Who knows what might come of that. Ash Wednesday (C) 2019


Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10; Mtt. 6:1-6, 16-21

Sometimes we hear someone say, “this won’t hurt,” and we don’t believe it. There is going to be a budget cut, but “it won’t hurt.” Hold this yoga stretch – “it won’t hurt.” Or the doctor says we need an injection, but no worries, “it won’t hurt,” —  and we just can’t believe that so we brace ourselves, hold our breath, look the other way and wait for it to be over.

We may feel that way about Lent. We know what Lent is. There is going to be a lot of talk about sin; our sin. It is going to hurt, so we brace ourselves, hold our breath, look the other way and wait for it to be over.

It’s true that there during Lent there is a lot of talk about sin,  but Lent is mostly about our relationship with God. We do talk about sin. We should. It exists.. There is sin in our world. There is sin in us. Whether in the world or in us, sin can wreak havoc in our relationships with one another. But it does not have the power to injure our relationship with God. God took away its power to do that with forgiveness. A forgiveness given not because we made amends or restitution but simply because God chooses to be in relationship with us always – no matter what.

So we begin Lent today / tonight with readings that are a little bit about sin, but mostly about God’s forgiveness. The Psalmist says

  •  that God puts our sins far away from us,  as far as the east is from the west ;
  •  that the extent of God’s forgiveness is unimaginable, as high as the heavens are above the earth; and
  • that God’s mercy is everlasting.  It was there yesterday, it is here today, it will be there tomorrow.  How long will God’s mercy last?  The psalmist says, “forever.”

That was the message of the prophets. That was the message of the psalms. And it is Paul’s message: that God came to us in Christ so that we could see and hear God’s forgiveness in the flesh.

There is a lot of talk in Lent about sin, but “sin” is not what Lent is about. Lent is about our coming to trust God’s forgiveness, and the difference, the change that it makes possible in our life.

If our faith is that God forgives us because we have made amends, or paid restitution, then our lives will not be much changed. We will avoid God, and maybe one another, until we can figure out how to make things right; how to undo the wrong; how to repay the debt. We could be waiting a long time.

But if we can hear that God forgives not because we are perfect or very clever, but simply because God wants to be in relationship with us, then our lives can begin to change. We start being shaped by grace: forgiven-ness, freedom. We can move, even though a mistake might be made. We can stop hiding, even if we’re not perfectly put together. We can see new possibilities, next steps, and maybe even take them. Who knows what might come of that?

Lent invites us to become a people shaped by grace. We will still talk about sin. We will admit that we see it in our lives and in our world. But we will talk about it because we no longer need to look away from it; we are no longer afraid to see it; we are no longer afraid to contend with it.

Shaped by grace,

We will not need to look away from the cry of the poor. We will be able to turn towards it, and give alms from our own hearts and with our own hands.  Who knows what might come of that.

We will not be immobilized by our fear of not having enough. We will be able to fast and be reminded of who and what truly sustains us.  Who knows what might come of that.

We will not need to look away from God, hiding our doubts, fears, angers…  We will be able to open our hearts to the One from whom no secrets are hid and pray honestly, from the heart.  Who knows what might come of that.

Sometimes we are afraid that Lent is going to hurt because we know it is all going to be about our sins and a debt we could never begin to repay. But in Christ, God calls us to be shaped by the grace of God’s forgiveness – not without sin, (wouldn’t that be nice), but absolutely without the paralyzing fear of sin’s power over us.

For us, ashes are only a little bit about sin and death. At the dawn of creation, it was ashes into which a loving God breathed life. God’s loving Spirit is with us still, and God’s mercy is everlasting.

Who knows what might come of that.

Leviticus: Sacrifices and commandments we don’t hear about

What comes to mind when you think of Leviticus? Perhaps primitive religion – animal sacrifices, or the kind of divine legislation that can’t be taken seriously anymore. . . the kind of “thou shalt and shalt not” divine legislation that was the basis for that infamous  “letter to Dr. Laura” excerpted below.

Dear Dr. Laura,
I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
What in Leviticus would be of interest to a progressive or enlightened Christian? I was interested in the passages about sacrifice and commandments we rarely hear.

Sacrifice features prominently in Leviticus. The first three chapters begin to describe, in detail, how the various kinds of sacrifices or offerings are to be made. There is nothing wrong with a detailed rubrical manual. Ancient or modern, most clergy do care enough to perform religious ritual as well as possible. Of course one can care too much about rubrics. Arguably God did in Leviticus 10, in killing Aaron’s two eldest sons for offering “unholy fire.”  Pretty harsh punishment for a rubrical violation. At any rate, how and when various sacrifices are to be offered and performed is the subject of much of Leviticus, and none of it shows up in the Christian lectionary.

