Richard Maxwell

Ash Wednesday
5 March 2014
Grace Episcopal Church

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Ours is a stately liturgy.  It is orderly and dignified.  It is unhurried and, when it is done well, seamless.  Our liturgy has no sense of haste or urgency.  It’s quite a contrast to our first reading this evening from the prophet Joel, which is all about urgency . . . about impending doom.  Blow the trumpet!  Sound the alarm!  The day of the Lord – Judgment Day – is at hand!  Repent!  Now!

After the Ascension, the very earliest followers of Jesus believed that he would return very soon, indeed . . . certainly within their own lifetimes.  This is at least part of the reason why, as we hear in the Book of Acts, they sold everything they had, pooled all their resources for the care of all, and spent their time praying and singing in the temple . . . Jesus was going to come any minute . . . any second . . . they didn’t need to have any cares whatsoever about this world.  One of the challenges of the early church was to cope with fact that Jesus did NOT return immediately . . . that, in fact, the earliest followers of Christ began to die before Christ’s Second Coming.  This was something of a crisis for the church in its early days.

Now, centuries later, we’ve become accustomed to the fact that Jesus may not come again for a long time . . . in fact, if we think of it at all, I imagine that we expect Christ’s Second Coming will take place far, far in the future.  Hundreds . . . if not thousands . . . if not millions of years from now.  Christ will come again . . . sometime loooooong after we ourselves have died.  And that perhaps presents a different problem for us than that which faced the earliest Christians . . . we have largely lost the sense of urgency to our faith.  While our liturgy is beautiful and offers us many gifts . . . it does not offer us a sense of urgency.

But what if?  What if we KNEW Christ were coming very soon indeed?  Would we behave rather differently?  Would we pray rather differently?  Lots of people have tried to imagine the end of time.  There have been endless artistic treatments of the end of the world . . . including a great many movies.  When portraying the approaching apocalypse movie directors tend to show the world reacting with some form of mass hysteria.  I suppose panic is one very possible reaction if we really believed that Christ was indeed suddenly going to appear . . . hurtling towards us on the clouds accompanied by the heavenly host.  I suppose that might be quite scary indeed.  In asking my question, “What if?  What if we KNEW that Christ were coming very soon indeed?” I am NOT hoping to instill terror in you . . . I am NOT trying to get you to panic and begin running around in circles.  But I AM trying to get you to take the possibility seriously.  What if?

If we KNEW that we were going to meet our Lord and Savior very soon indeed . . . perhaps tomorrow . . . or at the very latest, this weekend . . . would our priorities remain the same?  I very much doubt it.  Think for a moment, if everything were going to come to a halt very, very soon . . . what would you want to make certain was done?  What would you happily drop and forget about?  I have a couple of suspicions . . . first, I imagine that many of us, thinking about the end of time, think of people . . . children, spouses, siblings, parents . . . I suspect that many of us would want the people we love to be assured of that fact . . . I suspect that many of us would want to try to patch up a broken relationship or two.  And then I imagine, that if we look at what we would want to do most, and at what we would happily forget about, we would find where our lives are out of balance.  An obvious example of what I mean is this: if, knowing that the world is coming to an end SOON, we want to spend all of our time with our family and forget all about work . . . AND we regularly work 10 and 12 hour days . . . that’s a pretty obvious place where our lives are out of balance.

What if?  What if we knew that Christ was really coming very, very soon?  Today we are entering the season of Lent . . . a season of spiritual preparation, in which we prepare to walk with Christ through Holy Week, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection.  Today, Ash Wednesday, is the day on which we specifically remember that we will all die . . . we are dust and to dust we will return.  It’s a perfect set-up to begin considering questions such as:  How is my life out of balance?  What is the state of my relationships?  How do I want to make myself ready for Christ . . . to experience the Passion, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection?  And to take up these questions with a sense of urgency.

There are, of course, many answers to these questions and many things we might decide to do based on our answers.  But I have one suggestion that I’d like to make about something we all might try.  It’s a suggestion that Br. Robert Sevensky gave us at Holy Cross this past weekend.  Many of you know that some of us were on retreat this past weekend, and on Sunday, Br. Robert preached an excellent sermon.  He reminded us of a tradition that most western Christians no longer observe:  it is the tradition of a pre-Lenten season . . . a season to prepare for Lent.  In this tradition last Sunday was Forgiveness Sunday and at Vespers in the evening there would have been a liturgy of forgiveness.  After the dismissal, the faithful come up one by one and venerate an icon, and then each makes a prostration before the priest, saying, “Forgive me, a sinner.”  The priest also makes a prostration before saying, “God forgives. Forgive me.”  The person responds, “God forgives,” and receives a blessing from the priest.  After receiving the priest’s blessing, the faithful also ask forgiveness of each other.

Forgiveness is a rare commodity in our world . . . which is strange to me, because forgiveness is so needed.  What would it be like if during this season of Lent we each worked on forgiveness?  What do we need to forgive?  For what do we need to be forgiven?  What would it be like if we all lined up and asked each other for forgiveness?  “Forgive me for being aloof and cold.  Forgive me for murmuring about you.  Forgive me for not helping you.  Forgive me for not accepting help.”  What would it be like?

What if?  What if Christ were really coming any minute now?

Blow the trumpet!  Sound the alarm!  Repent!  Now!

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