Every year about this time, my campus pastor would start hectoring us about our Lenten disciplines. “What are you going to give up?” he’d demand, and every year it seemed like Larry would badger us into really sacrificing for Lent. One year, my roommate and I decided to join Larry in giving up smoking at the Center for Lent. It was that year when we discovered that disciplines are only disciplines if you can keep yourself from skirting the rules. We went so far as figuring out how far away from the Center we had to stand before we could have our cigarettes in good conscience. After that year, I considered giving up giving things up for Lent.
Maybe you’ve decided to take up a discipline for Lent this year. You’ve picked up a devotion book somewhere and you’re going to spend some time reflecting on God’s word every day. You’ve chosen to abstain from meat or beer or chips or soap operas or anchovies or Facebook or something else you really love. Good for you, and if I can help you in any way, let me know. But Jesus had something to say about these things: Beware. It is his warning we must also heed as we move from the revelation of Epiphany to our prayers of supplication in Lent.
Have mercy on us, Lord Jesus. You call us to humility and service – help us to be humble and serve. Tear down our love of attention and build in us a desire to help the poor, to pray honestly, to hold the things of this world lightly. Amen.
“The call to be extraordinary is the great, inevitable danger of discipleship…The extraordinary is not supposed to happen in order to be seen…[it] should not be done for the sake of its being extraordinary.” So wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book Nachfolge. He agreed with Martin Luther that spiritual disciplines, no matter how extraordinary, have no value in and of themselves, and can become dangerous to us because they can lead us into sins like pride, self-righteousness and exclusivity.
But Bonhoeffer also said this: “A life which remains without any ascetic discipline, which indulges in all the desires of the flesh as long as they are ‘permitted’ by the civil order [justitia civilis], will find it difficult to enter the service of Christ. Satiated flesh is unwilling to pray and is unfit for self-sacrificing service.” So, which is it? Which fire are we playing with as Lent begins: the slow smolder of our souls choking on our excess, or the searing heat of pride from our extraordinary spiritual disciplines?
The answer, of course, is neither. Tonight we gather to remember that the fire is already out when it comes to our Sin, and Sin won the battle over us. Tonight we are marked in ashes as a reminder of who we are: broken, sinful, mortal women and men who have no hope of overcoming our sin in this life. We are dust, and to dust we shall return. But there is another here tonight who has the power to raise up mortals out of the dust, to breathe Spirit into lifeless clay and make it live, and that one, Jesus Christ, has promised us that He has won the victory over our sin, that every day we live is a day when He washes away the ashes of our sin, cleansing us through His cross, raising us out of the tomb with Him into resurrection life, both here and in the kingdom to come.
Tonight we are marked with our death as a reminder that we have no power over it. Bonhoeffer wrote, “The first Christ-suffering that everyone has to experience is the call which summons us away from our attachments to this world. It is the death of the old self in the encounter with Jesus Christ. Those who enter into discipleship enter into Jesus’ death. They turn their living into dying; such has been the case from the very beginning. The cross is not the terrible end of a pious, happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death.” But I tell you tonight, this death is a death we need, for God puts us to death in our sin so that Christ may raise us up to new life, through the covenant made through Baptism, lovingly maintained through the forgiving power of His body and blood.
The first Lenten discipline is the one which renders all other disciplines moot: the ashes which mark us as those who will die. But the second Lenten discipline renders the first moot: God raises you out of the dust into life. Yes, you are marked with ashes. Yes, you are dust, and to dust you shall return. But probably not tonight, and certainly not at this very moment. What you have received is a reminder of your mortality, a sign of the eventuality which will come upon every last one of us. But mortality does not equate to fatalism. The fact that you will die does not render the time between now and your death without meaning. What you know right now is this: you will die. But what God is saying in the meantime is this: what will you do with yourself and the sentence of life God has pronounced upon you? Tonight’s question is not, “How shall we die?” Tonight’s question is, “How shall we live?”
The harsh words about fasting from Isaiah and Jesus in tonight’s readings are not critiques of fasting itself. Isaiah and Jesus criticized people, not fasting. Isaiah asks the question of God, “Why do we fast, but You do not see? Why humble ourselves, but You do not notice?” And God’s reply: “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. You fast only to quarrel and to fight and strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high…if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong, and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”
When it comes to Lent and the spiritual disciplines we may or may not take up, the operative question isn’t “What?” – it’s “Why?” Why give up Facebook? Why give up chocolate or beer or meat or cigarettes? One of my old camp friends is giving up the “F-bomb” – to which I say, more power to you if you can do it, but why? God is not impressed if you stop swearing but continue to treat your neighbor with contempt. If you give up cigarettes but spend the extra cash on yourself, nothing changes. If you give up cable TV but spend the extra free time watching movies you’re trading one idol for another. Fasting is not about giving things up to make God proud. Spiritual discipline is about recognizing the power of the distractions in our lives. Spiritual discipline is about shifting our focus from ourselves to the needs of others. Most importantly, spiritual discipline is not like training for a marathon or triathlon: it isn’t about meeting our own goals. Spiritual discipline is about humbling ourselves privately so that we might praise God publicly.
I hope you do remember tonight that you are dust, and to dust you will return. Accepting your mortality, your limits, is in itself a humbling experience. You are not eternal. You are not the center of the universe. This creation will move on long after the day your body crumbles into the dust. But that day is not today, and we dare not let ourselves fall into the trap of thinking we can overcome our mortality by impressing God with our humility. We will die, but more importantly, we live, now, and how we live is far more important than how long we live. We who will die are called to live and follow and serve the best that we can. May your journey this Lent be a journey that strengthens your faith and trust in Jesus Christ. May you learn what it means to follow in ordinary ways, on ordinary days, even when others around you think it extraordinary. May your private humility help you praise God in your public living. May you discover joy and meaning as the ashes of your sin are washed away by the extraordinary grace of Jesus Christ, and may the breath of God’s Holy Spirit fill you with humility, discipline and life, now and always. Amen.