Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

1Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near- 2a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.

12Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. 14Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God? 15Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; 16gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. 17Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep. Let them say, "Spare your people, O LORD, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, 'Where is their God?'"

Isaiah 58:1-12

1Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. 2Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. 3"Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. 4Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. 5Is such the fast that I choose, 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?
6Is not this the fast that 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? 7Is 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?
8Then 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. 9Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

Psalm 51:1-17

1Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 4Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. 5Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. 6You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. 7Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 9Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 10Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. 11Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 12Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. 13Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. 14Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. 15O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. 16For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. 17The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

1 Corinthians 5:20-6:10

20bWe entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 6:1As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2For he says, "At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you." See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 3We are putting no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see--we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

1Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2"So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

16And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 19Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

All Scriptures quoted from the New Revised Standard Version.

Welcome to the darkest season of the Church. Lent. A time when we're not allowed to say "Allelel-ja" in worship. A time when many churches close their shutters, and we seek a way to approach God with a contrite heart. A time when we are told that we are dust, and we will soon be dust again. So why observe Lent?

While many of us are new to the seasons of the Church, we probably have an idea of what Lent involves: giving up something for 40 days and trying to be sad before Easter, right? Basically, a baptized version of a New Year's resolution with a defined end point. I know that description is a little blunt, but as a Baptist kid, with predominantly free church friends growing up, that's what we knew. To be honest, I felt like I usually got the short end of the stick in Lent: after about 12 or 13, every year someone at my birthday party would be holding fast to a Lenten commitment and not be able to eat ice cream or cake, or drink a soda. It didn't seem very fair.

As time went on, I tried to spiritualize the meaning of the season more, but generally it seemed like the same concept: give up something, try really hard, let your Bible Study group know how hard you tried, then walk into Easter smug because of the best effort you gave. I've been challenged recently to think of Lent in a different light, especially with this year's Lectionary reading for Ash Wednesday. The goal of Lent is not looking Christian on social media. It's not about improving yourself or getting thinner. It's not about giving something up to make Jesus happy. It's not. If you spent today thinking up the most spiritual thing you could do, or the hardest thing you could give up so your friends, or your God, would like you or be impressed, then don't do it. God will love you, for all eternity, regardless of what you give up or take on this Lent.

So, why Lent? Our sin is a big deal. Our lives are temporary. We spend much of our time, whether we realize it or not, contributing to systems that keep minorities oppressed, keep the poor hungry, and make the sick even sicker. We know this, we write this, we type this in blogs, but we don't actually care. If we cared, we would repent of our sin, we would care for the poor, and we would seek to break the chains that enslave those we ignore. Lent is the time to understand the weight of these grievances, the weight of our humanity. It is a time to fast and pray that God would give us the grace to move forward. As Frederick Buechner put it, "True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, 'I'm sorry,' than to the future and saying, 'Wow!'"

Or, as the writer of third Isaiah testifies to God saying, "Is not this the fast that 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?" Yes, Lent is all about fasting, sometimes a fast of the things we think of, but sometimes, our fast for Lent should be from the things we do that oppress the poor. Lent is all about our righteousness before God, but when Jesus speaks in today's passage, He tells us to pray and be righteous before God in the quietness of our house. It's not about how long we can get into our fast, to brag to everyone we know. It's not about showing off our ashes today. It's not about letting social media know what is happening. This Lent, let's give up crafting beautiful online lives, and perfect images of ourselves, and let's take on a practice of caring about those we ignore. Let's be brutally honest, radically humble, and tirelessly working for God's justice in the world.

From dust you were formed and to dust you will return. Praise be to God.


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