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Ash Wednesday

REV. JENNIFER ADAMS – March 9, 2011

After I’m done preaching, I have the privilege of inviting you (in the words of the Book of Common Prayer) to “the observance of a Holy Lent.” Now every season has its own holiness about it – w of course make every attempt to have holy Advents and Christmases and to have holy Epiphanies, Easters and Pentecosts too. But there is something about these 40 days and 40 nights that asks of us a particular sort of awareness, a reawakening of attentiveness to holy sorts of things and so the invitation. Lent calls us to pay attention to our faith and our true selves, our relationships to one another, to the community that is Church and to God. And of course the goal is that during this time we re-align ourselves in ways that stick – well into the next season and beyond.

Now this Lent Grace has chosen the theme of “healing” as a way to help us into that sort of attentiveness. Healing is something we all need on some level and we all have some experience of having received it too. The need for healing is an equalizer of sorts – one of the conditions of being human, and faith is one of the means by which we approach healing and seek to be made whole. In an effort to crack open this topic for us, our Wednesday discussion will be on Sara Miles book, Jesus Freak, subtitled, Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead and our Sunday Forums will include people like Holland Hospital Chaplain, David Blauw and Professor and author Rhoda Janzen who will talk to us about their personal and professional experiences and understandings of healing. Along the way we’ll be invited to share pieces of our own stories, hear others’ and through it all we’ll see what holy sort of work God will do among us. So, as we begin the season tonight not surprise that I’m going to talk about healing, and I’ll do it using the passage we just heard read from the prophet Isaiah.

Because the prophet was speaking to a people who were longing to be healed and desired nothing less than the wholeness they believed they could have in God. These people cried out to God day and night according to the prophet, and not only that but they were pulling out all the other religious stops they could think of — trying their very best to get God’s attention and response. They would fast regularly and humble themselves endlessly but when they didn’t get the expected divine response to those actions, they let God have it which is what we heard going on in the passage, “Why aren’t you noticing all of this, O Lord?” they cried out to the heavens. “Why do we fast but you do not see? …Why do we humble ourselves but you don’t even notice that?” In other words, “Why aren’t you obviously acknowledging our efforts, God? …We’re doing everything we can so why aren’t you giving us what we need?”

Now I need to say first that I understand that cry and I know that on some level we’ve probably all lived that cry. And I think that in some ways it’s one of the most honest prayers we can pray and it often gets cried out in situations where healing or wholeness is being sought.

Because those are the moments when our understanding of how God works gets shaken to the core. In some ways it seems most natural to assume that if we are hurting or broken, God must not be paying very good attention to us. If we are not well, and doing everything we can possibly think of to make ourselves well it must be that God has lost sight of us. Right? Not bad reasoning at all. And so like the Israelites we do everything we think we can in order to help God remember us. We cry out. We get more religious than we might have been before. Or far less religious than we might have been before. Some will go so far as making sure that they do everything right in order to make sure that at the very least when God deigns to glance their our direction, they’ll be at the front of the line.

And while pastorally, we can’t knock the sentinment, this passage from Isaiah and frankly the entirety of Lent and Holy Week turns that whole approach on its head. Because here’s the thing. God is already paying attention. That’s actually a given, a starting point. God is already paying attention, and God had been paying so much attention that God decided to be among us in order to help us understand that. God is not only watching, God is with us. That was the holiness of Christmas and Epiphany and will be the holiness that is Good Friday too. The prophet Isaiah reminded his people in this passage that the problem wasn’t so much with God — God even at that point in the story hadn’t missed a beat. The problem was with the people and the fact that they were essentially, like a bad country song, looking for healing in all the wrong places. Their understanding of wholeness was off, or at least their thoughts on how they might achieve wholeness were off. And so God explained some things to them through the prophet’s words.

Healing as individuals and as people of God is more about alignment than it is about immediate fixes or cures. Which is why Isaiah told the people that taking on pieces like fasting made no sense if in other areas of their lives, they were oppressing their workers. Wearing sackcloth and ashes while striking out at their neighbors or simply refusing to share what they had was sort of missing the point.

According to this passage, if we really want to be healed into the wholeness that is of God, the Shalom that is of God (sooner rather than later that is,) we like the Israelites need to align our spiritual practices with God’s vision of holiness. Because religious practices aren’t needed for the sake of getting God’s attention, we already have that. They are instead the means by which we redirect ours, our attentions and our focus. Spiritual practices are there to align the pieces that are each of us with the vision of Shalom that is of God. And the practices recommended aren’t that hard. None if it’s rocket science. “Feed people,” God spoke through the prophet, “and in those actions you will learn something of holy things … Offer shelter, release some captives (even if it’s yourself), break a yoke or two, loose a bond of injustice and in that work you will come to know God. And your attentiveness to those holy things will make you well. “It is then,” Isaiah said, “that your light will break forth like the dawn and your healing spring up quickly … you will be called repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live on.”

So, as we move into this season we know that God is with us, we have the attention and the presence of the almighty and we also know that healing is not something we can accomplish alone. Because there is something vital to our own healing that can only from acts of kindness, works of justice and the offering of compassionate sorts of gifts to others. Which means that I am not a Lenten person; we are a Lenten people. And as we go through this season, we will still hurt, we will still die. But, God willing (and all signs say that God is) we will come more fully to know what it means to love. And in that love is the wholeness we seek.

Amen.