Ash Wednesday February 25 2009


Isaiah 58:1-12
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

So, here we all are at the beginning of our Lenten journey. The beginning of the 40 days of preparation for Easter. The beginning of the journey to the cross. Lent really is an odd season. I’ve heard some people liken it to baseball spring training. Like players who go away to work on the fundamentals of the game, we take time to work on the fundamentals of our faith; the skills of what it means to be a Christian. Some take it to be a somber, serious time full of the observation of our sin, repentance and returning to God humbly to ask for forgiveness. Some fast during Lent and some add a practice of some sorts. Earlier in the week someone sent me a note that said, “Lent is when I determine which addictions I may still have some control over.” Some Christian denominations find it too problematic and skip Lent altogether, opting to begin the celebration of the resurrection as early as possible, well before Easter Sunday actually arrives.

A couple of years ago, I gave up hamburgers for Lent. That was tough! A friend of mine really questioned the practice of giving up something for Lent and said, “I don’t get what fasting is going to do for you. God gave us good things! God does not want us to suffer and we can’t earn God’s love by doing anything like that, so what’s the point? Makes no sense to me!”

So why do we often choose to give up something for Lent? What is the point?

Well, for starters, there is no difference between “giving up” something and “adding” something. Both are disciplines. Either a discipline of abstaining from food or by charitable giving of time or finances or with periods of specific prayer and scripture reading, all are “adding” to our faith practice, even if it looks like not eating hamburgers or not watching TV. Additionally, all are “sacrifice” even if it looks like spending extra time with scripture or prayer. Should we choose to abstain from something, it is best if it is not something that is a practice from which we ought to be abstaining already. In truth, what we are abstaining from or working against with adopting another discipline, is our addiction to sin.

Secondly, we are not making a sacrifice or performing an act to appease God or to win his love. We cannot out-sacrifice God. There is no sacrifice equal to that of Christ’s for us, there is no discipline greater than his complete obedience even unto death. We do these things because we know that God has given us all that we need. In him all our needs are fulfilled. We turn to prayer and scripture to be reminded of this and to be in the presence of the one who fulfills our every need. In the Lord’s prayer we ask for our daily bread, forgiveness of our sins and help in staying away from trouble. That is all we really need. Oh, sure there are a lot of things we want, but are they not tiny and cheap looking next to the luxurious love God has for us in Christ? In no small way is the season of Lent a reminder that we have been given the Son of God. What could be left out in a love so generous and all consuming that it withheld not a single drop of blood in order to give it? Keeping a discipline every day in Lent reminds us of our completely fulfilled needs every single moment.

A few years ago I read an article about Lent and its unpopularity. The author, a pastor, wrote, “People don’t want to give things up. We panic when we think we can’t have something and it makes people think that God wants to punish us by taking away things we like. Most of the things we give up are things that do not hurt us. They are just fine for us anyway. We should remove the suffering aspect of Lent and celebrate God’s gift by observing the abundance of life.” Not so sure I agree. Well, I do agree with the first part. We do not want to give things up and we do panic just a bit when we think we cannot have something. We, in this country, suffer from the sin of Gluttony. And let me paraphrase the Apostle Paul when I say Chief among Sinners am I. We are so focused on getting our share, taking care of ourselves, not being left out.

A few hours watching television can really reveal our gluttony. You need. It’s all about you. You deserve it. So much to choose from. Why wait? Get what you want. Have it all. I want it now. It’s mine. Mine Mine Mine!! Save. Keep. Store. Hold on to. Get all you deserve. In the majority of the world, people eat in order to survive. They struggle to feed themselves and their families. But here we have innumerable ways to lose weight, the weight of all the gluttonous extra food we have as a nation. Even ways to continue living the lifestyle we have now and still “look great”. The same is true with money. If you have coins in your pocket at the end of the day you are wealthier than over 80% of the world’s population. And yet here, we have many opportunities to spend our extra money on all kinds of luxuries. When we give money we are sometimes hyper conscious that we do not get “taken” by people who do not really need our extra money. How many times have you heard, or perhaps yourself thought, I just do not have time to read scripture on a daily basis! Or, my day is so busy that there is not an extra block of time to just sit and pray. I could recount the statistics of how much time we spend watching TV and on the internet. We are afraid to give up our extras, even our extra time.

So, are all these things bad for us? Is it “bad” or “sinful” to earn extra money, to enjoy the extra things in life and to take advantage of the life we have in this country? No, I do not think so. These things are, in and of themselves, not sinful at all. I have often said that Jesus made food a sign of the kingdom through the feeding of the five thousand on bread and fish, the bread and wine of his last supper and through the messianic banquet —the great feast described in Isaiah at the end of time where all people will dine on the very best of foods at the table of Jesus Christ. However, if it is true that the last shall be first, I am certain that I, along with many others, will be at the back of that buffet line. It is what St Augustine called the disordered pursuit of the good. It means that God’s creation is good and there are so many wonderful gifts God has given us. It is good to have these gifts and it is good to work for them. It is good to work hard and provide for our families. It is disordered or “sinful” to make an idol out of them. It is disordered to love them too much. It is disordered to pursue a life of gluttony.

For me, one good symbol of this is Diet Coke. Now I know that sounds a little strange, but think about it. In the overwhelming majority of the world, soft drinks are unheard of. If they are around, it is as a luxury. Most of the world requires any food or drink one can obtain be useful in some way to the body. Not from a consumerist law of supply and demand but from the pure need for survival. People would not and most could not waste money on a food product that did not at least provide energy or nutrition in some way. Only in a place like this would a luxury item be made to contain absolutely no benefit whatsoever. In fact, it has been “neutralized” in such a way as to render less health benefit than a glass of water while providing the consumer with the same luxurious joy of consumption. Have our cake and eat it too! I love diet coke because it is good, but I also love it and things like it in no small part because I am a gluttonous American. And, therefore, that is what I am giving up for Lent. Does that mean that Diet Coke is itself bad? Well, aside from any scientific findings about the chemical makeup, no, it is not in itself bad to drink diet soft drinks. But instead, I choose to give them up for the period of time until Easter not because they are themselves sinful but because gluttony is and as I seek to live a life freer from this sin and more reliant upon God, I will omit this item because I can. Because it is not a requirement for me. Because it is a good discipline to remind myself every time I want one that it is a WANT and not a NEED. Because it will keep before me the knowledge that God has given us all that we NEED.

As we start this Lenten season, I invite us to enter into a new discipline. With the world our need is magnified. Our want is twisted into a sinful form that only appears to be need and becomes an insatiable gluttony. With God, our cup overflows. I invite us all to find something that will keep us daily mindful of our reliance upon God and his reliability in providing for our every need. One aspect of Lenten disciplines that is often overlooked is the fact that we engage in them together as a community—as a family. I am not suggesting that we all abstain from soft drinks or even that we all choose to give up something as the discipline we add. But we are like those baseball players who go away for spring training. They do so as a team. They have their individual practices but their goal and purpose is to work together. So too it is with us. Regardless of what you feel called to pursue: reading scripture daily, a new form of prayer, using the small Lenten devotional books out in the fellowship hall and narthex, seeking extra opportunities to give of your time and money which is a way in which God works through us to provide for others, abstaining from an activity or food, or perhaps best a combination of these things, know that we do so together. So that we may remind each other that God has given us all we need. He has given us himself.

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