Wednesday, February 10, 2016
Southern Heights Presbyterian Church
Scripture: Isaiah 58:1-12 & Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
A recording is available here.
Tonight we will depart this place looking visibly different. We will enter clean faced and we will leave with dirt on our faces. This is not typically what we imagine when we think of coming to church. We expect that when we confess and ask for forgiveness, we are wiped clean and our transgressions have departed us. That is not the case this evening.
My childhood neighbors were good Catholics. This was a bit of an odd thing for me where I grew up – the Bible Belt is primarily made up of protestants of the Southern Baptist variety. My neighbors attended mass on Saturday nights, the kids grew up in Catholic school, and they threw one heck of a Mardi Gras party. (They hailed from New Orleans, so it was in their DNA.) My dad and Mr. Duhe used to always get together and joke about the isocracies of their church belief systems, and my dad was enthralled with the idea of confession. I remember overhearing a conversation that included phrases like: “Just go into the booth and come out forgiven,” and “So I can do it on Friday, go tell a guy, say a few prayers, and do it all over again next week?” They discussed how during most of the year, football season aside, church on Saturday night was so much better than church on Sunday morning. And they’d talk about the eating meat on Fridays, thing. Mr. Duhe loved a good joke, so he used to share this joke with anyone and everyone in earshot at parties:
John Smith was the only Protestant to move into a large Catholic neighborhood. On the first Friday of Lent, John was outside grilling a big juicy steak on his grill. Meanwhile, all of his neighbors were eating cold tuna fish for supper. This went on each Friday of Lent. On the last Friday of Lent, the neighborhood men got together and decided that something had to be done about John, he was tempting them to eat meat each Friday of Lent, and they couldn’t take it anymore. They decided to try and convert John to Catholicism. They went over and talked to him and were so happy that he decided to join all of his neighbors and become a Catholic. They took him to Church, and the Priest sprinkled some water over him, and said, “You were born a Baptist, you were raised a Baptist, and now you are a Catholic.” The men were so relieved–now their biggest Lenten temptation was resolved. The next year’s Lenten season rolled around. The first Friday of Lent came, and just at supper time, when the neighborhood was setting down to their tuna fish dinner, came the wafting smell of steak cooking on a grill. The neighborhood men could not believe their noses! They called each other up and decided to meet over in John’s yard to see if he had forgotten it was the first Friday of Lent? The group arrived just in time to see John standing over his grill with a small pitcher of water. He was sprinkling some water over his steak on the grill, saying, “You were born a cow, you were raised a cow, and now you are a fish.”
The joke makes us laugh. But does it also make us stop and think?
Lent is a time of self-reflection and penitence. It’s a time for us to acknowledge our sinfulness and need for God’s mercy. We rely upon God’s mercy in Jesus Christ because we are broken, selfish, steak-eating-when-we-know-better offenders. Often we hear stories of people giving up things for lent, in an effort to mirror the fasting and temptations of Christ in Scripture. The new trend is to “take on” rather than “give up” in an effort to incorporate a new spiritual practice for these 40 days. I saw this week a “40 bags for 40 days” practice that encourages one to fill a bag a day of junk and unused stuff from the house to either throw away or give away. In a self-satisfying, self-gratifying world, we have a really hard time accepting that we’re less than perfect and we need to spend time in penitence.
“On Ash Wednesday, Christians are invited to enter a period of self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, and self-denial in preparation for Easter. We are called to use these 40 days as a time of reflection on our sins, the ways we separate ourselves from God and from one another.”[i] My fear, however, is that we’ve become a society that looks to Lent as another time to plan for the bigger holiday of Easter. It’s a time where we anticipate the melting of the snow, the spring break trips, the baskets the Easter Bunny will deliver, and oh, giving up chocolate, too, because when we can’t have that cupcake it will remind us of the sacrifice that Christ made in giving up his life.
Our scripture tonight is snippets of larger stories in both Isaiah and the Gospel of Matthew. Isaiah’s words are a small portion of a three-chapter theme “the prerequisite for divine deliverance is that the people maintain righteous and just lives.” These verses “stand in the middle of this longer section stressing the need for the proper, inward repentance that leads to acceptable outward action.” Matthew’s text is taken from the Sermon on the Mount in which Christ names the “disciplines and practices” that help to prepare one for the events of Holy Week and Easter. Christ names specific examples – charitable giving, prayer, and fasting – as standard actions that would have been deemed worthy of praise in both Jewish and Gentile society. Jesus, however, warns that his followers not participate in the practices for praise, but rather address their motives and manners in which they carried out these typical disciplines.
Isaiah pointedly condemns any quest for righteousness before God that overlooks the plight of the poor and contrasts such an unfaithful “fast” to God for loosening the “bonds of injustice” and letting the oppressed go free. He reminds us that the fast God chooses is radically self-forgetful. “The form of fasting that God chooses – in both testaments – is strangely free of the desire to save oneself. It is distinguished from idolatry in its lack of anxiety. It is free to engage another, to see the other, and to see the other not as something to be used or merely the object of pity or duty, but as a gift.”[ii]
As we depart here tonight, faces smudged with dirt, let us remember the celebration from whence they came. The ash tonight is the palm of last year – the day we celebrated the entry of a man heading into a town toward his death. We do not leave church tonight free of our transgressions just so that we can go and do them again. We leave tonight with the visible mark upon our forehead of our lives, lived only for ourselves, that caused our God to sacrifice a child for us. We leave remembering that it is only through the full grace and unending mercy of God that we have everlasting life. We came into church tonight with heads cleaned by the waters of baptism, and we depart with dirt on our faces to remind us of our mortality. Let us not forget, as the sign of the cross is made on our heads, that we are children of God, beloved, who are in communion with our brothers and sisters through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord. Sacrifice is not easy; it cost a man, our God, his life. But may we enter into this Lenten season with vigorous hope in the resurrection, eager to recognize God’s grace and make changes that are permanent.
Holy God, hear our prayers. Amen.