WHAT ARE WE DOING HERE?
WHY DO WE FAST?
WHY DO WE WEAR ASHES IN CHURCH ON THIS DAY?
Our preacher from the Sewanee School of Theology, Professor Robert Hughes, challenged us on Ash Wednesday by opening his sermon with the above three questions. We thought the sermon was superb and with his permission are sharing parts of it with you. Bob took his sermon from the appointed texts of Isaiah 58 (a portion printed below) and Luke 18 (the comparative prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector.)
"Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice? Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. 4Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. 5Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 6Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is 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?" Isaiah 58:3-7
After explaining what we are not doing, the sermon continued ….
So, what are we doing on Ash Wednesday.
a. First we are remembering that we are mortal: as the ashes are placed on our foreheads, the priest will say: “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We are not angels, and we will never be angels. We are creatures of earth, of mud, of dust, whom God has shaped into God’s own image and likeness and breathed into us God’s own breath, the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life. When we die, we pray not that we shall become angels, but that we shall be resurrected human beings, joining with the angel choirs in worshipping God in Heaven, sharing in his own holiness and righteousness which he gives us in his Son, Jesus Christ.
b. But we are repenting. God’s law is still there, not so we can make ourselves righteous, but so we can be reminded about how people who have been saved should behave. As we heard on Sunday, if we say we love God and long for God’s righteousness and holiness, but hate our neighbor, or simply fail to love our neighbor, we are shown up to be liars, to be false Christians, because the God we say we love, loves them and wants us to love them, too. So, for example, we listen to the great words of Isaiah and ask ourselves: as individuals or as a church, do we really work for our own benefit, or do we give our best to make a just society where the poor and powerless are treated well and become full members of our community? We do not do even this to be righteous, but check our lives to see if we are living as those who have been given righteousness by God through Jesus.
c. Thus, we are beginning Lent, where we fast and pray, not so much to worry about our own goodness and place in heaven, but to ask over and over again if all of us together are really working to help God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, and what we can do better to love our neighbors as God loves them and us.
Finally, however, what we are doing is beginning to celebrate Easter. We are not just getting ready to celebrate it, but we are actually beginning to remember Easter. We do not repent because we hope God will forgive us. We repent because we know God has forgiven us and we hope we can act like it more and more. ….
So, we have forty days to ask if we are ready for Easter, if we live our lives in the light of Easter, if we behave like people who know that Christ died and was raised for them, who know they are forgiven and filled with that Spirit of life by which the Father raised Jesus from the dead.….
Thank you Bob for the insight that Lent is the time we begin to remember Easter, the Easter we tend to forget as we journey through Pentecost and Advent and particularly in the abundance of Christmas and Epiphany. Thank you for reminding us that Lent is not simply for individual piety but for the church to ask if we are doing as well as we can in loosing the bonds of injustice and in sharing what we have.