February 26, 2020 6:30 AM, Noon, 6:00 PM
Today I preached three times at Hope Presbyterian Church here in Memphis, at the invitation of their pastor, Rufus Smith. He and I have become very good friends as we worked together on the Executive Committee of the Memphis Christian Pastor’s Network. I count it a high honor to preach there. This is what I said.
Today is Ash Wednesday, Forty days, not counting Sundays, until Easter Day! People often ask where the ashes come from? Well, often times we burn the palm branches from Last Year’s Palm Sunday.
Thirty-six years or so ago, early in my ministry, I put on my robes, walked into the parish house kitchen to get the ashes for that Ash Wednesday, only to discover that someone had thrown them away. Someone threw out the dust thinking it was what it was. I had maybe 10 minutes before the service began. The service went off on time and that year the faithful were “ashed” with a mixture of burned paper towel, contents of an ashtray, graphite from my pencil sharpener, bound together with a few drops of olive oil. It was rich black. How well it came off no one ever said.
“You are dust and to dust you shall return.”
is a memento mori, a token of mortality. We are formed from the basic elements of creation. Our spirit animates our bodies until we die. Our soul departs to God and our bodies to the dust.
Today, we mostly live in denial, comforting ourselves with illusions that we are more in control and more powerful than we really are.
Since Eve shared the Apple with Adam, we have tried to be gods and we are simply not constructed to bear the strain of divinity. The sin of our Ego-centeredness results in isolation, loneliness and separation. This sad, terminal state, in which we find ourselves, has only ONE antidote. That we be baptized into the death of our Lord Jesus, WHY? Because death is the only reality we can be certain that every person who has ever lived have in common. It is our common death that God in Christ saves us. IN Christ’s death all others find life, and that eternal.
Now, do not be deceived we can’t just put lipstick on our Ego-centeredness and call it a day. Only death is enough. We give up our so called life for new life in the redeemer.
JESUS TELLS WHY AND HOW TO DO THESE THINGS
MATTHEW 6:1 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  Concerning Prayer 5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But 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.
These disciplines are ways to say No, to our EGO and Yes to God.
So we practice:
- Prayer for the good of our souls. – praying is facing who we are and who we are not. Rather than turning quickly away at the sight. Live with it. It will give us humility, which comes from the word, humus or ground. There’s that dust again.
- Fasting for the good of our bodies. Fasting is telling our bodies, No. No to our appetites. So, when the church quit fasting, the culture began to DIET, as a friend of mine once said. What is a diet but a fast without spiritual content? Remember the Fasts of the Rich are the Feasts of the poor. Give food to the hungry these forty days.
- Alms-giving for the good of our neighbor. Our Lord knew his principal enemy was not the devil but money. Tell the almighty dollar that as important as it is, it is not our ultimate concern. Give to those in need, remembering that all we have is a gift from God.
THESE ARE THE SACRIFICES OF LENT.
There’s that word. The word Sacrifice is impoverished in our thinking. To sacrifice, we think, is to lose something and like a diet we feel instantly deprived and we want it stop right this minute.
Robert A. Johnson taught me that sacrifice is to “TAKE THE ENERGY OUT OF ONE LEVEL OF LIFE, PUTTING IT AT A HIGHER LEVEL OF LIFE IN SERVICE OF A HIGHER CONSCIOUSNESS!”
Take marriage for example, “You get engaged, publicly testifying that this person and this one alone is your primary relationship. We get righteously annoyed IF you continue to date other people. That’s wrong and not true, say we. It won’t be long before somebody sneaks around and informs your fiance’ the truth about the jerk they have committed themselves for life – is up too. Farce Over! “
But if you have genuinely sacrifices all others for the love of this one. It will have and give life. Not that there will not be challenge as anyone who has been married for thirty minutes can testify. Sacrifice in this case gives us a partner who for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and cherish when till you are parted by death. Now, that is true and life-giving sacrifice.
- Embrace that Lent is about making room for God to BE God.
- Gertrude Muller Nelson says that Carnival or Fat Tuesday is like emptying the dresser drawers out in the middle of the floor.
- Lent is about sorting out the contents of our lives. That is why we are here.
Therefore I invite you to the observance of a holy Lent.
In the name of God, Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Amen.