relationship not only between the man and the woman in common purpose but also the strengthening of the relationship between The Creator and creation – and for this reason: for us to come to fully know who we really are. 

In this segment of the Creation story we see not only the violation of interdependence between The Lord and humanity, but we also see the man and the woman once united in common purpose turn against each other!  What’s more, the woman herself sought to blame an external force for this break as the man blamed the woman.  Neither was willing to accept responsibility for the desecration of this relationship, and yet the damage had been done – not by the serpent but by the choices they each freely made.

Although humanity was evicted from Paradise, it cannot be said humanity was altogether rejected.  From that moment The Lord had determined to restore entirely the relationship which had been damaged by human pride and vanity.  It was The Lord’s determination – not man’s - that by the blessing of Creation itself, humanity was always meant to be in intimate relationship with the Creator.

So we fast-forward to this moment known as Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Season of Lent.  Though we are redeemed in Christ Jesus, we nevertheless undertake this discipline to look deeply within ourselves and reexamine once again the relationship which was, in the beginning, created in all its glory and perfection in The Word.  We are challenged to examine this relationship and those still-existing external forces – those things from which we fast - that constantly compete for our attention and devotion and ultimately degrade the Divine relationship we have with our God.

Fasting and prayer as the means of introspection are the hallmarks of Lent.  Jesus teaches about these disciplines not as ancient practices no longer applicable to the people of The Lord but as practices that are still-relevant means of grace, the ways by which we seek to overcome our human impulses, recognize the external forces for what they are, and reconnect to our Source of Life and living.  It is the nature of these practices which help us to strengthen the relationship we have been created for, the covenantal relationship we have been baptized into, the relationship we must jealously protect at all cost – the relationship we, more often than not, take for granted.

Within Jesus’ teachings on prayer and fasting, however, is the most interesting component of all Jesus teaches: the “secret place” in which our Father sees us.  The “quiet room” of prayer, or, better stated, the most intimate place in our hearts where no one – and no thing - but The Lord should be found.  It is that place in which Jesus as The Word and the Father as the Breath of Life will “come and make Our home with those who love Me and keep My Word” (John 14:23).

It is within this “secret place” where we are fed, and it is this “secret place” from which the Truth will spring forth if we will give ourselves over to these intimate moments.  We are reminded in these quiet moments of our need for our God and for one another in the fullness and accountability of the Church.  It is within this “secret place” where we are reminded of our sacred value not only according to the Image in which we are created but also according to the Divine Purpose for which we are called forth as individuals and as the Church, the Body of Christ in the world today.

Unpleasant as it is, however, we are reminded on this solemn Day that apart from our Creator, apart from our Source of Being, apart from the Living Word Himself, we can be nothing more than the dust from which we came, the dust to which our mortal bodies will return.  We are reminded of our own failures in the failure of Adam and Eve when, even in the face of Eternity and in the Promise of Paradise, they chose the human vanity of worldly wisdom and the temporal nature of carnal pleasure. 

More importantly, however, we are reminded even in the sorrow of our grief and in the midst of our failures, that our God relentlessly calls out: “Return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing … for The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:12-13).

“Repent, and believe the Gospel”, says our Lord Jesus, and we will from this moment be made whole!  Amen.

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