St. Paul’s –Ash Wednesday – 2/14/21
Last year at this time, people in the United States were not fully aware of COVID-19’s existence, let alone what it would do to our nation and the world within the coming months. We have now been living in pandemic mode for eleven months and our lives have changed in ways we could have never predicted. I hear the stories of weariness and feel it from every side. The ambiguous loss with no clear end in sight, adaptation fatigue, and personal losses have worn down even the hardiest souls in one way or another.
And so we have found ourselves having to make many choices in how to live and move and have our being since covid came along. It has been filled with new ways for each of us to decide how we will live. It’s often said that life is about choices. People who get into trouble are often said to have made bad choices. But a life based on perpetual choice would be a nightmare. To avoid the tyranny of having to make perpetual choices, we develop habits. Habits deliver us from the tyranny of perpetual decision. Many of us have had to develop new habits from how we lived our lives before Covid. The point is, to develop good habits. That’s what Lent is about as we begin a new season. I believe we need to be about developing the six habits of firmly rooted disciples as we continually find ourselves in the midst of change. So here goes.
Habit number one: look inside your heart. Examine yourself. Find inside yourself some things that shouldn’t be there. If they’re hard to extract, get some help. Name them by sitting or kneeling down with a trusted friend or pastor possibly over Zoom, and just say These things shouldn’t be there. Please help me let God take them away. In other words, repent. But repent by following or at least looking at Jesus. Because when we’re in the presence of Christ, there’s no need to pretend or hide. He already knows and he’s longing to welcome us back. Self-examination isn’t just about finding things that shouldn’t be there. It’s also about finding things that are there but have been neglected. That’s sometimes where vocation begins. Look inside your heart. Do it. Make a habit of it.
Habit number two: pray. Don’t get in a pickle about whether to pray with a book or just freestyle: do both. Once a day each. Simple as that. Think about the way you shop. Sometimes I shop with a list; sometimes not. Sometimes it’s a pleasure; sometimes it’s a necessity; sometimes it’s a pain. Sometimes I go with someone else, or even help someone else to go; sometimes I go on my own. Sometimes it’s about big things; sometimes it’s about little things. Sometimes I really think carefully about it, and check through a kind of recipe list; sometimes I just do it, and realize later what I’ve forgotten. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the wonder of the variety of goods and products; sometimes I’m cross about globalization, climate change, treatment of factory workers and materialism. Prayer’s just as varied. Just do it: put yourself in the presence of God. Maybe just sitting still for five minutes is the most countercultural thing you can do. Do it. Make a habit of it.
Habit number three: fast. There are three dimensions to fasting. The first is about power. It’s about toughening yourself up so you don’t go all pathetic at the first smell or sight of something sweet or tasty. It’s about making yourself someone to be reckoned with and not a pushover. Learn how to eat and when to resist eating. Learn when to switch on the TV and when to stop to think first. Make a pattern of life so you don’t just drift to the mobile phone or email or internet as a transitional object. Get your senses and your self-control in some kind of balance. The kind of thing Jesus did in the wilderness. The second dimension of fasting is to stand in solidarity with those who don’t get to choose. If you can’t give up a single meal, do you really care about global hunger? And the third dimension is learning how to be really hungry. Follow the passage from Isaiah which is the alternative Hebrew Scripture reading for Ash Wednesday. What would it be like if we chose a different fast this Lent, the one that Isaiah presents in the next part of the passage?
6 Is 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?
7 Is 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?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard
Maybe it is time to become Hungry for righteousness. Hungry for justice and peace. Hungry, fundamentally, for Easter – hungry for the resurrection only God can bring in Christ. So give something worthwhile up – one meal a week, dessert, meat, TV – something that you’re really going to feel the lack of. Do it. Make a habit of it.
Habit number four: give money away. Ah – you may say I’m in a tight spot right now: I don’t have any money. Let me tell you now: there will never be a time in your life when you think it’s a good time for giving money away. Take it from me. It’s not going to happen. Giving money is like long lines at the supermarket checkout and express lanes on the hghway – they’re for other people.Try to tie your money to your prayers. Give money to something you believe in, and pray for the organization you give money to. Start with your church. After all, if it wasn’t for the church, none of us would know there was any good news about Jesus, and unless there’s a church in a thousand or a billion years’ time, no one will know then. Don’t make a fuss about it. Just do it. Make a habit of it.
Habit number five: read the Bible. Imagine you were going into a crowded airport to meet someone you were longing to see but weren’t sure you’d recognize. And imagine you had a photo album of pictures that showed them in a thousand different activities. Wouldn’t you study that photo album so you almost committed it to memory? That’s what the Bible is – a series of portrayals of God, and we study it to get to know God better so we’ll have no recognition problems in a crowd. Genesis has 50 chapters: you can almost do it in Lent. You can get through a couple of Paul’s letters a week. There’s a dozen minor prophets: read a couple a week. Find a nether region in the Bible, and go digging. Buy or download an accessible commentary and follow a few verses each day. Just do it. Make a habit of it.
Habit number six: repair broken relationships. This is the last one, and for many people, the toughest. We’ve probably, many of us, got one big relationship that’s all wrong – and maybe there’s not a whole lot we can do about it. Maybe it’s just a matter of keeping out of someone’s way, if we’ve done them wrong, or trying to be civil, if they’ve hurt us. Now may not be the time to make things better. Now may not yet be God’s time. But that doesn’t mean we let all our other relationships get to that kind of place. Is there someone out there, a sibling, a rival, a long-time friend, a person who always felt inferior to you? Could you write that person a letter this Lent to say some things you’ve always appreciated about them but you’ve never told them? You can make it subtle. You can dress it up as something else. But could you see your way to that? And what about people whose names you don’t know, people from whom you’re estranged without ever having done the damage yourself? Could you make a new friend this Lent? Do it. Make a habit of it.
So that’s six ways to keep the tradition of Lent. I’m going to say all six slowly, so you get a chance to make some mental notes. Tick one box in each section. Examine yourself, the ill that’s there and the good that’s neglected. Pray, with a formal book and just any old how. Fast, to train yourself and to be in solidarity. Give money away. Read the bible. Repair broken relationships.
May you have a holy Lent, rooted and grounded in love.
Let us pray:
O God, who makes all things new,
new stars, new dust, new life;
take our hearts,
every hardened edge and measured beat,
and create something new in us.
Help us to create Holy Habits.
We need your newness, God,
the rough parts of us made smooth;
the stagnant, stirred;
the stuck, freed;
the unkind, forgiven.
And then, by the power of your Spirit,
We need to be turned toward Love again through you.