Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday, 9 March 2011, 7:30 pm
Joint service for Town of Esopus UMC and the Reformed Church of Port Ewen

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From tonight’s Gospel: “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret….”

This is an evening to pray about our own mortality and to pray for greater love, and so I’d like to start with a story about three of my young nephews.

These boys had shared their home for most of their lives with Grandma Rose. After she was widowed, she really had no place to go. No one wanted to see her in a home, and so in love and compassion, the boys’ mother, my niece Li, invited her to live with them, even though it complicated an already exhausting life of motherhood, running a growing accounting firm, and serious involvement in church. But Li also wanted her boys to see such love and compassion in action, in the daily life of the household.

When you take an older person with some frailties into your home, there can be a risk. And so on Valentine’s Day, Grandma Rose was not in the kitchen when the family got home after school. When they went upstairs, they found she had died—apparently very quickly—of a massive stroke. You can imagine the shock, distress, and grief.

But there was something else they understood and that will continue to strengthen them despite and through their sorrow. Grandma Rose died at home, in her own pretty room, with all her familiar memories and expectations around her. The ones who found her and made the first decisions about her were not strangers, but those she deeply loved. In this, she was blessed. Her family too was blessed in its faithfulness and will continue to be blessed by their experience of love.

When I visited this past weekend, the boys were showing me samples of their dad’s cabinet work, but when we entered Rose’s room, the youngest went right to a dish of candy and brought it over to me. “Would you like some?” he asked. “Grandma always had it for us.” Just so, there could be sweetness in Rose’s passing because it was so tied to the sweetness that had been offered and shared.

And so I hope it may be with us. Who knows really why we come to an Ash Wednesday service. We know we are supposed to. We are present on this night because our faithfulness has led us here. Somewhere in our hearts, we may be telling God that we’re already as faithful as we know how to be. Are we really being asked to do even more? But once we are here, the ashes remind us of what we really know, but often try to forget: that our mortal lives—good, bad, mixed—will not last forever. The ashes will remind us that whatever our excuses or reasons, there are moments in our lives—perhaps more than moments—that might have been lived in a far better way. Because our misdeeds surely involve our relationship with others, we are also here to pray for those whom we have slighted or treated ill in all those ways spelled out in the opening prayer, given us by Isaiah.

There is another reason. We are here because this night is the beginning of a time given to us by Our Lord to be with him, to watch with him, as he begins his last walk to Jerusalem, and then beyond Jerusalem to Golgotha and the cross. Lent is an invitation to cease to know ourselves, for a little while, and to know Christ, to keep our eyes on him alone, to allow nothing to come between Christ and ourselves, if only in a few deeply prayerful minutes each day.

Surely this is one way to understand Jesus’ instruction to go into our most private room, our inner sanctum, and lock the door before we pray. We must enter deeply into the innermost layers of our being and invite Christ to be there with us, to guide us—no one else, nothing else. I literally have to set a timer during my serious prayer time so that I have no excuse to glance at my watch. It’s hard to put Christ first and make Christ all-important. Yet only in this way, can God begin making us part of the heavenly Kingdom for which we pray.

And so maybe most of all, in the middle of lives that are busy and often stressed, we are making time to be here because we love Our Lord, we love Jesus. But here’s the catch: we’re not only being invited to “do Lent.” It’s not a quick fix that will be over before we know it. We’re being asked to live Lent, to use Lent to shape a new life. This time set aside begins to get us into shape for Christ. The discipline of Lent can push other hungers to the side so that we hunger for Christ alone: His name, His Kingdom, His will.

Not long ago, I heard a wonderful organ piece that was inspired by Bach’s chorale prelude “Dearest Jesus, we are here.” This is how it begins: “Blessed Jesus, at thy word/ We are gathered all to hear thee./ Let our hearts and souls be stirred/ now to seek and fear and love thee.” Before we go home tonight, we will share together, and with Our Lord, a meal of sacrifice and praise and thanksgiving. We will hear the words that he spoke to his first disciples and to us. Communion is a meal that Christ gives us in an immense act of love. Gathering to receive it in this way, our hearts and souls can be stirred not only to seek and fear Christ, but to offer that love back to Christ, and to one another, and even to ourselves.

“Blessed Jesus, we are here:” The words are wonderfully direct, and so I had another more immediate thought as I heard this piece for the first time. “We are here:” I realized that this statement is an answer to the hymn we all know and sing, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” On this night, we are all there—and here—together: Now is the acceptable time! We are here to admit our own mortality and the vulnerability that Christ is willing to share with us. We are here in sorrow. We are here in repentance for all we have done to waste God’s gifts and all we have done to cause Christ pain. And we are here in ever deepening love.

Let us pray: Dearest God, may we keep a holy Lent. Give us grace to treasure this time with you and prepare for our Lord’s passion and resurrection by self-examination and repentance and renewed faith. Grant us humility to understand that our chief end is to know and be known by you. Let us discover, more fully than ever before, how much we hunger and thirst for you. May our hearts be sustained by love of you alone. Amen.

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