Today We Are Invited…, Ash Wednesday – 2007
February 21, 2007
Today we are invited to swim against the tide. Let us consider that invitation. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
A man was recalling his grandmother’s recipe collection. Some, he remembered, were in well-used cookbooks, and some were on index cards.
But he recalled the oldest recipes in her vast collection were printed on fragile, yellowed paper, fragments from mysterious sources. These recipes were in German, her native language. Moreover, they were printed in small Gothic type, a style still in use when his grandmother was a bride. Because he knew no German, confused one Gothic letter with another, and did not want to touch paper that might crumble, these oldest recipes remained incomprehensible to him.
Bringing up recipes–and by implication food–may seem inappropriate here on Ash Wednesday, which is the fast day in the Episcopal Church. But remembering that grandmother’s oldest recipes may be helpful. For many people find the traditional disciplines of Lent as incomprehensible, as unapproachable, as her grandson once found those crumbling clippings.
Consider today’s Gospel. Jesus takes for granted three practices central to Jewish devotion: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. He does not doubt that his disciples will continue to keep these practices. His only concern is that they pray and fast and give alms in the right spirit: not to impress people, but to deepen their relationship with God.
But prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are not behaviors we take for granted today. Traditional Jewish practices that became traditional Christian practices, they are not exactly forms of behavior encouraged by the dominant culture in our time and place. To engage in these practices is to swim against the tide. And so the words about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that we hear in this Ash Wednesday service may be as puzzling and impenetrable as German recipes in Gothic type once were to that grandson.
Yet translation remains a possibility. Prayer, and fasting, and almsgiving need not be quaint, obsolete customs confined to the pages of the Prayer Book and the Bible. They can reappear in a contemporary lifestyle, one that calls into question the status quo, that refuses easy answers, that exchanges contemporary craziness for deep-down, delicious sanity. This is a lifestyle that gets us right with God, with creation, with other people, and even with ourselves.
Ask people how they’re doing, and so often the answer includes the word “busy.” People take their own busy-ness and other people’s for granted–almost. There’s a strain in how people say the word, as though they want you to tell them they really don’t have to be so insistently busy. They want to be absolved of their busy-ness by something less drastic than cardiac arrest.
Then down the road Jesus comes talking about prayer. With him comes a countless crowd of matriarchs and patriarchs, priests and prophets, apostles and martyrs, and many others less distinguished but no less holy, all of them walking to the same beat.
Some of them by their words, all of them by their actions, deliver to us the same message. If you want to live a life worthy of the name, then pray. Leave some empty space for God. Give up rushing.
Have you ever been in an affluent residential neighborhood in an urban area, with splendid houses whose prices go well into the millions? Ever notice how many of these houses had bars on the windows? Bars on the windows put the homes of the extremely wealthy in the same category with jails and insane asylums. Are these people imprisoned by what they have? Is it driving them crazy? Yet a million-dollar mansion is not necessary for us to need to face the question: Do we have stuff or does our stuff have us? Are we stuffing our houses, our bodies, our lives to the point of no return?
Then down the road Jesus comes talking about fasting. With him comes a countless crowd of matriarchs and patriarchs, priests and prophets, apostles and martyrs, and many others less distinguished but no less holy, all of them walking to the same beat.
Some of them by their words, all of them by their actions, deliver to us the same message: If you want to live a life worthy of the name, then fast. Don’t exist as simply a consumer. Unclutter your life.
Author Richard Hart tells the story of a Russian woman whose son was court-martialed and executed shortly before the start of World War 2. The grieving mother searched out the soldier who had fired the shot that killed her son, only to discover that he was critically ill and near death. The mother nursed him back to life–and then adopted him.
So often we experience the world as full of strangers. We do not look for the connection between them and us. The humanity common to them and us goes unrecognized. Their problems have nothing to do with our problems, or so we say.
Then down the road Jesus comes talking about almsgiving. With him comes a countless crowd of matriarchs and patriarchs, priests and prophets, apostles and martyrs, and many others less distinguished but no less holy, all of them walking to the same beat–even a Russian mother who adopted the man who killed her son.
Some of them by their words, all of them by their actions, deliver to us the same message. If you want to live a life worthy of the name, then give alms. Not just a few coins, but the love in your heart. Always look for the connection between you and that other person. Treat no one as a stranger.
Don’t leave the message of Lent dead on the page like a recipe in an unknown language in a strange typeface on crumbling paper. It’s a hungry world out there, waiting for the word to become flesh, the recipe to become food yet again.
Live your life as a translation that’s unmistakable: give up rushing; unclutter your life; treat no one as a stranger.
Do these things, make them your lifestyle, and you’ll find yourself walking to the rhythm of Jesus and the saints.
In the name of the One who, though we are dust, invites us to sparkle with eternal light: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
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