March 6, 2019 Ash Wednesday Service


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“GIVE UP AND TAKE UP”

By Rev. Victor Kim
Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 6:1-21
(03-06-19) Ash Wednesday

 

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. It’s 40 days from now until Easter, not counting the Sundays in between.  Yesterday would have been Shrove Tuesday, otherwise known as Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras.  If we hadn’t been at a presbytery meeting, we would have gathered to eat pancakes as a last hurrah of sorts before entering into the season of Lent, a season marked by sober reflection and repentance.  It speaks volumes that in our culture the preparatory observance to mark the beginning of Lent has become better known than the actual reason for it itself.

If you know anything about today’s Mardi Gras, you know that it has become this orgy of excess, this annual exhibition of overload where some of our worst inclinations are proudly put on display.  Traditionally Lent, if it is understood in our culture at all, is understood as a time of denial, of giving up something, almost a reversal of the original order of things in that the restraint of Lent seems to be a response to the overindulgence of Mardi Gras, the rest of the year, if you will.

So here we are on this first day of Lent, this Ash Wednesday, when later in the service,you will be invited to come forward to receive the imposition of ashes, to hear the words, from dust you have come; to dust you will return, to be reminded of our mortality and our need for repentance.  And you might be tempted to think about what you will give up for Lent.  What will you give up during Lent to make up for all that happens throughout the rest of the year?  Will you give up, as some people have vowed, your addition to Facebook?  Will you give up your love for poor dietary habits, like too much chocolate or coffee or fried foods?

Will you give up alcohol or swearing or some other vice?  Christianity Today has a list of the top 100 things that people have said that they will give up for Lent.  I won’t go through the whole list, but I will share with you the top 5 things: Social networking, Twitter, alcohol, swearing, meat.   Maybe it’s a good thing to practice a little restraint, or a lot, when it comes to some of these things.  But to frame Lent in terms of the negative, in terms of what we need to give up, what we need to stop doing, seems to miss the point entirely.  It gets the order backwards.  Lent is not a time to make amends for all the excess of the rest of the year. Lent invites us to a newness, a willingness to change, to reimagine how to live life, not how to pay for it.

The reflective, repentant nature of Lent is not in response to the overindulgence and abandonment of the rest of the year, but it is so that we may shape how to live differently, how to live with engagement and intention in all of life.  The imposition of ashes isn’t meant to be a depressing reality check for those who think that this life will last forever, but rather it’s meant to be a sign of hope, that though we are mortal, we belong to a God of resurrection and new life.  Lent, in our reformed tradition, has never been about giving something up, but about taking something up.  Yes, its okay, in fact, it may be a very good thing for many of us, if not all of us, to give up something for Lent, something unnecessary, something unhealthy, something that is a hindrance to our healthy growth as God’s people, but it can’t just be about giving up.  Lent is more properly about taking up, taking up that which is critical to us as God’s beloved children, taking up that which brings newness and purpose and passion in our relationship with God and with one another.

Our texts from the prophet Isaiah and the gospel according to Matthew speak of this newness.  If you’re going to fast, don’t be a hypocrite, making a show of your piety so that others will see, but instead do it in private.  Don’t pretend that you practice righteousness if you won’t extend justice to those around you.  Don’t be saying to God, says Isaiah, why do we fast but you not see?  Why do we humble ourselves but you do not notice?  God won’t notice what you refrain from, it won’t matter what you give up if what you give up is rooted in hypocrisy and self aggrandizement.  Unless you take up justice, unless you take up a commitment to break the chains of exploitation and oppression, unless you take up sharing your food with the hungry, your clothes with the naked and invite those homeless into your house, unless you take up a new way of humility and humbleness, God will see your piety for what it is.  If we’re going to give up, we need to be able to take up as well.

Don’t let your giving something up for Lent replace taking up an actual relationship with the living God.  And don’t let your sense of piety over giving up something for Lent keep you from taking a hard look at what God really wants us to be doing.  We give things up to make room to take things up.  Give up something that is getting in the way of your relationship with God.  Give something up that is getting in the way of the Kingdom.What is it you need to take up and what might you need to give up as well?  As some have suggested, maybe you do need to give up Facebook, and take up a pen and piece of paper and a stamp, and write a note to a teacher, a friend, a loved one, someone sick, or someone lonely.  Or maybe it’s giving up TV so that you can take up conversations with those around you, your family, your spouse, your kids, so that you can take up stronger relationships, or take up reading the Bible or take up regular prayer time.

Give up oppression and resentment and fear.  And take up justice and reconciliation, take up love. Mark your forehead with ashes – not to take up shame and guilt. Mark your forehead with ashes – and take up your inheritance as a child of God.  Change it up.  The point of Lent is change, a newness by which we intentionally live our lives, a way of shaping what is to come rather than a way of regretting what has already happened.  So says Jesus, if you are going to give, give generously, but don’t tell anyone.  Pray, but do so quietly.  Fast, but don’t make a show of it.  Lent is the time when we examine ourselves and our habits in the hopes of finding a better way of doing things.

Whatever we give up, if we give it up because we are practicing penance, it’s the wrong motivation.  Our repentance in Lent isn’t about penance, about a crushing guilt, but rather about being re-directed, re-configured, re-oriented, it’s about change.  It’s about taking up and taking on, not only giving up.  There’s an inherent balance to Lent.  We are called to a period of fasting and self-denial because most of us have too much already.  Those actions call to mind people who are perpetually hungry and constantly poor.  Donate the money you would have spent at a restaurant to the food bank.  Balance what you have with what others do not.

What is that balance for us?

Only we can answer honestly.  What is our motivation, what is our vision for the kind of life we know God wants us to live and lead?  As we enter into this Lenten season, may it be a time of intention and introspection, a time of deep reflection and repentance, a time of openness to being re-oriented and re-directed, a time of taking up a new way, a new possibility, a new hope.  From dust we have come and to dust we will return, but our God is a God who breathes life into dust and resurrects us from the dust to eternal life and love.  Thanks be to the God of Lent, Amen.

Written by Rev. Victor Kim
preached on 6 March 2019
at Richmond Presbyterian Church