Texts: Joel 2:12-18, Psalm 51:3-6, 12-14, 17, 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 & Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
The journey that Jesus began when he turned his face towards Jerusalem, is the same journey that we are gathering here to commence and will take over the next 40 days. Just as Jesus began to face the prospect of his own end, so we will also begin to look at our lives, and ponder our own deaths, ponder that part of us that needs to die to allow Christ to grow in us, and to allow us to grow in God. And as we all know, death can be scary just as life seems, at times, fleeting. It can be scary to think that there is a part of us that we need to let go, that we need to sever from ourselves. It is scary because it is hard to be a follower through this part of the story. As the savior that we seek and follow begins to time and again talk about his own death at the hands of people who seek to silence him. So, too, do we begin our journey by sitting atop an ash heap or, more symbolically, donning ashes on our foreheads as we cry out to God in hopes of gaining forgiveness. Perhaps the prophet Joel best described the moment when he spoke of fasting and weeping, of being willing to open ourselves up to God, open ourselves to the pull of God’s spirit constantly seeking to take us from brokenness to wholeness. Our Reformed tradition tells us that we are each born into sin. That is both original and unshakable. That each of us finds ourselves almost immediately stuck in the mire of the evil of the world and and yet, also imbued with the knowledge that we need to find a way out. That our birthright is freedom. And Lent provides the means to that. Lent provides, a time and a space within the Christian calendar to take account of ourselves and our relationship to God, and our relationship to God’s creation. Lent offers us time for reflection.
And we are here at this place and at this time to begin a process of repentance. A process of repentance and forgiveness. A process of repentance and of forgiveness, but also, that which we also seek, peace. But often, confusion soon follows as we ask with one voice, what must be done to truly experience repentance, and forgiveness, what gets us to the peace of Christ, that peace that surpasses all understanding? The prophet Joel called on his people to return to God through fasting, weeping, by completely opening their hearts to God. And so we come to the same time, this Lenten time to begin to strip away the parts of our lives that lead us away from God. Away from Christ. And we know that this process is not easy, we know that it is only accomplished with struggle and pain and cleansing. We know that too often we place other things in the place of God, other things in the way of God. And yet. And And yet, there is a brief moment in time in which each of us, are forced to peer into the darkness with the hope of seeing God. And Jesus’ own words considering prayer ring loudly as we peer into the darkness. Don’t go out into the church and the street corners and scream out your prayers so that others might hear them, don’t use big fancy words so that others know that you are more pious, more holy than them, but also don’t be where others can gain access to the depths of your soul, don’t be where others can prevent you from diving deep into the darkness. But go into your room, and shut the door. Go into your room and get away from the noise, and the hustle and bustle, go into your room, and get away from all the distractions of life, all the things that vie for the place of your soul. Go into your room and be wholly, and holy, with God.
Too often its seems that we think they have to sound a certain way, or act a certain way, or be holy in order to come to God in prayer, when in reality, it is the exact opposite. In the end, there are no words that have to come with prayer, there are no actions that have to be taken in order to offer a prayer, there are no people, who are so unholy that they cannot come before God, in the solitude of the moment, and softly, quietly, let God slip in. Prayer is the victim of a tornado crying out for relief from pain. Prayer is the mother quietly singing “Guide my feet while I run this race” to her crying child who has awaken in the dark of night, prayer is the monk sitting quietly at an alter, sitting in silence, seeking to hear the still small voice of God, and then saying, “MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going…But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.” I heard prayer today when I listened to an interview with a parent in the midst of the devastating shooting in Parkland, FL when she said, ‘It’s been 25 minutes and I haven’t heard from my daughter.” Prayer is anytime we abandon all the restraints of the word, anytime we abandon the restraints of ourselves, anytime we are able with our words, or our actions, or our souls, to touch the face of God. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your father who sees in secret will reward you.” We have come to a time in the Christian calendar when we need those times in secret, we need those times in quiet, we need those times of repentance.
And we also seek forgiveness. We seek forgiveness because we know that we as a faith have sinned against God and against our sisters and brothers. We have allowed things to divide us against each other, but more importantly we have allowed things to divide us from our human family throughout the world. Too often we have failed to be inviting communities that seek to be a shelter from the storm for the poor and downtrodden in our community and those Jesus called the least of these in the world. And so as a church we need to seek forgiveness for our sins. But we also must seek forgiveness on behalf of the whole human race of which we are a part. Throughout the world, bombs are dropped and bullets shot, brothers and sisters are torn asunder by wars and violence. Nations are pitted against nations, cultures against cultures, religions against religions, families against families. Throughout our world, people go hungry because we as a race cannot figure out how to share the bounty. Throughout the world, women are abused and relegated to the role of second-class citizens. Children are abused and treated as chattel, people who don’t look the same, believe the same, love the same, are treated without grace, without love, without hope. This goes on everyday and it is so overwhelming that many of us are forced to turn a blind eye because we cannot take the pain. And it is in those times that we need to seek forgiveness.
And After we have sought to enter a time of repentance, after we have sought to gain forgiveness, then we must seek to find peace in our lives and be willing to accept that peace. But not just peace for ourselves, but a peace for the world. Not just peace for ourselves, but a peace for the church, not just a peace for ourselves but a peace for our nation, and our state, and our town. History is replete with those who knew the weight of the brokenness of the world. Jesus knew that his life was the beginning of a greater work of reconciliation, and so it was with peace that he could say, “Father, into your hand I commit my spirit.” And Martin Luther King, even as overwhelmed with the fight for equality and justice knew that in the end, he might not see the work come to fruition and so it was with confidence that he reminded his followers that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” And Reinhold Niebuhr in the face of all the brokenness of the world could remind his readers, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.” None of these followers believed in their own ability to fix all the problems of the world, none of them believed that in their own time all wars would cease and all people would be treated justly, none believed that the kingdom of God was just around the next corner in the road. But all of them had peace. All of them knew, that in the end, you do what you can to make this world a better place, and then you leave the rest to God. In the end, we are only left to trust in God to bring about a completion to God’s good work. In the end, we are only left to trust in God to bring about the reconciliation of the church and the world. In the end, we are only left to trust in God to bring about redemption, and resurrection, and peace. We do what we can, we repent when we must, we seek forgiveness when we have moved away from the will of God, we act in ways that we believe better the whole of creation, and then we allow God to do whatever God will to bring about peace. And don’t we need that as we begin this Lenten time in our Christian calendar.
We have come together on a journey for the Lenten season. We have come together as a community of believers and we welcome all who would enter those doors to join us on our journey. And we know that journey will not be easy. We know that in the end, we will go through a time of sitting on the ash heap and pondering our own worthiness for the gifts bestowed by God. We will spend some time in silence, in prayerful consideration of our relationship with God and with the rest of humanity and with the rest of creation. We will spend time walking with Jesus on Palm Sunday and wondering how the crowds could have turned so quickly, all the while wondering, deeply and earnestly seeking to know, on which side we would have been. And finally we will walk with the Messiah to that place on the hill, and in some way we too will die with him and the darkness, as dark as night will have seemed to have won. Knowing that is what lies ahead, let us recommit to one another to walk, arm and arm, brother and sister, picking each other up when we fall, carrying each other when we can no longer walk, and singing in one voice, “My joy cometh in the morning!” as we walk towards the new day of resurrection that is drawing so close to us again. Amen.