Worship-Ash Wednesday/Feb. 17, 2021

Call to Worship/Psalm 103:8-18 (NRSV)

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.

He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.

For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.

As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.

For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.

As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.

But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.

Opening Prayer

O God, with whom we walk this Lenten path, bless us this day as we begin the long journey to the cross. Come into our hearts and remember your covenant with us. Remember the promise you made with us to remain with us despite our fragility and finitude. In your Son Jesus, you embraced our weakness in order to reveal your strength and lift us up into new life. In his life, we learn what it means to be created in your image. In his death, we experience the depth of your love and mercy. In his resurrection, we are given the hope, the courage, and the strength necessary to live as your disciples, as persons seeking to live justly and compassionately with all that you have created. Pour out your sustaining and guiding Spirit upon us as we embark upon this journey together. O Divine Parent, care for us, your children, as we weather this winding road, following in the faithful footsteps of your Son and our Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

Scripture Lesson/2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 (NRSV)

We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

1As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.  2For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”  See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!  3We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute.  We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

Message/An Acceptable Time

Let’s face it.  The Season of Lent is greatly problematic.

Let me explain.  Most of us have favorite holiday seasons.  For some it’s Christmas, with the family get-togethers, freshly baked treats, and of course, presents.  For others it’s Memorial Day when the pools open, the time of year when graduates are honored for their work.  Still others, it’s the Fourth of July, filled by a sense of national pride, fireworks, picnics and cookouts.  But each year at just about this time, it strikes me that very few of us would pick Lent, a season that seems to most of us as grim as the weather that usually attends it.

Think about it: crossing off days on the calendar until Ash Wednesday; leaving work just a little early, saying “I’ve got to get my Lenten shopping done;” advertisements on billboards and television reading “only 12 more days ‘til the day of Ashes;” or little kids going to bed, asking their parents, “How much longer ‘till Lent is here?”  It just doesn’t happen.

Lent: it feels like this strange, weirdly anachronistic holiday that celebrates things we don’t value and encourages attitudes we don’t share.  No wonder that each year fewer and fewer churches observe this age-old (fourth century!) tradition — it’s too old-fashioned, too “Roman,” too medieval for many contemporary Christians to handle.

So let’s face it.  Lent is trouble.  I mean, even among those traditions that do honor the season, rarely is there the same kind of enthusiasm or expectancy which greets Advent.  Notice we don’t go around from house to house singing Lenten carols.  We don’t hang wreaths or lights or decorations to signify Lent is here.  We don’t pine to sing Lenten hymns ahead of time.  Lent is trouble.

I don’t know, maybe it’s that there are no presents at the end, and no fun and games along the way.  Or maybe it’s that Lent asks us to give up things.  I mean, my word, haven’t we had to sacrifice enough already to get our kids through college, to save for retirement, to put that new roof on the house, thank you very much.  Why should we give up anything more for Lent?

Or maybe it’s the themes of Lent that trouble us.  Penitence.  Sacrifice.  Contemplation. These are the words of Lent, and I, for one, have a hard time believing they were popular even with the Puritans (you remember, the folks that actually held competitions to see who could resist the greatest temptation or avoid the most pleasure) let alone now.

Lent is trouble.  And so each year, as I listen to my non-Lent-observing friends knock it as “works theology” and my Lent-observing friends complain about it as a pain in the rear, the same question inevitably demands loudly to be answered: Why Lent?  I mean, who really needs it?

But you know what?  Each year, whatever my feelings approaching Lent may be, the same answer comes whispering back: I do.  Just maybe, I need Lent.  Just maybe I need a time to focus, to get my mind off of my career, my social life, my next project — and a hundred other things to which I look for meaning — and center myself in Meaning itself.

Just maybe I need a time (is 40 days really enough?) to help clear my head of the distractions which any involved life in this world will necessarily bring and re-orient myself towards the Maker of all that was given for my pleasure and which I have let become merely distracting.

