Ash Wednesday

Welcome, friends! For Christians all over the world, today begins a 40-day journey to Easter. Click the videos below, and together we will start that journey toward Jesus…

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 Pastor Tim

Forgive, almighty God, those things we have done which have caused you sadness, and those things we should have done that would have brought you joy. In both we have failed ourselves, and you. Bring us back to that place where our journey began, when we said that we would follow the way that you first trod. Lead us to the Cross and meet us there. Amen.

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 – Ash Wednesday

Blow the horn in Zion;
    give a shout on my holy mountain!
Let all the people of the land tremble,
    for the day of the Lord is coming.
It is near—
    a day of darkness and no light,
    a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread out upon the mountains,
    a great and powerful army comes,
        unlike any that has ever come before them,
        or will come after them in centuries ahead…

Yet even now, says the Lord,
    return to me with all your hearts,
        with fasting, with weeping, and with sorrow;
tear your hearts
        and not your clothing.
    Return to the Lord your God,
        for he is merciful and compassionate,
        very patient, full of faithful love,
            and ready to forgive.
Who knows whether he will have a change of heart
    and leave a blessing behind him,
    a grain offering and a drink offering
            for the Lord your God?
Blow the horn in Zion;
        demand a fast;
        request a special assembly.
Gather the people;
        prepare a holy meeting;
        assemble the elders;
        gather the children,
            even nursing infants.
Let the groom leave his room
        and the bride her chamber.
Between the porch and the altar
        let the priests, the Lord’s ministers, weep.
    Let them say, “Have mercy, Lord, on your people,
        and don’t make your inheritance a disgrace,
        an example of failure among the nations.
    Why should they say among the peoples,
        ‘Where is their God?’” (CEB)

Imagine you are out for a hike on a beautiful spring day and you come to a creek. You notice that someone has dumped trash into the stream—not a pretty sight. Judging by some of the empty soda cans, the trash has been there awhile. And there is an ugly film on top of the water. You do not want to leave the scene as you found it, because it would bother your conscience.

So, you stoop down and begin gathering the trash. It ends up taking several hours before you can begin to see a difference. It is amazing, you muse, on how much junk is there. You sit back, rest for a moment, and realize you will have to keep coming each day until the site is truly clean. But when you come back the next day, it is as if you did not even do any work at all.  In fact, there is more trash than the day before. It seems the garbage bred overnight. You think about the unlikelihood of someone coming to this very spot to dump their garbage just in the one measly day you were away.

Then, you realize that something smells fishy—so to speak. So, you begin to follow the creek upstream. Sure enough, there is a nasty garbage dump that has been there for years. The waste from it is emptying into the passing creek. Your cleaning job was only a small opening to a world of filth. You could try and clean every day. But if you really want your creek to be free of pollution, this means going directly to the source and dealing with the crud that is there.

Our hearts are the source from which our lives flow. Unfortunately, we spend great amounts of time, money, and energy—even in the church—doing trash removal “downstream.” But real transformation begins when we travel upstream to the source. Our real struggles and sins take place where no one sees them down deep in the heart.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day in the season of Lent. Ashes remind us that we live in a polluted world full of garbage. That pollution is fouling up our lives and we must respond to the mess with a humble return to God. Lent is a 40-day cleaning project on the inside of our hearts, instead of trying to keep up dealing with all the scum on the outside of our lives. 

Entrance to confronting the dump of garbage requires fasting, self-examination, prayer, and repentance. The Lord said through the ancient prophet Joel that it is not too late to return to God with our whole hearts. To do so requires grieving and lamenting our stinky sin and turning back around to a merciful God who does not like to be angry and punish people.

We find that at the end of the Lenten journey, Jesus is there. He swallows all the massive tonnage of the world’s garbage on the cross. The refuse is so rotten that it kills him, and there is only darkness. Then, three days later, Christ is risen, having shaken off the filthy stench of death. Jesus Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of the prophet’s words, the merciful one who has taken care of the filthy source of garbage once and for all.

May you find on this day and every day that the spiritual practices of prayer, fasting, and repentance put you in a place to receive Jesus. As you lean into the mess throughout the next six weeks of Lent, may you discover the cleansing and healing agent, Jesus Christ, the Savior who scrubs the heart clean of toxic waste.

Holy God, our lives are laid open before you: rescue us from the chaos of sin and through the death of your Son bring us healing and make us whole in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Jeremiah 31:31-34 – A New Covenant

The Last Supper by Francis Newton Souza, 1990

“The day is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. This covenant will not be like the one I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and brought them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant, though I loved them as a husband loves his wife,” says the Lord.

