Ash Wednesday 2021
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
Grace, mercy and peace to you in the name of Jesus. Amen.
In mid-March 2020, we were in the middle of our observation of Lent when the COVID-19 pandemic reached our part of the world. At that time we suspended all in-person gatherings in our ministry center, and we asked that the members of this fellowship gather in their homes for worship. So that we might still be together in Christ, at least in Spirit, we worshiped, prayed, studied and met together by making use of some of the stunning technology we have to keep us connected, even when apart. Our community changed and adapted in this crisis not simply because the governor ordered a shutdown or because we were afraid of getting sick ourselves, but voluntarily and out of obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus: "Love another as I have loved you" (John 13:34). Our goal then was to slow the spread of coronavirus, to protect the vulnerable, and, by adapting our methods, to continue to live out our mission to share the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed. Throughout this time, this congregation has shown a miraculous resilience. We have responded and adapted to a crisis while sustaining and even strengthening and expanding our capacity to carry out our mission. Additionally, we discovered how truly connected we are. When we do things like wear a mask, maintain a healthy personal space, avoid crowds and make a number of other small modifications to our daily life, we act out of love for our God and for our neighbor. Suddenly, we can see clearly how our behavior might ripple through an entire community for the good of our neighbors health and well being. When we gathered for worship on Ash Wednesday in 2020, we could have never imagined that we would be in this place a year later. Yet, here we are, and things are about to turn again.
Ash Wednesday and the forty days of Lent will look and fell very different this year. The things we plan to do and the ways we plan to gather and connect will be familiar enough by now -- streaming services on Facebook and YouTube, studies and meetings on Zoom, in-person spoken services on Saturday evening -- but the whole season will look and feel different because of where have been this past year. Here are some of the differences I am noticing. I wonder what things look like from where you sit today?
Ash Wednesday typically comes as an alarming disruption to our daily life. It is a sobering and sometimes shocking reminder our own mortality: "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return." In observing this day, we are forced to acknowledge the brokenness of this world, our own brokenness, and the many ways we contribute to and suffer from the all pervasive presence of sin our lives. This year we need no shocking reminder of our own mortality. Our mortality confronts us everyday. We can all agree that we and our neighbors are terribly, horribly broken. When we kneel to acknowledge and confess our sins, the litany of general categories of sin and its human and systemic manifestations are overwhelming. We are lost, and after this past year, it has become abundantly clear that we cannot save ourselves. Ash Wednesday gives us space to feel that pain. We lament our condition. We confess our sin. We turn to our God for forgiveness, salvation and life. In love for us God responds: Jesus. "Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). The good news of Jesus Christ has not changed since last year. In this crisis, however, that good news speaks deeply and directly to us in ways that we might never have imagined before.
The discipline of Lent is how we have referred to the basic ways we put our faith in Jesus Christ into practice. These practices include worship, prayer, fasting, learning Christ, giving generously, and sharing our faith. In past years, the appeal to engage in the discipline of Lent has been communicated primarily as a way of personal and individual spiritual growth. We are asked to notice how we have strayed from the faith by failing to tend to our relationship with God, and we provide remedies to help you put your faith into practice -- extra worship services, prayer times, study opportunities, and giving opportunities. The hope, of course, being that the habits developed during this season might be sustained in the seasons that follow and that these practices would come to shape our lives, as natural as breathing. This year, too, we hear the call to turn and return to Christ and to be strengthened in and through these disciplines for life in Christ. This year, however, I am not simply appealing to your own individual desire for spiritual growth, but for the sake of this congregation. This year, when you hear the call to take up the discipline that contends against evil and commits itself to Christ, I ask that you to respond not simply for your own sake, but for the sake of all the other people who are connected to you through Christ in the fellowship that is St. Paul's. These disciplines are multidimensional. They are what we do in fellowship with each other in Christ. The call to take up the discipline of Lent is a call to show up and be present for the sake of every other member of this community. You are that important.
Putting the pieces back together, I think that's what we are looking for God to do for us in Jesus Christ. Last year, this community was broken down into its most basic parts: individuals, households, maybe small groups of friends. We have always know that church was not a building. Church is people, people in relationship and in fellowship. As we enter Lent this year, we are a fellowship of variously connected and disconnected pieces, but the Holy Spirit is calling us back together, for our sake and for the sake of the world around us. I wonder how the Spirit will put the pieces of this congregation back together over the course of this year? I have no doubt that we will reassemble, and I am confident that we will continue to carry out the mission to which we have been called. I pray you share my faith in the Spirit's power, as well as my confidence in the people of this community to respond to the Spirit's leading. Perhaps that is the last invitation into Lent for us to consider this year. We are being invited to be part of what the Spirit's doing among us, reconnecting us to each other in Christ, and sending us out to gather our friends and family back into this fellowship and to proclaim the good news of Jesus in word and deed with each other and the world.
What will emerge from this all?
There is no doubt that we have all been shaken by what has been unfolding. Every aspect of our lives has been upset in one way or another. Many of us are hurting, grieving and suffering. Many of us are struggling to simply do the next right thing. Many of us have been pushed to the edge of our ability to cope. In that way, we have been enduring Lent for a long time now. In all of this, though, the Lord our God reminds us that Jesus has come to bring peace, wholeness and healing; forgiveness, reconciliation, and new Spirit for life with God and one another. Our Lord Jesus has come to us, and abides with us. So, we can be sure that whatever form these pieces will take when we are reassembled as the St. Paul's fellowship we will be united in Christ.
The Holy Spirit is putting the pieces back together. You are an important and vital piece of this community. Now's the time to make a bold plan to embark on what promises to be a decisive Lenten journey for this fellowship. Now's the time to learn again from Christ what it means to be God's people, united in Christ as a light for the world, a people who, as Eugene Peterson says, "practice resurrection in a world where death gets all the headlines." So, clear your calendar to free up time to worship, pray, learn and give of yourself each week, not simply for your own spiritual growth but to contribute to the growth of another's faith. Your sisters and brothers in Christ are counting on your presence.
The work our Lord is calling us to is difficult and challenging. Following Jesus is never easy, but it is the way of life. The promise of this season is that Jesus leads us out of death to life, makes whole what was broken and brings peace and unity where there once was division. By the the grace and power of Christ, I have seen glimpses of what God can do through us, even when we're in pieces. When we pushed to our limits, we see the limitless strength of God's love and mercy for us. I have seen God at work in ways I would have thought unimaginable a year ago. By the grace and power of God, amazing things have been done by the members of this fellowship as a witness to the peace and healing that Jesus gives the world. Can you imagine what God can do for the people in our neighborhoods when each and every one us is healed, restored and living out their calling within this body of Christ? We can truly and powerfully engage God's work, using our hands. We can share the good news of Jesus Christ in what we say and what we do in ways that can save and change lives. We can live as a community whose love and care for each other bears witness to what it means to be united in our Lord Jesus Christ, citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
To focus our attention on Christ, please consider ending each day with this prayer on, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, on your lips. We use it to close our intercessions at the end of our nightly bedtime prayers. It gathers up our hopes and God's vision for the ongoing future work of this congregation in a simple and beautiful prayer that does what prayer does so powerfully, connects us in fellowship and conversation with God and changes the way we see ourselves and our purpose in the world.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
Your partner in the Gospel,
Rev. James Krombholz, D.Min.
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