Ash Wednesday, Yr A–The Rev. Karen C. Barefield

Joel 2:1-2,12-17
Psalm 103:8-14

In the name of the one, holy and living God:
who was, and is, and is to come. Amen.

Blow the trumpet in Zion!
sound the alarm on my holy mountain.
Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
gather the people. (Joel 2:1; 2:15)

On February 7th Bishop Anne sent out a Lenten letter, which began with this passage from Joel.

I will not read her entire letter but do want to share some of it with you…in part because she is our bishop, and I think it’s important to hear what she has to say…and in part because she speaks so clearly with spiritual wisdom and guidance for these times:

“Dear People of God,

“Lent is fast approaching. And I use the word fast intentionally.

“Fasting plays an important role in the individual and corporate preparation for Holy Week and Easter.

“In a paradoxical way, fasting is a way of strengthening ourselves for the spiritual journey.

“Jesus was first weakened by his 40- day fast in the wilderness, even as it helped prepare him for the times of testing ahead.

“Lent is a fitting time to refrain from some practices not because they are harmful – if that is the case, the practice should be put away for good – but as a way of opening up places of emptiness in our lives.

“Empty places – quiet and open – create a special hunger and, therefore, receptivity to the presence of God.

“This Presence is what upholds us and sustains us in times of testing.

“As a nation we are in a season of particular testing given the deep divisions and disputes being played out at almost all levels of society. From our dining room tables, the halls of government and our pulpits, voices cry “foul” and dispute what is fair.

“We may feel bombarded from all sides of the “aisles,” sullied by political rhetoric, and/or devastated by the dismantling of protections for citizens and the environment.

“The temptation of this season of discontent is to cry out and then tune out: a grand sign-off from Facebook, after restating one’s firmest convictions, or a refusal to turn on the news – and then signing into the latest Netflix Original Series.

“But Lent is not a time to turn back or turn away from the sins of the world; instead, it is a time to confront the sin of the world by being brutally honest about the sin that is within each one of us.

“Lent is the call to deeper self-awareness of the mote in my eye before I offer shrill criticism of the speck in my [neighbor’s] eye.

“It is a time to examine the ‘heart’ of matters at a hand: what evil lurks in my own heart and what concerns are the closest to the heart of God.

“With this is mind, I want to call the people of the Diocese of North Carolina to be more mindful than ever of how we are responding to the needs and concerns of the most fragile members of our communities: the hungry, the homeless, refugees, immigrants, children and the poor. Let us remember that our neighbors are far and very near.

“Let us choose the fasts and other disciplines that free up the space in our lives and resources to act with more intelligence, intention, kindness, self-awareness, humility and less fear and judgment.

“Let us act, speak and especially listen in ways that open hearts and always model respect for those with whom we disagree.”

Bishop Anne closes her letter by commending to us the biblical imperative of reconciliation and draws particular attention to hospitality to refugees and immigrants in our midst.

Fasting has always been a challenging spiritual discipline for me, but this letter gives me new understanding…fasting as creating open space within us where we hunger for God’s presence.

The prophet Joel speaks of fasting in terms of rending one’s heart…breaking open one’s heart in order to return to God.

“Return to the Lord, your God,” Joel says, “for [God] is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

If we believe in a God who is full of mercy and grace
and create room within our lives to bask in that mercy,
then it seems that what will flow forth from us toward others is that very same Grace and mercy…issuing forth forgiveness and reconciliation.

The Church offers us this season of Lent to slow down and create some space in our lives…space in which we can listen to God’s Spirit moving within and around us…space which allows us to see our own failings while also recognizing God’s great mercy.

We might create that space
by sitting silently in contemplative prayer each day for 10 minutes or more,
by praying together in community,
by using Lectio Divina as a way of listening to God in Scripture,
by listening to someone with whom we disagree just to hear their story…not to prove a point,
by entering into a relationship with someone deeply in need,
by limiting those things in our lives that distract us from relationship or prayer,
by confessing our part in a broken relationship.

The list is really endless.

I invite you to take some time and sit in prayer, asking God to reveal to you how you may open your heart to God’s presence this Lent and then ask God for the grace to accomplish it!

I pray blessings upon each of our journeys this Lent:
that the Holy Spirit may quicken our hearts,
that we may experience God’s steadfast love and mercy,
that we may embody God’s healing love to all we meet. Amen.

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us
through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole
human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which
infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us;
unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and
confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in
your good time, all nations and races may serve you in
harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ
our Lord. Amen.