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Friday, February 2, 2018

Ash Wednesday February 14, 2018


At this, the acceptable time, O God so rich in mercy, we gather in solemn assembly to receive the announcement of the Lenten spring, and the ashes of mortality and repentance. Let the elect, exulting, to the waters of salvation; guide the penitent, rejoicing, to the healing river; carry us all to the streams of renewal. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year A, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.

Some Thoughts on Matthew 6:1-21

"In Jesus' prayer we are connected and bonded with each other. We find our health, our integrity, and our righteousness; that is true piety."

"Preaching on the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:1-8)," Irving J. Arnquist and Louis R. Flessner, Word & World: Theology for Christian Ministry, Luther Northwestern Theological School, 1990.

"What are we praying for when we pray for God's kingdom to come?"

"Thy Kingdom Come: Living the Lord's Prayer," N.T. Wright, The Christian Century, 1997.

"That piety should be a private matter is a radical not to say revolutionary idea. It goes totally against the cultural grain. For traditional piety is something performed for others to see. In Roman culture, pietas referred to the public veneration of the gods. Without such a display from prominent citizens, what would happen to the traditional values that were associated with the gods? Pietas was the cultural glue, holding all things in place. How could there be law and order without it?"

"The Call to Secret Service (Matthew 6:1-18)," John C. Purdy. Chapter 4 inReturning God's Call: The Challenge of Christian Living. At Religion Online.

Oremus Online NRSV Gospel Text

If we were reading along in the scripture and we arrived at our passage for this Ash Wednesday we would see the continued conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. The religious hierarchy have set themselves above the faith and have become, if you will, arbiters of piety. They are the intermediaries between God and God's people.

Jesus has been expanding and expounding on the nature of the law revealed by the messiah and now he turns to talk a little about how Christians should live with one another. What we have in our passage are the characteristics of a Christian community according to Jesus; and they are contrasted with the practices of these other religious leaders. Of course we are doomed to exhibit the same tendencies at our very worst but we have here some outlined behaviors that should at least set our trajectory.

Don't get in other people's faces about how you are better than them when it comes to prayer, believing, and the rest of it. After all, living a Christian life benefits God and others. Here are a couple of examples of what not to do...

Example One: Just be a good steward and don't brag about it.
Example Two: Don't be verbose in your praying. It is a real turn off to God an others.
Example Three: Please pray privately and sincerely.
Example Four: God knows what you need so you don't have to always be telling God out loud.
Example Five: Don't look dismal and sad. Look happy and enjoy your relationship with God.
Example Six: Remember that what matters is the love of God, the love of neighbor - these are the treasures worth having.
All of this is because good works are done for God and on behalf of others. This service is purely for the reward of doing what is good and well in the eyes of God and not for a community's lauds or glory.

What we have in our reading today is very good and it is the parenthesis between Matthew's teaching on the Lord's prayers.

I say this because in my mind it helps to frame what Jesus is teaching about prayer. The reality is that Jesus' prayer is very powerful when seen through the eyes of the overall passage and its meaning is much greater than the by rote version we say without thought most Sundays. So, here is a meditation on Jesus' Prayer with an eye to Matthew's Gospel and to the passage for Ash Wednesday.

Jesus’ Prayer
In the Episcopal Church, the Lord’s Prayer--the prayer Jesus taught his disciples--is central to our common life of prayer. It is present in all of our private and corporate services of worship, and is often the first prayer children learn. With the simplest of words, Jesus teaches those who follow him all they need to know about prayer, as they say:

“Our Father”: Our Father, because we are to seek as intimate a relationship with God as Jesus did. We are can develop this intimate love with God, recognizing we are children of God and members of the family of God.

“Who art in heaven”: We are reminded of our created nature as a gift from heaven. Life is given to us from God, who is quite beyond us. We recognize in this short phrase that we are not God. Rather, the God we proclaim is a God who makes all things and breathes life into all things.

“Hallowed be thy name”: In response to the grace of being welcomed into God’s community, bowing humbly and acknowledging our created nature, we recognize the holiness of God. We proclaim that God’s name is hallowed.