Maybe I need the opportunity (and perhaps deep down I crave the chance!) to clear my eyes of the glaze of indifference and apathy which comes from situation after situation where I feel nearly helpless so that I can fasten my eyes once more on the almost unbearable revelation of the God who loves God’s children enough to take the form of a man hanging on a tree.

And maybe, just maybe — and this takes the greatest amount of imagination of them all — just maybe Lent really isn’t mine to do with whatever I please.  Perhaps Lent isn’t even the Church’s to insist upon or discard at will. Maybe Lent isn’t any of ours to scoff at or observe. Maybe Lent is God’s.  Maybe Lent is God’s gift to a people starved for meaning, for courage, for comfort, for life.

If it is, if we can imagine that Lent is not ours at all but is wholly God’s, then maybe we’ll also begin to recall, at first vaguely but then more strongly, that we, too, are not ours at all, but are wholly God’s — God’s own possession and treasure.

Seen this way, Lent most importantly reminds us of “whose we are.”  The “sacrifices,” the spiritual disciplines such as fasting, prayer, almsgiving, and study, these are not intended as good works offered by us to God; rather, they are God’s gifts to us to remind us who we are, God’s adopted daughters and sons, God’s treasure, so priceless that God was willing to go to any length — or, more appropriately, to any depth — to tell us that we are loved, that we have value, that we have purpose.

Yes. I need Lent.  I need an absence of gifts so that I might acknowledge The Gift.  I need a time to be quiet and still, a time to crane my neck and lift my head, straining to hear again what was promised at my Baptism: “You are mine!  I love you!  I am with you!”

I need Lent, finally, to remind me of who I am — God’s heir and Christ’s co-heir — so that, come Easter, I can rejoice and celebrate with all the joy, all the revelry, all the anticipation, of a true heir to the throne.

And so yes, I need Lent.  And to tell you the truth, I suspect that you do, too.  You see, if Lent is trouble, it’s only because we’re in trouble, so busy trying to make or keep or save our lives that we fail to notice that God has already saved us and has already freed us to live with each other and for each other all the rest of our days.  And so, we have Lent, a gift to the church, an acceptable time, the season during which God prepares us to behold God’s own great sacrifice for us, with the hope and prayer that, come Good Friday and Easter, we may be immersed once again into God’s mercy and perceive more fully God’s great love for us and all the world and in this way find the peace and hope and freedom that we so often lack.

Invitation to the Observance of Lent

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ:

The early Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church that before the Easter celebration there should be a forty-day season of spiritual preparation. During this season converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when persons who had committed serious sins and had separated themselves from the community of faith were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to participation in the life of the Church. In this way the whole congregation was reminded of the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ and the need we all have to renew our faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to observe a holy Lent:

by self-examination and repentance;

by prayer, fasting, and self-denial;

and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.

To make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel in confession before our Creator and Redeemer.

Prayer of Confession/Psalm 51:1-17 (NRSV)

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.

Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation and sustain in me a willing spirit.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.

For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Absolution of Sin

May the almighty and merciful God, who desires not the death of a sinner but that we turn from wickedness and live, accept your repentance, forgive your sins, and restore you by the Holy Spirit to newness of life.  Amen.

Closing Blessing (Blessing the Dust, Jan L. Richardson)

All those days you felt like dust, like dirt, as if all you had to do was turn your face toward the wind and be scattered to the four corners or swept away by the smallest breath as insubstantial—

Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?

This is the day we freely say we are scorched.

This is the hour we are marked by what has made it through the burning.

This is the moment we ask for the blessing that lives within the ancient ashes, that makes its home inside the soil of this sacred earth.

So, let us be marked not for sorrow.

And let us be marked not for shame.

Let us be marked not for false humility or for thinking we are less than we are but for claiming what God can do within the dust, within the dirt, within the stuff of which the world is made, and the stars that blaze in our bones, and the galaxies that spiral inside the smudge we bear.

Benediction

May the Creator God, who does not despise the broken spirit, give you a contrite heart.

May Christ, who bore our sins in his body in the tree, heal you by his wounds.

May the Holy Spirit, who leads us into all truth, speak to you words of pardon and peace.  Amen.