“But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already,” says the Lord. “And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.” (NLT)

For the past few weeks, the Daily Lectionary readings brought us steady admonitions of passing faith onto future generations, with obedience as the key to it all. However, God’s ancient people kept going through significant times of unfaithfulness, infidelity, and disobedience. As if they had some sort of spiritual A.D.D., the people could not seem to keep their eyes off the glittering gods from the surrounding nations.

For certain, God has always possessed a faithful remnant of people devoted to observing the covenant. Yet, the nation in the prophet Jeremiah’s day floundered and broke faith with the teaching given to them.

Since God’s grace has the last word, the sins and shortcomings of the backslidden people who failed to pass on the covenant teachings to their progeny would have a better ending than judgment.

God’s answer to repeated human failings was to establish a new covenant, unprecedented in its audacious mercy.

Rather than rewriting commands on stone tablets (as with Moses on Mount Sinai) and having a remedial class on covenant, God would instead do the extraordinary by writing the law on human hearts – that way they would know the Lord in a direct and immediate way. What is more, it would be for everybody, neither only for the remnant nor for the spiritual elite.

From the least to the greatest, from young to old, even from Jew to Gentile, God would forgive once and for all.

If that is not the most gracious act ever decreed, I do not know what is. This was a radical move of spiritual amnesty which was completely undeserved and most definitely not something any other god from any other nation would ever do. It was unthinkable – completely off everyone’s radar. Yet, that is exactly what grace does.

From a New Testament (New Covenant) perspective, Jesus is the fulfillment of all God’s good covenant promises to the people. Furthermore, God’s Holy Spirit serves as the continuing presence of Jesus within us, teaching us and guiding us in the ways of God. Our only task, then, is to live into those promises – to know them, claim them, and bank on them. 

We are most obedient when we believe the promises of God and throw all our hope in them.

The implications of this divine decree are enormous. It means:

  • I cannot do a dang thing to earn God’s acceptance because I already have it! (John 6:37; Colossians 1:21-22; Romans 8:33-39, 15:7-12)
  • I need not fear judgment because Jesus has already taken care of the sin issue, once for all! (Romans 6:5-10; Hebrews 7:27-28, 10:5-10; 1 John 4:17-18)
  • I lack nothing because God has already given me everything I need for life and godliness in this present evil age! (Philippians 4:19; 2 Peter 1:3-4)
  • I can know God, right now, without jumping through spiritual hoops or over imposed hurdles because Jesus leveled the way and made it clear! (John 14:6; Ephesians 2:8-9; Hebrews 2:9-18)
  • I can enjoy forgiveness and a clean heart because God has decreed it to be so! (Psalm 103:8-12; Ezekiel 36:25-27; Luke 22:20; Hebrews 8:7-13, 10:14-18)

If this were not enough, Jesus has sent the Spirit to be with us forever, to guide us and lead us into realizing the law written on our hearts. We are never alone. God is with us.

Jesus said, “The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father sends, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you. Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Do not be troubled or afraid.” (John 14:26-27, CEB)

In this world of trepidation, fear, uncertainty, and unrest, there is peace, grace, and love because of Father, Son, and Spirit, the one true God, the Blessed Holy Trinity, the Divine Warrior who fights our battles, the Lord of Hosts who has our backs. Yes, this God, and no other god, has the chutzpah to make promises to us and the power to back them up.

Our Father in heaven,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right;
Do what’s best—as above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
You’re in charge!
You can do anything you want!
You’re ablaze in beauty!
Yes! Yes! Amen!

Mark 7:1-13 – Unmasking Hypocrisy

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One day some Pharisees and teachers of religious law arrived from Jerusalem to see Jesus. They noticed that some of his disciples failed to follow the Jewish ritual of hand washing before eating. (The Jews, especially the Pharisees, do not eat until they have poured water over their cupped hands, as required by their ancient traditions. Similarly, they don’t eat anything from the market until they immerse their hands in water. This is but one of many traditions they have clung to—such as their ceremonial washing of cups, pitchers, and kettles.)

So the Pharisees and teachers of religious law asked him, “Why don’t your disciples follow our age-old tradition? They eat without first performing the hand-washing ceremony.”

Jesus replied, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,

‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce,
for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’

For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.”

