Again and Again We’re Invited In

Wednesday, February 14, 2024
Pastor Jason Bryan-Wegner

Isaiah 58:1-12

Ash Wednesday

 

I invite you to pray with me:

Holy God, when our acts of worship are misaligned with our attitude toward others call us back into right relationship with you and our neighbors. Open our hearts to your holy word again and again, so that we live more deeply into your love and justice for the world. Amen.

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As a parent, I often tell my kids things I know they already know. Like, when they go somewhere with a friend, to always say thank you. Or when they think someone is being annoying or see someone being picked on at school, to be a good friend, even if its unpopular. Or when I tell them I love them when I drop them off at school, risking them embarrassment if their friends overhear.

Somethings just need to be said, and more often than we think so we don’t forget who we are and how we are called to live with others.

In saying these things to those we love, we hope it has an impact on who they are and who they will be, right? Whether that is our children or grandchildren, or nieces or nephews or parents, or friends or our spouse. Even if those reminders come with the occasional dramatic eye roll. The truth is if we don’t hear these things we can easily forget.

Tonight, we are reminded that we are mortal with a cross shaped smudge of ash on our foreheads and the words “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. Some of you sitting here tonight might think this is kind of dark, and heavy to be talking about in church. But, it’s something God’s people have been reminding each other of for centuries.

And it’s the truth. Like those things parents tell their kids, it’s something we already know, but sometimes forget. And because we hold this truth, with another truth – that God calls each of us into loving relationship with God and with each other again and again, no matter how dusty and dirty our lives may be, this truth actually sets us free to be God’s people, and let go of all the other voices that tell us otherwise.

Lent and Ash Wednesday doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know either.  But it does tell us things we are prone to forget. Like, despite of our best efforts, sin continues to have power in our lives. That sin has consequences and contributes to the suffering of others. That God cares as much, or even more, about how we treat others as God cares about how we worship – and that our worship of God and our treatment of others are both a spiritual matter.

Let me say that one more time –

God cares as much, or even more, about how we treat others – especially those who are vulnerable and in need – as God cares about how we worship – and both are a spiritual matter. This is just as important today as it was in the time of Isaiah.

At that time, Isaiah was calling God’s people to pay attention to the suffering around them during a difficult time in their history. Many of God’s people had recently returned from exile to Jerusalem. They wanted to rebuild the temple and restore the rhythms of worship before they did anything else. It was easy to think that being back in the holy city of Jerusalem, and making the city holy again with a grand place to worship was the most faithful thing to do. But God had other priorities. The city was in ruins, and people who had stayed had lost almost everything. They were in rough shape.

Isaiah cried out with the voice of God and told the people to wake up and see the suffering of their neighbors – the hungry, the wrongly convicted, the mistreated workers, the homeless, and the afflicted. Eugene Peterson’s Message tells it straight, “If you get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people’s sins, If you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out, your lives will begin to glow in the darkness. Your shadowed lives will be bathed in the sunshine.”

When acts of worship are accompanied by acts of mercy and justice for others, then God’s people receive what they are looking for from God – light will shine, God’s people will be strengthened and satisfied. Living waters will flow, and communities will be restored. Isn’t that something we all yearn for? Isn’t that the life we want for everyone?

One truth is not everyone sees it this way. In a lot of spaces in our lives, those without shelter are treated as criminals. Those fleeing their homelands to save their lives are labeled “illegal”. The people who grow and harvest our food, or clean our hotel rooms, or process our meat aren’t always afforded fair wages or human rights in their places of work. Sometimes we catch ourselves talking about “those people” when we see folks doing something we disapprove of, which separates us from our siblings in Christ. But there is another way…

You see, God yearns for us to have an integrated life between who we worship in church and how we relate to others in the rest of our lives. More often than I’d care to admit, I’ve seen faithful people forget who we are created to be, and separate our worship from our relationships.

When we forget, God is not quiet about reminding us. Not because God wants us to know we are terrible sinners, but because God loves us enough to invite us back into right relationship with God and each other again and again. God loves us enough to place the vision of a just and merciful world before us so that we can be part of the healing and restoration God is always working on.

Today is a day to lean into the truth of our fragile and often fractured human community. The world isn’t as God intends it to be. We know it, but it’s easier – it may even be in our nature – to do things to justify others’ circumstances or do things that make ourselves feel better, without really moving the needle on making the world a more just and generous place for all.  This is the hard word we know already, and that we sometimes forget.

But there is another word of Lent that we are called to remember. That as we smudge ash on our foreheads and confess to God this truth, God already knows we aren’t always going to do the right thing, but it’s never too late to receive God’s invitation to be part of God’s restoration project. It is never too late to love God by loving our neighbors, and working for justice for those God calls us to see.

It is never too late to “be repairers of the breach, and restorers of the streets to live in.”

The truth is that God’s mercy will always overcome our sin, God’s love will always lead us home. So, we turn with hope and confidence toward God who turns in us to forgive, to heal, to restore us to who we were created to be from the very beginning. Again and again, we are invited into God’s mercy and restoration.

Dear siblings in Christ, as we enter this Lenten season, how will your worship of God be reflected in your attitudes and treatment of others? How will your prayers be converted to acts of love and service? How will you look at those who we might otherwise label “those people” and see the face of Christ? The way we live our faith has consequences.

So, remember who you are and whose you are, again and again, and always. Amen.

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