Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 103:8-14, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Our reading from Isaiah begins with God instructing the prophet to “shout out” to the people, calling their attention to “their rebellion . . . their sins.” Isaiah asks the people, “Why do we fast, but . . . do not see? Why humble ourselves, but . . . do not notice?” His goes on to say the people are only fasting to serve their own interest, they wish to appear righteous while they are oppressing others.
Isaiah tells the people the fast he chooses is “to loose the bonds of injustice . . . to let the oppressed go free . . . to share [our] bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into [our] house.” Like Isaiah, Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” He tells us not to be “like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray [where] they may be seen by others.” Prayer and fasting are of no value if they are done for show.
These passages call upon us to reflect upon our own practices of faith. The words of the prophet Isaiah and of Jesus and their challenge to us are an appropriate way to begin Lent. Lent is intended to be a time for us to reflect upon our faith. What is it we ask for in our prayers? Are we asking God for what we want for ourselves, or do we listen as we pray to hear what God wants of us? Both are good reasons to pray; yet, if all we do is ask for what we want, we will be disappointed. We must be open to receive God’s direction if we are to have a relationship with God.
I, like most of you, have been praying for an end to this pandemic – an end to the isolation, suffering, and deaths it has brought about. I pray for the day we can worship together in the same room. I pray for that day will come sooner, rather than later. The number of people infected is on the decline, the number of people vaccinated has increased daily – but we are told to continue to observe the precautions. I know it is the right thing to do, especially with all the new strains of the virus now present.
As I have prayed, the answer to my prayer has been a reminder that I need to practice patience. It needs to be my spiritual discipline during this pandemic. Patience. During Lent last year, our worship inside this church was interrupted by the pandemic. It was interrupted, but we have not stopped worshipping together.
We began broadcasting our services, switching from a celebration of the Holy Eucharist to Morning Prayer. If I could not serve communion to others, I was not going to celebrate the Eucharist. Then I learned that most of you wanted me to celebrate Holy Eucharist – even if you could not be here to receive it. The reason, I was told, was that our liturgy is connects us to Christ. Receiving the bread and wine is important, but not as important as the remembrance that “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”
The practice of us having ashes imposed upon our foreheads on Ash Wednesday was not done at the beginning of Lent as it is now. The liturgy itself draws from our burial office where we say:
You only are immortal, the creator and make of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth and to the earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust.
In Genesis, God creates Adam from dust, and when the Lord expels him from the Garden of Eden this is what the Lord says to Adam, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Thus, in Lent we remember our mortality – the temporal nature of this life. We don’t need ashes to be mindful of this.
Our Ash Wednesday service this year is not what any of us wanted. Yet, it remains a spiritual practice that can help us remember that our suffering during this pandemic and this winter storm is temporary – as is our mortal life. Jesus challenges us to fast not as the hypocrites, to pray not as the hypocrites. Jesus challenges us to pray deeply personal prayers. Lent calls upon us to be reflect on what distracts us from our prayers, to accept God’s love and forgiven and truly open our hearts to God, and to follow Christ’s call to led a life of service.
Let us pray. Open our hearts, O Lord, that we might live inyour presence. Help us to overcome the obstacles that have prevented us from living our lives in you. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.