Then he said, “You skillfully sidestep God’s law in order to hold on to your own tradition. For instance, Moses gave you this law from God: ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you. ’In this way, you let them disregard their needy parents. And so you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition. And this is only one example among many others.” (NLT)

As I read this Gospel text for today, I tried to imagine what emotions Jesus might have experienced when confronted about the lack of attention to tradition from his disciples concerning ritual hand washings – maybe frustration, anger, sadness, exasperation, disappointment, irritation, aggravation, or discouragement. Perhaps Christ felt all those emotions. Whatever Jesus was feeling at the time, I can easily see him taking a deep breath and exhaling a great big *sigh* over the religious leaders’ hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is a disconnect between the values we espouse and our behavior. When there is incongruity between what we say is important and how we really live, this is being two-faced and duplicitous. The men who came to see Jesus were plain old insincere hacks who practiced religious quackery. And Jesus saw right through their fake pretension of righteousness.

First off, this narrative is not a dig on rituals themselves but on using ritual to leverage an appearance of religious superiority over others. This type of motivation for engaging ritual ignores the ethical and moral intention of those rituals.

Sometimes folks can get so doggone wrapped up in how faith is represented that they lose sight of the faith itself.

Hypocrisy has to do with our motives – not so much what we do but why we do it. Rituals are good. Why we do them or not, or how we go about doing them, gets at the heart of our objectives for engaging religious practices. Are they truly a worship offering to God, or are they merely mechanisms for keeping up appearances of holiness?

Hypocrisy is acting a part which is not truly us. It is to live from the false self through the attempt of providing an idealized perfect person to the public instead of embracing the true self and realizing our common humanity with one another in genuine devotion to God and service to others. Religious hypocrisy is particularly insidious because it uses what is sacred for selfish purposes. It damages the credibility of the religion, creates idolatry, and covers hate with a veneer of pretentious piety.

The hypocrite is one who is a bundle of disparate parts in massive need of integration to a whole and real self. The cost to facing this is vulnerably exposing oneself as flawed, imperfect, even ugly. Many persons have no willingness to be viewed by others as such, so they maintain their play-acting and continue to seek the attention and accolades as a model religious person.

We all must come to grips with the reality that God cares a whole lot about why we do what we do.

When the forms of faith become tools of oppression and crushing burdens upon others backs, then those forms have supplanted the faith itself. Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks, and from the heart the hands and feet move. Whenever we care more about being and appearing right than getting it right and becoming better, then we have a heart problem. The heart of the issue is the heart itself. Clean up the heart, and everything else follows – not the other way around.

The probity of today’s Gospel lesson is that we might misinterpret what is important to God. We may be playing the hypocrite yet have the belief we are genuine. The capacity for our hearts to enlarge with love is in direct relation to an awareness of the hidden motives buried within those hearts. Evil intentions and motivations are what separate us from God – not our race, class, age, gender, religion, ethnicity, behavior, rituals, or anything else on the outside.

 

log
“You can see the speck in your friend’s eye, but you don’t notice the log in your own eye. How can you say, ‘My friend, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you don’t see the log in your own eye? You’re nothing but show-offs! First, take the log out of your own eye. Then you can see how to take the speck out of your friend’s eye.” –Jesus (Matthew 7:3-5)

If we find ourselves being nit-picky of others, this is usually a clue that the unconscious self is trying to protect us from facing the pain of our own sins by projecting and focusing on another’s supposed missteps with tradition or ritual.

Fortunately, Jesus came to this earth full of grace and truth. Christ sometimes, maybe oftentimes, set aside niceness and decorum to go for the heart. In shining light on the motives behind the deeds of people, some repented and received the good news of the kingdom of God; and, others resisted to maintain their illusion of control and superiority. None could ride the fence with Jesus around. You either loved him or hated him.

The beauty of grace is that when we squarely and uncompromisingly face our sins and let go of things we consider so important, and turn to God with authenticity, we are welcome at his Table.

Most holy and merciful Father, we acknowledge and confess before you our sinful nature, prone to evil and slow to do good, and all our shortcomings, offenses, and malevolent motives. You alone know how often we have sinned in wandering from Christ’s way of grace and truth, in wasting your gifts of compassion and justice, and in forgetting your love. O Lord have mercy on us. We are ashamed and sorry for all the ways we have displeased you. Teach us to hate our errors; cleanse us from our secret faults; and forgive us our sins; for the sake of your dear Son, our Lord. Most holy and loving God help us to live in your light and to walk in your ways according to the commandment of Jesus Christ, our Savior, in the enabling of your blessed Holy Spirit. Amen.