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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Unburied Treasure

Lent calls us to a true discipline, an unburying of the true treasures of our heart so that our lives are ordered by what truly matters, by living as the children of God our Lord has made us.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Ash Wednesday; texts: Psalm 51:1-17; Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

Have you ever found yourself wondering about Ash Wednesday practices while listening to the Gospel for Ash Wednesday?  Every year I find it an awkward moment when I, with a dark cross of ashes newly implanted upon my forehead, read “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. . . . But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face . . .”  So says our Lord.

The Old Testament readings aren’t any less awkward.  We’re given two choices by the lectionary, either a reading from Joel 2 or one from Isaiah 58, the one we heard tonight.  Joel urges the people to “rend their hearts, not their garments.”  (Tearing one’s robes was a sign of mourning and fasting and repentance.)  And Isaiah sounds a lot like Jesus: “Is such the fast that I choose,” says the Lord, “a day to humble oneself?  Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?  Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”  And Isaiah goes on to say that the acceptable fast is to end injustice, to stop oppression, and to welcome and care for the homeless poor.

Meanwhile we’re all sitting here with ashes on our foreheads, and perhaps even pondering what we’ll give up for Lent, what fast we will undergo.  It all feels, as I’ve said, a little awkward.  I’ve often preached about the ashes we receive today, about their importance; I did so last year.  But throughout my ministry I’ve never quite faced in my preaching the sense of this disconnect between our readings for the day and our practices of the day, and of Lent.

What’s going on in these readings is actually well worth our exploring.  Joel, Isaiah, Jesus, and most of the prophets seemed to criticize worship practices, and life practices, that the faithful, religious people did.  We could take that as simply what it seems, a criticism of the practices themselves.  But if we look deeper, we see that the problem isn’t the practices.  The problem seems to be that the practices have become the only thing, and there is nothing flowing from them into the people’s lives, nothing life-giving, restoring, or justice-making coming out of them.

And that’s a real problem for Jesus and the others.  We’re a congregation with a rich liturgical life, and a congregation which finds meaning and strength from our shared rituals here.  If anyone needs to understand what concerns our Lord Jesus and the prophets, it might be we who worship here.

We don’t have time to look at all our practices, so let’s simply think about what we do today, and what we do or don’t do in Lent.

Lent is a time throughout the history of its practice in the Church where people gave things up for the duration of the season.  This grew out of a practice of legitimate and serious fasting.  In the Orthodox Church today it still is a pretty serious practice of fasting from a number of foods and life practices.

Lent also was often a time of preparing catechumens – new believers – for baptism, and correspondingly it was a time for the whole Church to practice a time of discipline and austerity in preparation for the Paschal feast.

In modern times in the Western Church, especially among non-Catholics, the “giving up” is not necessarily a fast, but it’s an abstaining from something for a time.  In our family, since we had children, we’ve given up fast food for Lent.  Some years we’ve given up desserts.  But Hannah’s birthday always is in Lent, so we had to make accommodations.

For Catholics, it was and is often more serious.  I remember growing up how the schools would serve fish on Fridays, and how my Catholic friends took that very seriously.  Of course, in times past having fish on Fridays was a year-round discipline.  And today even McDonald’s has Filet-o-Fish specials on Fridays in Lent.  Even marketers find this an attractive option!

So we receive ashes today, remembering our mortality, we confess our sins, and last Sunday we put away Alleluia from our worship until we sing it again at Easter.  And some of us might consider the notion of giving something up for Lent.  That’s about it.

And when I put it that way, I think I start to understand the concern Jesus and the prophets have.  This seems pretty light, not challenging at all, and it isn’t at all clear to me that any of this actually has an impact on our lives, changes us, or makes a difference in the world.

In a powerful statement, Jesus says that the question we should consider has to do with our hearts, what we truly love and value, what we treasure.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” he says.  In some ways all our practices I’ve described are outer observances.  Jesus seems more interested in what happens inside, in the journey of faith we take in our hearts.  Putting on ashes, giving up a food item for six weeks, these are things that we can do without having to think very hard at all.  And certainly without changing in any significant way.

But Jesus invites us to a deeper observance.

The giving of alms quietly so the gift is given but no notice is taken of it by others.

Prayer that isn’t done so others can see it, but done for our connection with our Father in heaven.