“Thy kingdom come”: We ask and seek God’s kingdom. The words of Jesus remind us that, like the disciples’ own desires to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus, this is not our kingdom. The reign of God is not what you and I have in mind. We beg, “God, by your power bring your kingdom into this world. Help us to beat our swords into ploughshares that we might feed the world. Give us strength to commit as your partners in the restoration of creation, not how we imagine it, but in the way you imagine it.”

“Thy will be done”: We bend our wills to God’s, following the living example of Jesus Christ. We ask for grace to constantly set aside our desires and take on the love of God’s reign. We pray, “Let our hands and hearts build not powers and principalities but the rule of love and care for all sorts and conditions of humanity. Let us have a measure of wisdom to tear down our self-imposed walls and embrace one another, as the lion and the lamb lay down together in the kingdom of God.”

“On earth as it is in heaven”: We ask God to give us eyes to see this kingdom vision, and then we ask for courage and power to make heaven a reality in this world. We pray to God, “Create in us a will to be helping hands and loving hearts for those who are weary and need to rest in you. May our homes, our churches, and our communities be a sanctuary for the hurting world to find shelter, to find some small experience of heaven.”

“Give us this day our daily bread”: In prayer we come to understand that we are consumers. We need, desire, and just want many things. In Christ, we are reminded that all we need is our daily bread. So we pray, “O God, help us to be mindful that you provide for the lilies of the field and you provide for us. As we surrender our desires, help us to provide daily bread for those who have none today.”

“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”: Sanity and restoration are possible only because God forgives us. Because of that sacrificial forgiveness--made real in the life and death of Jesus--we can see and then share mercy and forgiveness. Then we can pray, “God, may I understand your call to me personally to offer sacrificial forgiveness to all those I feel have wronged me. I want to know and see my own fault in those broken relationships. May I be the sacrament of your grace and forgiveness to others.”

“Lead us not into temptation”: As Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge and replaced God with their own understanding of reality, we need help turning away from our own earthly and political desires and turning toward the wisdom of God in Christ Jesus. So we ask, “We are so tempted to go the easy way, to believe our desires are God’s desires. We have the audacity to assume we can know God’s mind. Show us your way and help us to trust it.”

“And deliver us from evil”: Only God can deliver us from evil. There is darkness in the world around us. We know this darkness feeds on our deepest desire: to be God ourselves. That deceptive voice affirms everything we do and justifies our actions, even when they compromise other people’s dignity. It whispers and tells us we possess God’s truth and no one else does. We must pray, “God, deliver us from the evil that inhabits this world, the weakness of our hearts, and the darkness of our lives, that we might walk in the light of your Son.”

“For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen”: Without God, we are powerless. So we devote our lives to God, resting in the power of God’s deliverance. We humbly ask, “Help us to see your glory and beauty in the world, this day and every day. Amen.”

Using prayers like this one, Jesus modeled a life of prayer as work, and work as prayer. The apostles and all those who have since followed him have sought a life of prayer. They have engaged in prayer that discerns Jesus’ teachings and then molded their lives into the shape of his life. We can take up the same vocation and become people whose lives are characterized by daily and fervent prayer. Indeed we reflect and acknowledge the centrality of prayer and work in our own commitment to God when we say, “I will, with God’s help, continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.” [This is an excerpt from Unabashedly Episcopalian.]

Some Thoughts on 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:20

"First, what does Paul mean about reconciliation in this passage? How does the church today demonstrate in various ways the practice of reconciliation -- including liturgically, ethically, practically and theologically?"

Commentary, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-16:10, Susan Hedahl, Preaching This Week,, 2013.

"When we receive the cross on our forehead on Ash Wednesday, we are invited to remember that it is in Christ (5:17, 19) and through Christ (5:18) that reconciliation is possible. Yet, we are also invited to remember that as we leave the church with the seal of the cross of Christ, we are Christ's ambassadors of reconciliation."

Commentary, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-16:10, Karoline Lewis, Preaching This Week,, 2009.

