Based on 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
My first Ash Wednesday service as a pastor was an unmitigated disaster. I had the greatest of intentions, all the right ideas, and enthusiasm for the task at hand. All of that combined into a force that threatened to burn down my house.
You may remember that the tradition at Ash Wednesday is to use the ashes of the palm branches used at the previous Palm Sunday. It’s a poignant way to mark the beginning of Lent, burning last year’s celebratory palms as a reminder of the temporary and transitory nature of life. So that I did, in preparation for my first Ash Wednesday. But before I could begin, I had one burning question: how could I light these palms on fire while also accomplishing other work? I had lots to do that particular day, as I was still in seminary while pastoring the three small churches with whom I would mark my first Ash Wednesday. I schemed to bring my iPad downstairs from my home office to work on editing a paper. Or bring a commentary and read up on next week’s scripture for the sermon. Or to make my breakfast while I burned the ashes. I decided on the latter.
So downstairs I went. I put two pieces of bread in the toaster, got out the peanut butter and a plate and a knife, and a cheese stick, and got ready for what was a particularly traditional Ted breakfast: peanut butter toast and a cheese stick. While the toast cooked, I took out a metal mixing bowl and got some matches and set to work trying to light these palms on fire. They proved difficult. That particular morning was wet, damp, and the outside patio table I put the bowl on was wet and damp. There was a light wind, enough to blow out the first few matches I lit. At one point, I succeeded in making the palms smoke, but not catch on fire. I kept trying matches until wooooshhh! The whole bunch of palms suddenly went up in flames. Now was my chance! Back to the business I had before me; making breakfast so I could get back to my academic and church work.
As I put peanut butter on my toast, a bright orange light caught the corner of my eye. There, through the kitchen window, coming up from the patio table, were huge orange flames coming up from the mixing bowl as the palms burned. The huge flames were touching the bottom of the umbrella over the table and, to my horror, I saw the edges of the umbrella beginning to burn.
I rushed outside to remove the bowl, grabbing it with my bare hands. This was a terrible mistake. I screamed as the bowl burned my hands and dropped the bowl, spilling its fiery contents onto our wooden deck. Further horrified, I ran inside, grabbed two pot holders, pushed the palms and ashes back into the bowl, and carefully walked it down to our sidewalk, for it to finish burning down.
Now, I thought, I had saved the day! I could finally eat my breakfast!
But no. The palms demanded my attention. I had to stay with them. They kept falling out of the bowl as the fire burned the bottom of the palms. The wind would sometimes blow palms away from the bowl that had their bottoms completely burned. As the flames grew, I found I had to keep repositioning the palms, so I grabbed the metal tongues I usually use to flip steaks and hot dogs on the grill. These tongues helped reposition the palms and, when they were burned, helped push down the remnants to hurry the creation of ashes. For many minutes, I had to stand over the bowl, on the sidewalk, pushing the remnants around, beating on them with the grilling tongues, until they became mostly ashes.
Once they were ashes, I brought the bowl inside the house. The ashes were still smoking a little bit, so I put the bowl on the stove top and turned on the exhaust fan. Finally, I could get to my breakfast and get back to work, having both burned the ashes and saved my porch from burning to the ground.
The palms, by their very nature, demanded my attention. I could not continue to work on what I felt was more important: the temporal concerns of turning in a paper for my Old Testament class and working on my sermon for Sunday. I couldn’t do anything but pause and be with the palms as they slowly turned into ashes.
As I went back upstairs with my peanut butter toast and cheese stick, headed toward my Old Testament paper, I couldn’t help but think of what a metaphor these palms were. The Lenten season demands our attention. We are called during this season to remember that we are sinful creatures, the dust (or ashes, if you will) of the ground, and to dust we will return one day. Only through the salvation God provides are we put back into right order, that of relationship with God. Lent demands our attention, but the temporal concerns of life call to us.
During the next forty days, life will not stop. Your children and grandchildren will demand your attention. Your health will demand your attention. Your finances will demand your attention. Life will demand your attention.
Add to this, Lent will demand your attention, just as the palms, representative of the Lenten season, demanded mine that infamous morning. The question before us is, will we pay attention? Will we respond to the Lenten season? The demands of life will not stop, but we have a choice of whether we will give Lent the attention it deserves.
That’s our challenge this evening: choose to give Lent the attention it deserves. This season of Lent is a call to remind ourselves of our great need for the salvation Jesus provided in his passion and resurrection. Without that salvation, we would be lost, tossed around like a ship in the ocean of desires, temptations, and evil. In our mortal bodies, the dust that we are, we can only be raised to life, and life abundant, because of salvation through Christ: a salvation that is the free gift of God, not earned by works but provided through God’s grace.
Should we disregard this challenge, treating these next forty days as any other forty days, we will miss tremendous opportunity to deepen our faith and, indeed, we will hurt the heart of God by showing absolutely no gratitude for the marvelous gift of salvation.
But should we accept the challenge, we will find unspeakable joy, even as we contemplate our own mortality, even as we acknowledge our great need for God, for we will see, with fresh eyes, the abundant gift God has provided.
Will you give Lent your attention this year?
That first Ash Wednesday, every time I lifted my right hand to my face, anywhere near the proximity of my nose, whether drinking a glass of water or covering my mouth for a sneeze, I smelled campfire. I washed my hands several times that day but the smell remained. My right hand smelled of smoke.
And all that day, it served as a reminder that Ash Wednesday, today, is no ordinary day, for Lent has begun. One of the best ways to help ourselves pause and respond to the invitation to Lenten discipline is through some sort of reminder that it’s Lent. For many people this time of year, it’s fasting by giving up something: chocolate, coffee, tea, beer, wine, etc. BuzzFeed, a popular social media news and entertainment outlet, in fact, put up a list of 101 things you should probably give up for Lent. Social media says to give up 101 things! Rather than simply giving something up, ask yourself: what will remind me on a daily basis that this is Lent? Fasting something? Or perhaps doing an extra devotional reading a day. Or adding an extra minute or two to your daily exercise. Something that breaks the routine of your day, something that breaks into your daily cycle and says: wait, stop, pay attention: it’s Lent. That break in routine serves as a reminder to seek after God, to pray to God, and thus be reminded of our need for God, which is the whole point of Lent.
And here’s the secret: Lent is technically 46 days long. Some of you, I know, have counted the days. We call it a forty day journey because the six Sundays in Lent are feast days. On these days, we take a break from our Lenten discipline. So if you are fasting from alcohol, say, pour yourself a glass of your favorite beverage on Sunday. The joy of breaking our fast this one day a week serves as an example of the joy we find in our salvation. And it makes Lent a little easier to bear.
Life won’t quit during the next forty-six days. April 1 will come and we will celebrate the resurrection. Between now and then, will you give Lent the attention it deserves? Will you accept the invitation to keep a Holy Lent? What will you do daily to remind yourself of this season? Will you allow Lent to command your attention?
I hope you will. Come, hear this invitation to Lenten Discipline. Receive it in your heart, deciding that you will say no to the demands of life, that you will allow Lent to command your attention.
Let’s commit to Observe and keep a Holy Lent.
* Invitation to the Observance of Lenten Discipline
* 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 repentence;
* by prayer, fasting, and self-denial
* and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.