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Ash Wednesday 2018

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Lent is my favorite season of the church year. It demands stillness, quiet, reflection, hard truth-telling. Things that I’m not always so good at if unprompted.

In a culture that has grown so individualistic that anything goes as long as it’s what I want, Lent requires me to pause and consider how my actions affect others.

Lent is a time for reading by candle light, listening to soft lilting music, and watching as winter surely turns to spring.

Lent is an invitation to engage the people and the creation around us in ways that are meaningful, intentional, and centering.

And. Lent has become a bit of a problem.

The narrative around Lent has become one of simplistic deprivation—we deny ourselves—usually of some sort of food. The first, and sometimes only question we ask regarding Lent is “what are you giving up this year?” And then, maybe later, did you succeed? As if willpower or success are the greatest spiritual good we could ever achieve.

Personally, I have given up everything from soda to self-pity over the years, only to gladly welcome these back into my life on Easter morning… if I made it that far.

But I gotta say… this mindset of Lenten depravation just doesn’t resonate me with anymore.

And this year especially, with Ash Wednesday falling right on Valentine’s Day, I think we’re being called to reexamine the glorification of fasting—because, y’all, I’mma eat some chocolate tonight!—and perhaps focus on how Lent is a call to engage in practices of love.

Because this season—still my favorite—is about more than simply giving something up.

In fact, St. John Chrysostom said, "No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great."

We might continue with: no matter how many TV shows we stop watching, or days we turn off Facebook, no matter the foods or drinks we forgo, the things we don’t buy, or the many and various other ways we can enact the tradition of fasting—no matter how noble our intentions—if these practices are not linked to our relationships with God and others—to improving the world around us—they are hollow acts.

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The good news here is that neither God nor the church particularly needs us to give up our favorite food or TV show for Lent. If doing so will bring you closer to God, by all means, go for it! But you are no less a Christian if you decide to keep on eating chocolate over the next few weeks.

The challenging word today is that a harder fast is requested of us in the days ahead.

We are being invited to go deeper this year.

To rend our hearts, not our clothing.

To return to God with humility—knowing we haven’t loved others or ourselves as we ought.

To notice and mourn that which is heartbreaking in our world.

And friends, there is no shortage.

The ash we’re about to receive on our foreheads will remind us that we did indeed come from dust, and one day we will be dust again, and we receive this reminder of our mortality—our imperfection—in the midst of a nation at war with itself, with casualties everywhere. Black and brown bodies at almost constant risk. Women and LGBTI siblings living anxious, besieged. Those who are poor, cast aside entirely. Our elders too often left without recognition of their wisdom. Religious, class, racial, and of course political strife. Everywhere.

And just today, another school shooting. The eighteenth so far... this year.

We routinely fail to recognize and honor our common humanity, and so, today we are reminded in heartbreaking and certain terms. We. Are. All. Dust.

This year especially, Lent is a time to practice love, which means fasting from indifference about all these things. Paying attention to hard truths. Owning them. And adopting practices, traditionally known as “disciplines,” that will draw us closer to our neighbors, and therefore closer to God, who is always busy making the world a more beautiful, generous, loving place.

 

Through prayer and worship, through study and reflection, through service and action, and perhaps through a type of fasting too, we are being invited into a time of disciplined practice.

Like yoga… But Jesus-ier.

And so this Lent, may we fast from fear and hatred.

From suspicion and self-interest.

From indifference and inaction.

And may we adopt practices that generate awareness, love, and deepened community.

Gratitude.

Generosity.

Mercy.

Justice.

Unconditional love for others AND for ourselves—every bit of our mortal, imperfect selves.

This is how God loves, and as we draw nearer to God we’ll learn to love this way, too.

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So much more than deprivation, Lent is an invitation to engage.

So I won’t ask what you’re giving up for the season. But rather, what will you do—what will we do, together—with these forty days?

They are a gift. Thanks be to God for this most holy time.

Amen.

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