One of the things that has happened to us in our culture is that we think not about whom we represent.  Yet, we represent (as Christians) Jesus Christ to the world.  This lack of mindfulness is complex; yet for the world in many respects God in Christ Jesus is not the problem for Christianity but rather it is his followers that create the stumbling block.  This passage is about the life of Grace which transforms the Christian first.

We are ambassadors for Christ.  In Paul's setting this would have meant that we are the oldest and wisest of Christ's children.  We represent Christ but not in the worst way but on behalf of him in the very best of manners.  This is difficult to do if we are always at war with ourselves.  It is hard to be Christ's representative if we can't represent Christ to one another; which means forgiving one another and offering Grace.  We are the great law givers rather than the donors of grace.  So what do we do?  How do we get there? How do we make room for the other?

We like Christ must give grace, make room for grace, and offer grace.  However, before we can do this we must receive Grace.  This is easier said than done.  We must really and truly receive the saving Grace of Christ; this means allowing God to love and save us in our mess and not waiting for perfection.  We are truly saved and perfected through the grace we receive. We are made a new creation by God if we will but let him.  Instead of performing for God or hoping that God will deliver us out of our "labors and sleepless nights" we are invited instead to live under the umbrella of God's Grace; within the saving embrace of God.  When we do this Paul believes the other things will fall into place.

We don't become the new creation and then we get grace.  Instead we allow ourselves to receive God's Grace and we become new.  We don't live and so we don't die.  We die to our desire to be perfect and so we live in the Grace of God who takes us just as we are.  It is this reversal of the world's economy of salvation that enables us to be alive, joyful, satisfied, and content.

When life is lived with the mantle of God's Grace upon our shoulders then we are beautiful and resplendent ambassadors of Christ to the world.  When we live in Grace we give grace freely, we share life freely, we embrace the other freely, we see there is enough and offer plenty of good things freely.  This is the life lived as a new creation, this is the life of Grace. This is the life of ambassadorship.

Some Thoughts on Isaiah 58:1-12

"We've been hearing about incarnation and God-with-us throughout Advent and Epiphany. Lectionary passages during Epiphany tell us something about this God who has been revealed in Jesus Christ."

Commentary, Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12), Amy Oden, Preaching This Week,, 2011.

"Given that the Gospel Lesson for this Fifth Sunday after Epiphany reminds us that Jesus did not come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets, we might consider one of these ancient, Hebrew Scriptures for our ...."

Commentary, Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12), Tyler Mayfield, Preaching This Week,, 2017.

Remember, that we have this passage from Epiphany 5A. Here are my reflections on the passage, now adapted for Ash Wednesday:

This passage is written while the Israelites are divided, most in exile in Babylon and a few in the homeland. The prophet invites, and God invites the people to remain faithful. God is faithful and God will move on behalf of God’s people.

While the people see faithfulness as turning inward and to God by fasting, God and Isaiah offer these words:

“[God desires a fast that] looses 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?” God offers a mirror to the people an is clear – when you do none of these things you are most unlike your God and the people you are meant to be.

Remembering Jeremiah and other prophets over the past months, we know that God see righteousness not as simple religious faithfulness but as acts of bounty where people take care of the oppressed, loosen the yoke of another, help with food for the hungry, roofs for the homeless, and clothing for the naked. Here Isaiah prophesies that these are the kinds of true fasting and sacrifices that God declares as righteousness.

When this happens Isaiah tells the people: “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.”

God desires that people, “remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if 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.” Light is the light of God’s actions through his people. Light comes by means of work of the faithful for the other.

When nations forget their most vulnerable they shall lie in ashes and sackcloth. When the vulnerable are cared for light, life, and the rebuilding of community are the results. Foundations of generosity will lead to generations of strength among the people.

