February 23, 2020

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b- – 6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

“Ash Sunday”

In the first reading for Ash Wednesday, the prophet Joel calls for a trumpet blast to go out and warn the people that they must change their lives and return to God with all their hearts. It makes me think of the warning cries that we are hearing lately from the young prophets of our time. They also are sounding trumpets and blowing whistles, striking from school, making speeches, addressing the world through social media, and calling us to make radical changes for the future of the planet.

The call of the prophets then and now challenges God’s people to cease their parties and celebrations, and to come together instead in a solemn assembly of weeping and mourning. Joel says that even the bridegroom must leave his room, and the bride her canopy, and join the community in repentance and fasting.

The message is hopeful because the people are assured of God’s grace and mercy. The prophet says that the Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. God relents from punishing. And yet, there is urgency to the call. They must return to God with all their hearts and change their lives today.

Likewise, we are warned in our time that the environmental crisis is indeed a crisis. We’ve been aware of it my whole life, and responding in bits and pieces by avoiding littering, recycling a little more, and slowly developing new energy sources to replace the ones that are endangering the planet and all God’s creatures.

But we must make more radical changes – changes that will affect every one of us and the societies in which we live. Who knows if we can do it in time to save our planet? But we must try, so the young prophets are begging us.

As we move into the Season of Lent, I want to invite us to think about Lent’s call something like that trumpet blast of warning. We are urgently called to drop whatever parties and pleasures we are enjoying these days, and to weep over our participation in environmental degradation, racism and oppression, violence and hatred, unkindness and indifference.

We are called to exhibit sadness for our sins of omission as well as commission as we have actively and knowingly done harm to others, or simply failed to heed the cry of the poor and powerless who need our help.

One Christian tradition during Lent is to give something up for the season. It’s a way of setting aside pleasures or self-serving habits, and giving our time, intention, or resources towards acts of service for others. “Giving something up” can be a helpful spiritual discipline when we consider it carefully and do it for the right reasons. It’s like the prophet telling the newly-married couple to leave their celebration for a while – not that the party is a bad thing, but there is a right time to give our attention to others and set aside our festivities.

Christians have been known to give up eating meat or other rich foods, to give up coffee or chocolate or other luxuries. Some have been known, in recent years, to give up social media for the season. They decide to give up their “play” time on the internet to more meaningful and helpful activities instead.

If you do give something up for Lent, I encourage you to do it according to Jesus’ instructions for spiritual practices. He said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

Jesus encouraged giving generously, and he modelled a life of faithful prayer to God. And although his ministry included lots of social engagements and meals shared with disciples and friends and even opponents, he didn’t object to fasting as a spiritual discipline. He just said that if you do it, don’t look dismal while you’re doing it. Don’t do it so that others will see you doing it and think more highly of you because of your piety.

I’ve also heard a lot of Christians talk about giving something up for Lent for the sake of their health and wellbeing. They give up eating desserts, or they commit to getting more exercise. In fun, my sister once decided to give up elevators for Lent to make herself take the stairs!

But Lent is not a diet or exercise program, and the reason for giving something up is not for our own benefit. Fasting as a spiritual discipline is not the same as these new “intermittent fasting” programs that are being advertised as beneficial.

The church encourages us to take up spiritual disciplines during Lent, but even if the discipline we choose is to give away our money or our possessions to the poor, we must be careful that we are not trying to store up treasures for ourselves on earth, as Jesus warns us.

Of course, the treasures that we want to avoid storing up for ourselves could be the money and the things that we accumulate in our lives. We are reminded that we “can’t take it with us” when we die, so there’s no point in hoarding things and holding on to all our resources when we could be sharing and giving generously to others.

But very often the treasures on earth that we try to amass are the honour, praise, and acclaim that we want to get from other people. When we do good and kind and generous things because we want to be well-regarded, we are still trying to store up earthly treasures. But a good reputation and lots of recognition will do us no good in heaven!

The Apostle Paul explains in his second letter to the Church at Corinth what a servant of God is called to do, and that call is to endure and to remain faithful, no matter whether they are being well-regarded by others or not.

He says that as servants of God, he and his co-workers have continued to serve “through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, and hunger.” Many of them likely ended up martyred for their determination, and none of them ended up rich, successful, or honoured during their lives in this world. Their treasures were in heaven alone.

When we hear the stories of the saints before us, it is often hard to imagine ourselves being able to follow in their footsteps. Yes, they endured the troubles and trials that arose from their commitment to the Jesus Way in a time when Christianity was illegal. But we couldn’t possibly do the same. After all, we’ve gotten used to our freedom of religion, and our relative comfort and affluence, and the conveniences that we enjoy in this country and in this era.

But if we are to respond to the urgent call of the prophet to return to God with all our hearts… If we are to react to the desperate cries and calls of the young prophets of today to change our ways for the sake of the Earth and all its creatures, then we will need to learn from their witness.

Paul says that they endured “by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.” Perhaps in this season, our Lenten discipline could be to cultivate one or more of those qualities in our lives, and to apply them to generous acts of love for our enemies or care for the environment.

But the one that I want to highlight is the last one – “the power of God.” After all, we only have so much capacity for patience or genuine love. We should try, of course, to speak the truth, and keep our hearts pure, and to seek knowledge and wisdom from God.

But on Ash Wednesday, perhaps more than any other time, we are reminded that we are human and we mess up. It is only the power of God, working in us through the gift of the Holy Spirit, that equips us to endure, as Paul and the Apostles once did.

I came across one suggested Lenten discipline which I want to recommend to us all, whether we are in the habit of giving something up for Lent or not. It’s a campaign of “Citizens for Public Justice,” a Canadian social justice organization. And it’s called “Give it up for the Earth.”

Citizens for Public Justice explains that in June 2019, even Canada declared a climate emergency. With it, Parliament recognized that we must work as a country to meet and exceed the current emissions-reduction target of reducing emissions 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

The scientific imperative of transformational climate action signaled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change echoes Indigenous voices and builds on the knowledge and experience of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples over generations.

It is clear that ambitious action is no longer optional. Still, the scale of change required can feel overwhelming. This is especially true for those who already struggle to get by, and it presents particular challenges to those whose livelihoods and sense of security are tied to oil and gas, including those who work in industries servicing the fossil fuel sector.

Citizens for Public Justice is championing a new Lenten discipline that they are calling “Give it up for the Earth!” and they are calling on the Canadian federal government to invest in a National Just Transition and Decarbonization Stretegy.

They suggest that doing so would allow us to address climate change, as well as the additional crises in inequality and social exclusion. A modernized, diversified green economy built on the principles of equity and justice would lead to major emissions reductions, create good, secure jobs, and promote the well-being of everyone in Canada.

And it’s not just the government that is called to act. The “Give it up for the Earth!” campaign includes a pledge for ordinary citizens like you and me. We can commit to walking, biking, or taking the bus; to buying less, buying local, and buying used; to eliminating air travel; to eating less meat; reducing electricity use; cutting waste, and refusing single-use and overpackaged items, and more.

Perhaps there is some inspiration in that list for things we might consider giving up for Lent. And once we get started, maybe we can give them up more permanently for the sake of the good Creation of God and future generations of God’s people.

May God give us the humility and courage we need to honestly look at our lives, to mourn our sins, to receive God’s grace and forgiveness, and to embrace the power of God that will equip us to endure the challenges ahead and make our lives a blessing to our neighbours and to the whole of God’s Creation.