Providence United Methodist Church
Charlotte, NC

Ash Wednesday Service

Dr. Bill Jeffries

We come today to a time of reflection and prayer as we begin the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday for most Protestants is new. We did not; and in some traditions, still do not acknowledge Ash Wednesday. It is too Catholic sounding for some. But where it is acknowledged, it provides a good marker - both in the year and in our lives - that this time ahead (namely Lent 2000) is to be a different time for us. It is to be a time in which we prepare our hearts and our minds to receive the gift of Easter into our lives. It is a time to examine our lives in relation to our faith journeys. How are we doing? What time is it for us?

Today, I want to focus on two aspects of this season for us.....Motive and Fasting.

In the Gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus is confronting the disciples, as he has in the concluding verses of Chapter 5, in asking them why they are doing what they are doing. He is challenging them, and now us, to go deeper and to live our faith from our hearts. Otherwise, he suggests to us that we can do the right thing for the wrong reason. How is this possible?

In Judaism the three most important ways to demonstrate your religious devotion was almsgiving, prayer and fasting. In this chapter from Matthew, he looks at each one of these areas. He discounts the one who does their acts for the purpose of drawing attention to oneself or to seek otherís acclamation. These acts of devotion - to be effective - must be done for a different reason, he says. They need to be done as a sign of our trust of God, our willingness to be obedient to Godís Word and our willingness to open ourselves so that God can work in our lives. So as we come to receive these ashes in a few minutes and as we move through these days of Lent, consider our motives for what we are doing. When we cross the line and focus more on self than on our relationship with God, pray for God to help us to be more willing to be agents of Grace. When we feel our hearts harden a bit, pray for God to help us see the other side and be humble. When we feel our hearts growing indifferent, pray for God to renew our passion for a walk with Him.

So motive is important and a piece of our Lenten reflection. The second focus is Fasting. Why do it and of what benefit is it to my spiritual journey? Fasting has been around a long time and has come in and out of favor with the faithful over the centuries. I want to urge you this Lent to think about doing it, if you are not currently practicing it in some fashion. I believe that we, as a people in our culture, have so much that fasting needs to be a part of our spiritual disciplines to help put our perspective on life back into balance.

The purpose of fasting ...is intended to transcend sensual or physical gratification in order that it may enhance our spiritual meditation....simply put, a way of clearing the mind. By fasting, we are abstaining voluntarily from something which we derive pleasure or enjoyment. We abstain for a season and then when we go back to it; we resume with a new appreciation for its benefits for our lives. But we also (like in prayer) in doing such a discipline as a spiritual act, are opening ourselves up to Godís Spirit so that we may be more aware of His Presence and His Will in our lives.

I think for us, perhaps, the most important reason to fast is for the value of developing more self-discipline and to remove our intoxication with the things that crowd our lives. We live in a culture and community where we are bombarded with things to buy and eat. Few of the things that we buy are based on need, unlike much of the rest of the world. So practicing the self-discipline of fasting for a season will help us in our overall spiritual journey.

Now I urge you to be creative when thinking of fasting. When we first hear the word ďfastĒ, we usually think of some diet from certain food...like no food or no chocolate. But if the purpose of the fast is to abstain from something that gives us pleasure to the point that it distracts us from God, then there are a whole host of items to choose from, some easier to do than others, i.e. Sports, shopping, movies, computers....etc...you get the idea.

Or you could choose to fast by doing something additional for Lent, i.e. visit someone who is lonely once a week, write cards to persons who are going through rough times, pray for others and the church once a day during Lent.

The point is finding that which opens our lives to Godís Presence and Word in new ways so that we are not distracted by activism and things that only focus on meeting our needs or wants.

Motive and Fasting....... two thoughts for this Lenten Season. It is important, according to our Gospel reading, to do things for the right reason and not in a showy way.

As we come now to receive these ashes, come with penitent hearts; come with hearts filled with thanksgiving; come with a desire and an intent to look deeper this Lent.

We come to receive ashes that remind us of our mortality and finiteness. These ashes are made in a sign of the cross which transcends the reality of death. For in the cross is the source of the Hope that we carry within our hearts every day.

As Walter Brueggeman reminds us, ď...The cross is the assurance that effective prophetic criticism is done not by an outsider but always by one who must embrace the grief, enter into the death and know the pain of the criticized one.Ē

We know, you and I, a Savior who knows the pains of this life and who offers us a life that really is life.

Come and receive this sign of the season...Come and remember your baptism and be thankful!

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