A Lenten Journey

–The following is the text of Interim Rector Rev Thomas Kortus’s Ash Wednesday sermon.–

Ash Wednesday 2014 readings: Isaiah 58: 1-12 and Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

When you set out on a journey, it helps to know where you are going. Your destination will determine what you bring, how you travel,  what direction to head, and what turns to make. 

I love road trips! I love them because they are about the journey. They offer adventure in the unexpected destinations along the way to the expected one. They give you time and reflect on where you have been and time to prepare for where you are going. 

In 2002, Amy and I had been married for a year and we took off in our 1967 VW bus. Our bus was affectionately named Poughkeepsie. It was blue and white–and our only car at the time. We started out in Chicago (where we had just finished the school year) and we were headed home to Seattle, by way of Boston, the Outer Banks in NC, and San Diego. A bit of a roundabout route, but that is the fun and the adventure of road trips. 

We took all backroads–we wanted to see the country and we wanted to stay alive–after all top speed in our bus was about 55-60 miles per hour! We had a few events and people we had to attend and see–weddings and friends–but a lot of open road and things we wanted to do and see!  We had no air conditioning, a bed mounted in the back of the van, a propane stove, Amy’s folk harp, a compass, an atlas, and lots of boxes of mac and cheese. 

Lent is the church’s road trip. The destination is clear from the outset: Easter. Lent is a forty-day road trip. The fast of Lent is for the purpose of the feast of Easter: celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, God’s triumphant victory over sin, death, and the devil. 

And Jesus and his body, the church, have laid out a clear way for us as we journey to and prepare for the cross and resurrection. We have been given concrete instructions, stops we need to make along the way, but there is freedom and adventure on the journey. 

The way forward–our route–on this road trip of Lent involves the concrete practices of sacrificial giving, prayer, and fasting. These practices are not optional. Jesus does not say if you give or if you pray or if you fast, but WHEN

When we look back over the 2000 years of the church, these practices have been central to following Jesus! Our journey toward the most high and holy day of Easter must involve these destinations.

We see Jesus embody these practices: 

Drawing away to be with the father in prayer, so much so that the disciples ask him to teach them to pray! 

Stopping and meeting the needs of those around him, giving of his time

Ultimately giving up his own life for the life of the world 

Fasting in the wilderness

Choosing hunger and obedience to feed on the word of God rather than physical food

The Apostles followed Jesus’ example as they devoted themselves to caring for the poor, to the prayers, and the breaking of bread together and also fasting (Acts 13).  

The Didache, written in the first or second century, instructs the church to keep these practices as well, instructing the church to fast on Wednesdays and Friday: Wednesday, the day when Christ was betrayed; and Friday, the day of His Crucifixion.

St. John Chrysostom wrote, “The fathers did well when they came to our aid and established for us the practice of this Lenten Fast. As soon as the season of Lent draws near, even the laziest of men rouses himself, even though no one counsels or advises him. Why? He gets counsel from the season of Lent” (Against the Jews III:6).

Jesus teaches us How to give and pray and fast in our gospel reading. He tells us to do these things unto God our Father and not others. “Beware of practicing righteousness before other people in order to be seen by others.” He tells us that there are consequences when we pursue these practices: we are rewarded for our practices, for doing them.  

We are rewarded either here on earth if we practice our righteousness for others to see and be impressed by or in heaven when we do them discreetly and in secret for the purpose of obedience and pleasing our God and Father. Just because we proclaim a gospel of grace and gift does not mean we do not receive rewards for our actions here on earth. We are uncomfortable with this. 

Jesus clearly says we will receive rewards in heaven. 

By giving to the needy in secret

By praying behind closed doors

By fasting discreetly 

By not amassing worldly material goods

So this Lent, there is freedom for how we get to these destinations, but these are our destinations along the way to Easter. 

I want to challenge you to take Jesus’ words seriously: be intentional about giving to the needy, prayer, and fasting. Jesus lays out these practices for us for a reason and the church has handed them down to us to practice. Don’t be too ambitious, but be realistic. The Church Fathers tell us that a light rule that is observed is better than a heavy one that is soon broken and discarded.  

Our Lenten road trip also involves dust and ashes. It begins the dust and ashes. Ashes symbolize humble repentance and Dust our mortality.

On Ash Wednesday, we were invited to receive the imposition of ashes upon our foreheads. The ashes call us to humble repentance. We have all fallen short of the glory of God. None worthy of our salvation. Ashes are a biblical symbol of mourning and penance. In Bible times the custom was to fast, wear sackcloth, sit in dust and ashes, and put dust and ashes on your head. 