We are ambivalent about “sacrifice.” “Sacrifice” has come to mean surrendering something precious for the sake of another or diminishing ourselves in order to advantage someone else. Thanks largely to theological protests made by women, that sense of “sacrifice” – as virtuous self-diminishment — has become suspect, even when the one who is making the sacrifice is Jesus himself, on the cross and for our sake. I say that we are “ambivalent” about sacrifice, because even if we find the “self-diminishment” aspect of it distasteful, we don’t quite know how to tell the Christian story without it. I was once asked to say the Eucharistic Prayer without referring to notions of sacrifice. It’s hard to do. It is woven into the Christian story. Take it out and you’ve got a different story.

Given how central and woven-in “sacrifice” is to Christianity, it is interesting to me that we do not use any of the “sacrifice ritual” passages of Leviticus in the Christian lectionary. We are, at the very least, ambivalent about sacrifice.

At it’s root, “sacrifice” simply means “to make holy.” The sacrifice rituals in Leviticus were a means by which ownership of property was transferred from the realm of the profane to the realm of the sacred. Animals and grain – the stuff of sacrifice — were an aspect of a person’s wealth. Note that animals that did not have commercial value because they were blemished or injured in some way were generally not suitable sacrificial offerings. This dynamic is as modern as it is ancient. Instead of training our clergy how to barbeque, we train them to pass the plate. Theologically, I don’t see much difference.

Sin and guilt comes up in Leviticus. There are “sin offerings” and “guilt offerings.” Interestingly, Leviticus says there is such a thing as an “unintentional sin.” (Leviticus 4) A lot of us think that if we don’t  intend a particular result, we cannot be morally held responsible for that result, even if our action or neglect has played a causative role. From Leviticus 4, we learn that even if we did not intend the offense, we are still morally responsible.

We do not, however, lose the hope of heaven. We simply need to make amends. Hardly primitive. What would be primitive religion is the fantasy that we are not morally responsible for the consequences of our unintended actions or inactions.

Commandments – Leviticus 17-26 focuses less on proper priestly sacrifice etiquette and more on what makes for a holy life. There’s more to it than the Ten Commandments.  Here are some of the other commandments.

-Do not deal falsely. (Lev. 19:11)
-Do not lie to one another. (Lev. 19:11)
-Do not defraud your neighbor. (Lev. 19:13)
-Do not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.
(No float?)(Lev. 19:13)
-Do not revile the deaf.
(Congress didn’t invent the ADA.) (Lev. 19:14)
-Do not put a stumbling block before the blind. (Lev. 19:14)
(Do more than comply with the ADA. Make the way truly straight and safe.)
-Do not render an unjust judgment. Do not be partial to the poor or to the
powerful. (Lev. 19:15)
-Do not be a slanderer. (Lev. 19:16)
-Do not hate any of your kin in your heart. (Lev. 19:17)
-Reprove your neighbor. (It IS your business.) (Lev. 19:17)
-Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge. (Lev. 19:18)
-Rise before the aged and defer to the old. (Lev. 19:32)
-Do not oppress the alien. “You shall love the alien as you love yourself.”
(Lev. 19:34)
-Do not cheat in measurements. (Lev. 19:35-36)
-Do not give any of your offspring over for child sacrifice. (Lev. 20:2)
(But what if the god promises to pay for their college education?)
-When you reap the harvest, do not harvest everything. Leave some (the
gleanings) for the poor and for the alien. (Lev. 19:9-19 and 23:22)

Under the heading of “does this bother anyone else…”
Twice in Leviticus there is a clear prohibition against the consumption of blood inasmuch as blood contains the life force. “For the life of every creature – its blood is its life; therefore I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.” (Lev. 17:14.) So, at the Last Supper, wouldn’t Jesus’ characterization of the cup as his blood give rise to a real “yuk” reaction on the part of anyone who observed this dietary law?

Lectionary Notes
There is only one passage which is used in the Episcopal version of the Revised Common Lectionary. Portions of Leviticus 19 are read on two Sundays both of which are in Year A.

Epiphany 7A         Lev. 19:1-2, 9-18
Proper 25A            Lev. 19:1-2, 15-18

The reading on Epiphany 7A includes many of the “commandments” noted above, but neither passage includes Lev. 19:34 (“Love the alien as yourself.”)  That is an unfortunate omission. Given that we already do a fair amount of cutting and pasting with lectionary passages, let’s cut and paste so that Lev. 19:34 makes it into the lectionary in the same reading that its more well-known parallel is read. And let’s hear it more than once every three years!

The photo in this post shows a portion of a beautiful wall hanging hand-crafted by Madeleine Buehler of Arlington, MA.