Ash Wednesday 9 March 2011
(Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 Psalm 51 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21)
“Make Room for the Cross!”
One of the most annoying things people often feel is when a pastor returns from a trip to the Holy Land and then begins each sermon for the next year with the words, “When I was in the Holy Land….” I can understand such an annoyance. So I will ask from you for one evening, some slight tolerance since this is my first time in the pulpit since returning last Thursday. But this will not be my normal, initial sentence for the next year.
So, let me begin, “When I was in the Holy Land, specifically in Jerusalem, one of the things we did was walk the via dolorosa, the Way of the Cross, the path that many people believe Jesus walked, carrying his cross to Calvary.
As you may or may not know, this path is a very narrow street, more like a path (probably a little wider than the center aisle, but not by too much), and all along the path there were shops with everything from lingerie to freshly-butchered goats; and there were shopkeepers, many with their hookahs (long water pipes) smoking I don’t know exactly what!
All along such a path there were markers, indicating the places of the traditional Stations of the Cross, events that happened as Jesus carried his cross to his death.
My first reaction to all of this hoopla in the midst of so sacred a journey was to be somewhat angry, embarrassed and irritated. After all, this was such a sacred place, not a place nor a time for such contradictory parts of life.
But I find in this experience an image of Lent. Because, although Lent is a time set aside by the church for fasting and repentance, it is not a time removed from our daily routine of living. Lent happens right in the midst of taking tests and exams, coming home for spring break, going to work, making dinner, getting the car inspected. Lent happens in the midst of meetings and breaking news stories and conflict and sickness and celebrations.
We’re talking God’s love for us in the midst of life!
The most important reason for even wanting to respond to the call for fasting and repentance is the great love God has for us. The prophet Joel tells us that the Lord is gracious and compassionate, abounding in love. Psalm 51 insists on the same theme. God’s love is unfailing and God’s compassion is great.
This undying love of God for God’s people that is an invitation to change on our part. Psalm 51 beseeches the Lord to create in us a pure heart and to renew in us a steadfast spirit. The prophet Joel tells us to return to God with all our heart so that God will have pity upon us.
St. Paul tells us that there is no time to waste: “I tell you, now is the acceptable time, the time of God’s grace! Don’t accept God’s grace in vain! Now is the day of salvation!”
And the Gospel has an important warning for us. The secret sin of religious people is hypocrisy: so let us do the right thing for the right reason!
There’s a saying my Dad used to say to us when, as a child I found myself in a place I really did not wish to be. He’d say: “Your head thinks from the place where you put your feet.” I think what he was saying is for us to always know where our feet were rooted; know who you are! This memory still serves as an invitation to return to our roots, to know where we stand at the beginning of this season of Lent. We stand on this appeal for conversion and for reconciliation with our merciful and compassionate God.
One final image from Jerusalem: as we walked the via dolorosa, often we were jostled along, sometime even pushed by the simple force of a crowd of people. And then, we’d hear a voice, always calm yet very decisive. And the voice would say: “make room for the cross! Make room for the cross!” And as we backed off to the side of the path, usually a group of pilgrims would be coming along with someone leading them, carrying a cross. And whenever I heard a voice saying, “make room for the cross,” this simple phrase became a prayer.
And I realized that is my prayer for Lent.
In the midst of daily life, not so much unlike those narrow, busy and demanding paths in Jerusalem where shopkeepers love to talk and bargain and smoke hookahs, where goats are hanging and noises are loud and boisterous. In the midst of busy lives and sinful lives, lives imperfect because of our human failings—lives in need of conversion and forgiveness. Right smack in the midst of all this, we begin the season of Lent, and we hear a voice calling out to us: “make room in your life for the cross!”
Make room in your lives for the merciful love of God, revealed most powerfully in Jesus from the cross. Make room for the cross, now is the time of grace, the acceptable time! Make room for the love of God in your lives! Make room for the cross during this season of Lent! Amen.