The Luke writes in his Gospel that this release of people who suffer is key to the very nature of God and especially to the person and mission of Christ Jesus. When in chapter 4, Jesus opens the scroll to read in the temple it is Isaiah 61 with the addition of this passage. What is made clear in Luke’s analysis and use in the narrative is that God has been about the work and care of the poor, oppressed, homeless, helpless, and most vulnerable. God in Christ Jesus continues this mission of righteousness (the caring of others). The jubilee promised to the slaves in Egypt, and the jubilee promised to the people in Babylon is the same jubilee promised for all people under the yoke of Christ. (Richard B Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, 224ff)

Release is not only for prisoners (Isaiah 61) but release for all people who are broken and burdened (Isaiah 58). This is a freedom bought on the cross and given through the Holy Spirit to all people. As we smudge ashes upon our foreheads it is to remember deeply the gift of the Holy Cross and the gift we are to be for others in bringing release. The promise to Abraham and the of Moses and Isaiah now is to be fulfilled in ministry of Jesus and the inclusion of the whole world. Moreover, that the disciples in the wake of Jesus’ ministry are to continue the work of release – this same faithfulness and righteousness will be the hallmark of the every continuing body of Christ in the world.

Some Thoughts on Joel 2:1-8

"Judah has been crippled by an agricultural drought sent by God through locusts. So, they need literal rain. However, they and we need spiritual rain much more. This is the greatest gift that we can receive in spite of all of our other perceived needs."

Commentary, Joel 2:12-17, Martha Simmons, The African American Lectionary, 2010.

" We, like Israel in the time of Joel, are in need of repentance, for their lives and ours are far from the paths that God has established for us.

Locusts and Lent, Reflections on Ash Wednesday from Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, John C. Holbert, Patheos, 2011.

"Joel has confidence that ritual repentance can change the course of the history of God's people because he believes the old confessional formula: [God] is gracious and merciful, Slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, And relents from punishing. (2:13)."

Commentary, Joel 2:1-12, 12-17, Rolf Jacobson, Preaching This Week,, 2008.

Some of you may chose to go a different route and preach on Joel this Ash Wednesday. Let us remember that Joel, while not mentioned any where else, is a prophet and is one focused on the centrality of the Temple. There is a lot of conversation about when he wrote among scholars, but most think it was after the Babylonian captivity and during the rebuilding of the culture of Israel.

In our passage today Joel introduces himself, then immediately calls the people into a time of repentance - priests and all.  The end is near, he says, sound the alarm, and repent. Joel reminds his hearers that god is gracious and merciful but if their evil ways continue God will not hold back the end that is coming. Signs, plagues, locusts...these should be a warning that God is not happy with what has become of his people.

There is a real sense here that when the world is good to a few, God will judge against them. The history of Israel is one that has repeatedly reminded the chosen that God requires of them mercy and to do good works. The society, the community, is to take care of the least and lost. When it does not do this it will bring its own destruction down upon them. This is an underlying theme here in this passage. The judgement of the reign of God will not fall kindly upon those who have had theirs in this life.

This is a good lesson if you intend to really bring down the fire and brimstone upon the heads of the congregation. And, yet there is a piece here we don't want to forget.

Joel's warnings often get the highlight. Read again God's invitation, God's desire, God's want for his people to be in relationship with him. Hear again, how God wants amendment of life so that the community will be well and within God's embrace.

Joel prophesies:
Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
rend 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.
While Joel's invitation on God's behalf to repent takes up a lot of space in this passage. I also find these words, nestled amongst the plagues, weeping, and fasting) some of the most beautiful and touching words of scripture. Words worth memorizing in fact. Words to be heard and whispered in the good times and in the bad. Words, themselves which might very well bring us to our knees in gratitude for the mighty things God has done.

The Work of the People

Please follow the link here at TWOTP to resources for Ash Wednesday and Lent.

Previous Sermons For Ash Wednesday

You Know, I Know, God Knows: Ash Wednesday Sermon St. Thomas College Station, 2016

Welcome to Humanity: Ash Wednesday sermon preached at Episcopal High School Houston, and Christ Church Cathedral 12:05 Service

Dust, Ashes, Dry Bones, and God's Whisper: Sermon preached at Christ Church Cathedral, Houston, Tx on Ash Wednesday 2014

Learning to Pray with Jesus: Ash Wednesday Sermon, Christ Church Cathedral, 2013

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