Ash Wednesday: Lent, Sin, and Liberation

Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17

Joel 2 12 Yet even now, says the Lord,
   return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 
13   rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God
   for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
   and relents from punishing.  

The season of Lent is upon us again. It is the season of introspection, reflection, repentance, and ultimately forgiveness. Of course what tradition calls us to reflect upon in this season is our sin.

Sin, we all know what it is. Theologically, much could be written about what sin is, and who is responsible for it at which times. Its seems I read several books explaining this in seminary. Practically speaking, however, we know that sin is it is the difference between “right” and “wrong”. Despite all the clamor of theologians, “sin” is a basic concept we apply to explain the breaks in our relationships with other people and with God. It should be a simple thing, right, I mean we teach children to get along so they don’t have fractured relationships, right?

Perhaps sin should be a simple concept. Alas sin has never been a simple concept–whether we are talking about the notions of sin and purity in the Hebrew Bible or what sometimes seem to be convoluted discussions of sins of ancestors and forgiveness of sin in the New Testament.

Discussing the nature of sin, however, is important. Particularly when we want to welcome and include people with disabilities and persons with mental health concerns in the lives of our congregations. For centuries, and still in some regions of the world today, disability and mental health concerns were attributed to the result of unreconciled sin. For centuries humanity confused theology for science. There are scriptures that do equate disease with sin, we should not ignore those scripture but wrestle with them. There are also scriptures that assure that disease is not the result of sin (read Job).

In this scripture from Joel, the prophet is calling for repentance. However, the prophet is also teaching and reassuring us that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing”. As a woman with disabilities there is great liberation in hearing from the prophets that God does not punish, much less inflict disability, and that indeed God waits for all of us “rend” our hearts and turn to God. There is a time to wrestle with the hard scriptures to search out the meaning and nature of suffering, this is not something I shy away from. However, as I start my Lenten journey of searching myself for what I can do to bring forgiveness and healing into the world, the God who is “gracious and merciful, …abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” seems like a far more welcoming travel partner  to me then a God who may break my leg in retribution if I trip along the way.

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At the Same Table

Psalm 35
Luke 22:14-30

Today we find ourselves in the second week of Advent, not only preparing to celebrate the incarnation of Jesus Christ, but looking even further into his life and ministry. Today we find Jesus near the end, gathered at the Passover meal, “eagerly desiring” to be at table one last time with those gathered in his midst. Soon after, he would be betrayed by one of his own, charged, convicted, and executed.

We look back to Psalm 35, a prayer for God’s help by a person accused falsely, persecuted by his enemies. The psalmist calls upon God to fight against those who fight him. The psalmist cries, “How long, O Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from their ravages, my life from the lions.” He continues, saying, if you save my life from these enemies of mine, then I will praise you.

The psalmist believes in his heart that God wants all servants of God to be well. Yet he struggles with reconciling how suffering at the hands of his enemies could possibly be in the interest of a great God.

How have you been repaid evil for good in your life? What is God’s role in any struggles or sufferings you face? How do you expect God to respond when you experience discrimination, singling out, or maltreatment?What might be the response of Jesus to such experiences?

Jesus, like the psalmist, is about to suffer at the hands of his enemies in today’s Gospel passage from Luke. Peter will deny him. Judas will betray him. What does he do? Unlike the psalmist, Jesus does not beg and plead with God. He does not wish for his enemies to suffer. Jesus instead gathers his friends and enemies all together, in one room. In their midst institutes the sacrament of Holy Communion, telling them, “do this in remembrance of me.” Gather together, share with one another, and be nourished.

After friends and enemies alike eat together. Jesus knows one will betray him. They almost immediately miss the point, arguing about who among them might be greatest. Even after a shared feast, they ask, “who will be first among us?” Jesus meets his disciples in their brokenness, and calls them toward wholeness. It’s a wholeness only encountered by being together.

Jesus calls us to gather with friends and enemies alike. Jesus calls us to sit at table with our enemies, along with our friends. Because it is in a place of nourishment, of community, of sharing, of reconciliation, that God ultimately works through each of us to restore us to wholeness.

This Advent, we are called to wait patiently for the coming of Christ. In places of prejudice, exclusion, and struggle, we patiently wait, continuing to meet face-to-face with even our enemies at table. In doing so, in opening our hearts even to those who hate us, we run the risk of running into the very Christ we thought had run from us.

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Rev. Allison Rainey English serves as Associate Priest at St. Wilfrid of York Episcopal Church in Huntington Beach, California. Allison graduated from Claremont School of Theology with a Master of Divinity in 2008. Her passions for work in the church include liturgical development, pastoral care, youth ministry, and responsible social engagement/community building among the church.