Time to Turn Around
Ash Wednesday Homily based on Joel 2, 2 Corinthians 6, Matthew 6
Those of you who are of an age, or for those who are fans of the music of the 60’s and 70’s, will remember a number 1 hit tune from “The Byrds” entitled, “Turn, Turn, Turn”. This song was taken verbatim from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes and was originally written by the great folk artist Pete Seeger. The song and the scripture that it comes from remind us that there is indeed a proper time for everything; planting and harvesting, being born and dying, etc. It is the proper place to find ourselves as we begin the traditional 40 days of Lent. It is proper because we need to be reminded on this special night of the need to turn our faces toward Jerusalem and prepare ourselves to walk the way of the Cross. Because, there can be no joy of Easter without the humiliation and suffering of the Cross. Let us center ourselves now in a moment of prayer…
Our scripture readings are in many ways calling us to recognize that we are at an inflection point in our spiritual lives. The minor prophet Joel is speaking to the Israelites about the coming storm of the Assyrian army which will decimate the Northern Kingdom and forever separate them from the rest of Judaism. God is trying to get the people to turn around – to repent, that is, and return to right worship and living. Joel speaks God’s words saying, “…return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing….”
The Apostle Paul tells the believers in Corinth that, “…now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation….” Paul details the rigors of his ministry and the ministry of those who adopted “The Way”. In his service to God, Paul has endured all manner of harsh treatment such as beatings, imprisonment, hunger, riots and other calamities. His great endurance to persevere through all that, came from his singular focus on patience, kindness, genuine love, truthful speech and most importantly – the power of God.
Jesus is teaching the “Sermon on the Mount” in our reading from Matthew. For disciples of the Christ, this is probably the single most important summary of all that Jesus taught – and how He modeled for us how to live. He talks much about not being hypocrites like those who wish to be seen as pious but who are complicit in the oppression of Rome. His guidance on giving of ourselves through charity, prayer, fasting, and combating greed, are foundational as we begin this season of Lent. He ends up with the powerful words, “…For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also….”
All of our scriptures this evening seek to prepare the way for us to walk our Lenten journeys – both individually and as the Body of Christ. In the early days of what would come to be called Christianity, converts to the faith would be in their final month of a three-year preparation to join this movement. Easter vigil was a time of celebration and baptism where they would fully enter into the Body…but these 40 days lay in front of them. Days which were characterized by fasting, praying, and earnest exploration of their sins and shortcomings. The new converts understood that their season of living for themselves was coming to a close, and that they needed to intentionally prepare for entry into a new reality.
You see, Lent meant something important to believers in a time where worshipping an entity other than the Emperor could end your life. New believers had to understand that, like Paul, they would endure public scorn and ridicule and possibly imprisonment, torture and death. They really needed to be solid in their trust of the power of God’s grace to see them through, or they would deny the faith and transformative power of God. Once Christianity became the religion of the realm under Emperor Constantine, the oppression stopped and so did the rigorous training of new believers. Millennium passed and we find ourselves talking about preparing ourselves during Lent by fasting from chocolate or other trivial renouncements while continuing to go about our daily lives complicit in the workings of our own empire(s).
Easter people, it is time to turn around our thinking and our lives. It is a season of metanoia – a Greek word which is most often translated as “repent” but more completely means to physically, mentally and spiritually go in the opposite direction. It is not too late, but time is moving quickly for all of us and we have much work to do in the world. In this season of Lent, I implore you to walk a different path than you have before. Instead of giving up indulgences, I ask you to consider taking on a new spiritual practice. Maybe it is fasting from the time you wake until dinner one or two days a week and investing the money you save to help those in need (donation to UMCOR or MESA for example). Maybe it is being more disciplined in your prayer life or reading the Bible – there are many daily devotions to help you. Maybe it is fasting from negative thinking, reading and acting and instead praying for those who are engaged in those behaviors. Maybe it is asking ourselves what our treasure is and thus where our heart is as well.
Albert Einstein’s memorable saying, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”, echoes the words of scripture. The Bible calls us to turn our minds and lives around – to remember we are made of dust and to dust we will one day return. Yet, as disciples of Jesus, we know full well the promise of the Resurrection and that joy will come in the morning. This season of Lent is our time to live fully into who we are as members of the Body of Christ. Let us use this Lent as our time to turn, turn, turn. Amen and amen!