Summary: The Lenten Journey involves repentance, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, deeds of loving-kindness.
Sermon for Ash Wednesday, Year C
Based on Isa. 58:1-12
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
There is a novel by Muriel Spark called Memento Mori. It tells about a group of friends, all over sixty-five, who one by one receive anonymous phone calls telling them, “Remember, you must die!” The novel, partly serious, partly humorous, tells how different individuals come to terms with the telephone message. Though reactions vary, a common reaction is fright.
Still, the anonymous caller often causes characters to think back over their lives and assess how they have lived—about the good they have done as well as the not-so-good. In a way, the message they receive about death forces them to come to terms with the meaning of the life they have lived. Somehow death leads them back into life. 1
For us Christians, the season of Lent helps us to realize and live this great truth that death leads us back into life. The sign of the cross on our foreheads with the imposition of ashes remind us of our mortality. It also reminds us of our willingness to participate in the long journey of death on the way of the cross, which leads us back to life.
The passage from Isaiah reminds both Jews and Christians that the way of God; the way of true fasting and prayer is the way of repentance. According to the prophet, this way of repentance involves our whole way of life and living. Our relationship with God shall motivate and guide us to be workers for justice; to free those who are oppressed; to involve ourselves in acts of loving-kindness; to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, provide shelter for the homeless and the refugees. The prophet tells us that these deeds of repentance shall be rewarded by God. The Lord will listen and answer our prayer requests; the Lord will also provide for all of his people’s needs and give them a hope-filled future.
According to this long-standing Israelite tradition, which Jesus also taught and lived, our faith has a profound influence on how we treat other people.
We contribute to mending the world by doing good deeds. Our task is to join God in mending and liberating the world.
The most straightforward way to define good deeds is to say that a good deed is anything that dignifies or enhances life. Enjoying any intimate pleasure, for example, is a good deed. Any act of kindness or generosity, any support for a deserving cause, is a good deed. The range of good deeds is a wide as life itself. It is a good deed to keep one’s body clean, to visit the sick, to teach, to provide an honest service or product, to employ someone in useful work.
Righteous conduct is not a matter of unusual courage or brave acts. It has more to do with the day-to-day practice of good deeds, the ordinary healthy acts and questioning of evil and injustice, which if done regularly will not put us in a situation in which only heroes can act. 2
As an act of repentance, we like the ancient Israelite prophet can participate in the way of true fasting and prayer; the way of God, by changing our selfish, destructive habits, which contribute to injustice, and by doing good deeds of loving-kindness.