Our ashes were made by burning the palm fronds from Palm Sunday last year. There is significance in this: Palm Sunday was when the people rejoiced at Jesus’ triumphal entrance to Jerusalem. They celebrated his arrival by waving palm fronds, not realizing that he was coming to die for their sins. Not realizing that in a few short days their shouts of “Hosanna” would turn to “Crucify him!” By using palms from Palm Sunday, we remember we must not only rejoice at Jesus’ coming but also regret and mourn the fact that our sins made it necessary for him to die for us in order to save us. Our best intentions and worship often turn to apathy and failure. 

However, the ashes we receive are in the form of the cross.  Our sin and disobedience has been dealt with on the cross of Christ. We are marked by the cross. We belong to Jesus. 

When else do we make the sign of the cross on foreheads? In baptism: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” As you journey through Lent, know that you belong to Christ. Never forget you are his! 

As you receive the ashes you hear the words, “Remember that you art dust and to dust you shall return.” These words come from God’s address to Adam after his disobedience: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” 

These words also show up in a burial service, “Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.” In Lent we face our mortality. This life is not eternal; we will all die and we need to be ready to face our God and judge. We are but dust. There is freedom in a renewed sense of our frailty and mortality, though. Accepting our need releases us to live in dependence and in daily communion with our life and our light, our God and Father. We can do nothing without him! Embrace your dustiness this Lent! Live in constant awareness of and need for God!  

There is also a strong warning for us from the prophet Isaiah this Lent. Lent is not all about you. It is about obedience to God and loving the people around you. We are called to give, fast, pray, and devote ourselves to God, but our spiritual disciplines should never overshadow our love for others! 

Isaiah 58 is a strong indictment against Israel! They were so focused on themselves in their prayer, their fasting, their worship, their purity. But they were not present to the world they were called to be a light to and called to bless!

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps 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 him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn.”

Lent is not about you. It is about purifying yourself, yes, but for a purpose; it is about aligning your will and your desires to God’s will and what he desires! And what he desires is for you to pursue justice and live lives of compassion and proactive generosity and hospitality. 

This Lent you are called to humble repentance, prayer, fasting, giving, and facing your mortality…but these practices are not the end. They are the means to glorify God more fully in our lives and love and serve others more faithfully! 

On our epic road trip, we broke down a lot, the van overheated–it was air-cooled. VW buses are not known for their reliability! They look cool though and are incredibly functional! 

We got lost along the way, we snuck into campgrounds to use their showers, we were homesick–you name it. But we were together–sharing the driving, keeping each other awake. We stopped off at friends’ homes, called strangers whose names we found on the internet to help us fix our bus. 

We journey through Lent together. Do not go it alone. We journey together as a church family for a reason. We need each other! One major area of growth we have as a church is just being open and honest with one another. We need to repent of our pride and self-reliance and competency! We need to reveal our hearts to one another–our needs, our joys, our pain, our struggles. We need one another. We are but dust–all of us! We are miserable offenders and screw-ups! Every one of us! Don’t road trip through Lent alone; you need to share the driving, you need someone to keep you awake as you drive! 

And don’t forget where we are going. We fast in Lent that we might celebrate the Feast of the Resurrection. We are preparing ourselves to enter anew and afresh into the resurrection life that Jesus has secured on our behalf on the cross on Calvary and in his glorious resurrection and ascension. 

————-

St. John Chrysostom, in a text that has become classic in the Orthodox Church, has stated the necessity for “fasting with the spirit” most eloquently and his words remain just as true today as when they were spoken over sixteen hundred years ago:.

The value of fasting consists not only in avoiding certain foods, but in giving up of sinful practices. The person who limits his fast only to abstaining from meat is the one who especially lowers the value of it. 

Do you fast? Prove it by doing good works. If you see someone in need, take pity on them. If you see a friend being honored, don’t get jealous of him or her. For a true fast, you cannot fast only with your mouth. You must fast with your eyes, your ears, your feet, your hands, and all parts of your body. 

You fast with your hands by keeping them pure from doing greedy things. You fast with your feet by not going to see forbidden shows or plays. You fast with your eyes by not letting them look upon impure pictures. Because if this is forbidden or unlawful, it mars your fast and threatens the safety of your soul. But if you look at things which are lawful and safe you increase your fast, for what you see with your eyes influences your conduct. It would be very stupid to eliminate or give up meat and other foods because of the fast but feed with your eyes upon other things which are forbidden. 

You don’t eat meat, you say? But you allow yourself to listen to lewd things. You must fast with your ears, too. Another way of fasting with your ears is not to listen to those who speak evil or untrue things about others. “Thou shalt not receive an idle report.” This is especially true of rumors, gossip, untruths which are spoken to harm another. 

Besides fasting with your mouth by not eating certain foods, your mouth should also fast from foul language or telling lies about others. For what good is it if you don’t eat meat or poultry, and yet you bite and devour your fellow man?

Homily III:8 On the Statutes

 

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