February 17: Ash Wednesday

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews is the vicar of St. Hilda St. Patrick. The sermon for Ash Wednesday 2021, February 17, was based on the below manuscript. The sermon was written as a response to 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10.

Today in his second letter to the Corinthians,
Paul writes a shorter version
of the invitation to a Holy Lent.
“We entreat you on behalf of Christ,
be reconciled to God.”
Titus has sent a very good report
about the Corinthian church,
but maybe there are some not so great reports too.
Paul’s second visit to Corinth
didn’t go well.

This is easily his third or fourth letter
to this church,
although only one of two to survive.
He’s expressed concerns before
about people claiming to have
secret religious knowledge
secrets that you need to be saved.
There are those who are teaching
that some kinds of ecstatic mystical experiences
are required in addition to Jesus’ work
to bring salvation
Paul has raised challenges
about tolerated, flagrant immorality
including letting those on the margins
stay that way
while being ignored.

And today he implores the church through time
to be reconciled to God.
He asks
that they mend their strained relationships
with God and
restore their friendship.

This reconciliation
is a cornerstone of of Paul’s work
and it is the mission of the Church.
It’s a mission that we haven’t always succeeded at,
as the Anti-Racism covenant I’ve shared with you
and the diocese adopted at Convention
makes clear.
“We lament the Church’s role
in the subjugation,
enslavement and genocide
of societies of indigenous peoples,
including Native Americans and Pacific Islanders.
“We lament the Church’s role
in profiting from
the selling, trading and genocide
of people of African descent
and the lasting effects of the peculiar trade
present with us today.
“We lament the willful blindness
of Christian leadership
in promoting and advocating for
systems of over-policing,
the militarization of the police,
mass incarceration,
school-to-prison pipelines,
poverty and violence.
“We lament the resounding silence
and the crippling fear
that often infects the Church
in matters of racial reconciliation
and social justice.”
And on it goes.

White supremacy is the sea in which we swim,
and for too long the Church
has been a collaborator
actively and passively.
We’ve failed at the ministry of reconciliation
that Paul sets out in his letter.
We’ve failed at our own reconciliation
to God and one another.
We’ve failed what our church says
is its mission in our Prayer Book’s catechism
“The mission of the Church
is to restore all people to
unity with God and each other in Christ.”

It’s hard to feel like
taking something else on
or giving something else up
as we get into Super Lent.
The Lent that can’t really start
because the last one didn’t end.
Paul speaks to that too.
He doesn’t advise for or against
new spiritual practices.
He says,
“now is the acceptable time;
see, now is the day of salvation.”
His rebukes of his challengers
are that Jesus has done the ultimate work
of reconciliation.

Jesus, Paul writes,
is the one who brings salvation to all:
not dramatic conversion experiences
(though he himself had one)
not speaking in tongues
not secret knowledge.
Jesus, the son of God
takes sin upon himself
and reconciles humanity to God.
Paul assures those who are reading his letter
that Jesus has accomplished
the work of salvation
if they will embrace Jesus’ life and teaching.
Paul makes a point of making it easy,
putting no obstacle in anyone’s way
as compared to those teaching
a gospel and doctrine
beyond Jesus.
Perhaps the hardest part
of the gospel of Jesus’ grace
is not wanting it to be as easy as it is.
Surely, we tell ourselves,
getting in should be the difficult part,
rather than the changed life
which winds up being the challenge.
“Surely” we tell ourselves,
“Grace isn’t really free.
Our sins haven’t really
been put away
as far as the east is from the west.”

But that’s exactly
what Paul is trying to assure
the church in Corinth.
General human attempts at true reconciliation
usually broke down
because we always want the other side
to face serious punishment.
And now, in Super Lent,
is when we can examine our lives
see how we’ve failed at our efforts of reconciliation
and amend our lives.
The difficult part of Christiainty
isn’t speaking in tongue,
or mystical experiences,
or secret knowledge.
The difficult part of Christianity
is accepting the grace
freely made available to us through Jesus
and letting that grace change our lives.
Letting it change our lives
because God is working on us,
and letting it change our lives
by looking for ways we can change.

While you may choose
to fast
or pray
or give alms,
the work for racial reconciliation
isn’t a just-for-Lent discipline.
Let is a time to examine our lives,
and wonder how we’ve harmed our relationships
with God and one another.
It’s a time to turn to Jesus,
accept his unconditional love,
and work to sin no more.
This Lent I’m not asking
that we fast from white supremacy and racism.
I’m asking that we change our hearts and minds,
or at least keep doing that work.
Now is the acceptable time!
See, now is the day of salvation!

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