And fasting that isn’t done in public, but in private.  I remember a group at Gustavus held a fast for world hunger where people didn’t eat for a day and gave the money they’d have spent to world hunger.  I did it, but I wouldn’t wear the sticker they handed out.  It said, “Be nice to me, I’m fasting today.”  It seemed ridiculous to advertise about it, to beg sympathy for a faith practice.  Even more, it’s not what Jesus would have us do.

But when we consider Isaiah alongside Jesus’ admonitions, and consider the rest of Jesus’ teaching, what we’re invited to undertake is even deeper than private giving, prayer and fasting.  For the prophets, worship and ritual without doing justice and working to restore God’s creation is worthless to God.

Listen again to Isaiah: “Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”  Doesn’t that remind you of Matthew 25, where Jesus says that to care for him is to care for the least of his brothers and sisters, feeding, giving drink, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoners?

So the problem the Triune God has with our worship and ritual isn’t with the worship and ritual themselves.  The problem is if our worship of God doesn’t change how we then live.  If what we do in Lent or at any time doesn’t profoundly shape our actions in the world, profoundly re-shape our hearts to be like the heart of God, profoundly shape our thinking and doing and being.

We sing David’s psalm of confession each Ash Wednesday.  Presumably David didn’t say those words, “Create in me a clean heart,” just as words to say.  Presumably he actually wanted to be given a clean heart, a renewed spirit, because his current heart and spirit were broken and sinful and not what God hoped to see and know.

So what we want to think about for our Lenten discipline is perhaps how it might truly be a Lenten discipline.  How what we do from today until Easter might not only bring us closer to God’s grace but also begin to re-make us, disciple us.

In short, our Lenten discipline could conceivably unbury the treasure God has planted in our hearts and bring it to light so it guides our lives.

And fasting is the discipline that for centuries the Church has valued for its ability to turn us away from ourselves and toward God.  But it’s only effective if we are fasting from things that our heart truly desires above God, things that draw us from God’s concern for the world, things that draw us to center on ourselves.

Food can do that, and the discipline of fasting for times from certain items, or even from all food, can be helpful reminders of our mortality, our need.  When you hunger for something and consciously choose not to eat it, you force yourself to remember why you’re doing this.

But it might be helpful, in addition to possible food choices, to consider what fasting we might do that could help us even more in our discipline.

What attitudes or habits do we have and treasure that we know are not of God, that are self-centered or that lead us to forget the poor, forget to care for the vulnerable ones, or that lead us on paths away from love of God and love of neighbor?  If you’re like me, thinking of changing such things for a lifetime is a daunting prospect.  But what if we picked one, or two if we’re brave, and simply prayed that God help us commit to change this thing about us for the time of Lent?  Six weeks, and no one needs to know except you and God.  Six weeks, not a lifetime.  But think of the change it could accomplish.

And what acts of justice and peace could we pick up just for this time, this season, that we currently do not do?  Things which we put off, or don’t consider in the busy schedules of our lives, but that we might be able to try for six weeks.  We could combine a giving up of food with an increase in giving to world hunger.  We could give up time that we use for self-centered pursuits and use that time for being with or helping another.

There are endless possibilities, and again, if you’re like me, you’ve thought of some things you could be or do but just haven’t taken the time to start.  Things that look very much like the “fast” Isaiah says God truly wants to see from us, and that Jesus preaches.  Why wouldn’t we take these six weeks and pray that God help us in this one area, this one thing?  Think of the change it could accomplish.

Of course, the six weeks will end, and we’ll celebrate Easter.  But I suspect if we truly find some disciplines that actually discipline, we will be changed far beyond Easter day.  We will find the Spirit has actually grown us more as disciples.  We might even discover that we don’t want to stop doing what we began six weeks before, but even want to add other things.

Because if we unbury the real treasures of our heart and follow them, who knows what God will do with us.

That’s the real possibility of this Lenten journey, and really the only point in having a Lenten journey.  That it becomes for us a life-changing walk with the Holy Spirit, and a transformation from a life focused on ourselves to a life lived in the rich and gracious love of God, and the transforming experience of loving our neighbor.  A life that learns to model the self-giving love that led the Son of God to the cross, which looms ahead six weeks from now.

And that seems like a fast worth doing, with the help of God.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

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