Sermon for 2/13/13: Ash Wednesday
Loving God, help us to keep a holy Lent: to learn more about ourselves and our neighbors, to pray with open hearts and to do what is acceptable in your eyes that your light shall break forth like the dawn and we will see your glory in all we do. Amen. One of the most frequent questions I get as a seminarian is “What is Lent”? If this were a Sunday school class, I might ask you to shout out words or phrases that you think of when I ask you what Lent means to you. Perhaps you might say, “40 days” or “penitence” or “purple” or, most likely, “giving something up.” The custom of self-sacrifice and fasting is an ancient one. As you will hear in a few minutes, the first Christians instituted Lent as a season of “penitence and fasting” for all Christians, but especially for those who had committed “notorious” sins and were separated from the church. It was the custom for those people to wear hair shirts for the entire 40 days. Those shirts were sprinkled with the ashes from burned palms left over from Palm Sunday. So, for them, the focus was on penitence.
In modern times, the focus of Lent seems to have shifted to one of self-denial. Most Christians I know give up something for Lent. In fact, I came across an article on the internet entitled “The top 5 things people give up for Lent.” Number one? Chocolate – followed by cigarettes, alcohol, Facebook, television, and junk food. I suspect that most of us have given up at least one of those things for Lent in the past – I know I have. And that’s fine – but why do we do it? Why do we pick what we do to give up for Lent? The Prayer Book doesn’t really tell us. It encourages “self-denial” but it doesn’t say why we should deny ourselves. The reasoning I grew up with was this: if you fast or give up something, every time you miss it, you think of Jesus and his much greater sacrifice for us. If we’re hungry and tired after fasting for one day, think how much Jesus suffered during his 40 day fast. This makes sense – and probably works for most of us – but it still doesn’t tell us how to choose what to give up. And here’s the problem with it: I suspect – no, I confess, that the things we give up for Lent are things that we think we should do anyway, but need something to motivate us. For many of us, they are leftover New Year’s resolutions that we have already given up on. I have actually said, “I can’t do it for vanity, or for my health, but I can do it for God.” Like God cares if I eat chocolate. I’m sure there are many people who use the tradition of giving up something to become closer to God – but I’m also sure that for many of us giving up something is more of an exercise of willpower than a path to spiritual growth.
A few years ago I decided to try “taking on” something in addition to giving something up. I will admit that it’s often something that I am working on anyway – like trying not to compete with my sister – but it’s also often harder than giving up something because it requires thinking – and praying. It requires me to lean on God to do it – and it provides a sense of love and hope that giving up chocolate never could. Isaiah tells us that God does not want us to be dismal and cranky during Lent. God does not want us to fast if fasting separates us from one another and from God. Isaiah tells us that an acceptable fast is not about giving up – it’s about giving – and it’s about joy. A wise friend of my recently told me that her new credo is “joy every day.” She said, “I have to remember that it’s not about weight or exercise or being too busy or anything else. It’s about finding joy every day.”
This Lent I encourage you to find joy every day: to use this time to draw nearer to one another and to our God. Give something up if it helps you to do this – but remember to give something out too. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.” Amen.
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