Ash Wednesday (March 1, 2017)

February 22, 2017 | by David Grant Smith

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Joel 2:1-2 & 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12 Psalm 103 or Psalm 51:1-17 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 Matthew 6:1-6 & 16-21

Joel 2:1-2 & 12-17

On the first day of a Season of the Church Year which calls us to focus on Christianity’s spiritual practice of repentance, the reading from the prophet Joel invites us to consider the many layers, levels, and meanings of repentance.

The context of the book of Joel itself is that the prophet is identifying and commenting on a major national crisis — an infestation of locusts the likes of which he and his contemporaries had never seen before. The author, throughout the book, frames the crisis in terms of anticipatory grief for what he perceives to be a coming apocalyptic event of cataclysmic doom. He is inviting his contemporaries to join him in anticipatory grief for the doom that is coming (v. 1-2). Because the author’s worldview is such that all things happen at God’s behest, Joel is hoping that through fasting, weeping, mourning, and “returning” (v. 12), God will be inspired to turn the present curse into a blessing (v. 14). Joel seems to be saying “If we are intentional in the ways that we live out our spiritual disciplines (mourning, repenting, etc.), perhaps God will turn this around for us and we won’t come to an apocalyptic end.” This approach certainly resonates with much of process theology in which we assert that all things which happen have an impact — for good or ill — on all life, and on God. So joining the prophet in prayer and fasting would certainly have (they believed) a direct impact on the way that God was dealing with them.

Another assertion of process thinking, though, is that God doesn’t necessarily control locust birth rates and migration patterns; but that those who suffer such devastation are certainly already dwelling in God’s presence, and are living very much in God’s love and care. Such intentional use of prayer and other spiritual practices may not deter the locust invasion, but it would perhaps provide comfort to those who are suffering the calamity to know that God is with them in their suffering. Joel even quotes Exodus 34:6, stating that God is merciful rather than punitive in dealing with humanity (v. 13).

It’s certainly worth noting that the prophet is calling for a communal gathering to participate in the spiritual disciplines of prayer and fasting together (v. 15-17a). The assembly that the prophet is calling to gather is not for just the clergy of the day, or even for only the men of the community, which would have been normative in that context. Instead the prophet is calling for everyone — young, old, male, female, strong, vulnerable, clergy, laity — to join together in observing the fast and making prayers together. The prophet is calling for unity in the vast array of diversity represented among the people of the nation. The prophet doesn’t suggest that people need to change who they are in any way; but that they are simply all to join together. The act of communal observance of spiritual practices helps to promote unity among diverse peoples; but it also works to affirm the very fact that diversity exists in any community, and that unity among the diverse members of the community is in keeping with God’s vision for humanity, which is central to process-relational theology and proclamation.

The relationship between God and people, in a process perspective, is one of interdependency; as is the relationship between people (indeed, all life) and the earth in which we live and move and have our being. Ancient Israelites believed that nature (plants and animals) felt the impact of human actions; they fared well when people are virtuous [see commentary on Joel by James L. Crenshaw in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible]. Prior to the passage for today’s reading, the prophet states that “the fields are devastated, the ground mourns…” (cf. 1:10a). The call to repentance can also include all of us being more mindful of how our decisions and actions impact other people, as well as creation itself.

Though Joel doesn’t state that sin is to blame for the locusts, the prophet’s writing seems to underscore that living in a state of repentance wouldn’t hurt at all. Joel uses the word “return” (v. 12-13) in the same way that the word “repent” is used during the Season of Lent. The implication is that, whether through intent or through negligence, we at times have wandered away from what God intends for us. Living a life of repentance is mostly about reorienting our lives, changing our direction, and being more intentional in living our lives in line with God and God’s purposes.

Psalm 103 (or 103:8-14)

Like this day’s reading from Joel, the response to that reading, Psalm 103, includes a quotation from Exodus 34:6, which asserts God’s merciful nature and willingness to forgive (v. 8-9). In their commentary on this Psalm in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible(NRSV), Toni Craven and Walter Harrelson suggest that the entirety of Psalm 103 is a reflection or amplification on the Exodus passage. The whole Psalm certainly can be read, interpreted, and preached from that vantage point. In the context of process theology, focusing on God’s love and mercy is indeed recalling God’s primordial nature, and God’s ongoing luring of all life into participating in God’s primordial characteristics of beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace, love, and justice. The good news proclaimed by the Psalm is that even if we ignore the Divine lure toward wholeness and creative transformation (or if we’ve simply been numb or inattentive to it) not all hope is lost — God will continually offer mercy, love, and forgiveness to us all.

Similarly, at about the center of the Psalm (v. 11, 13), the psalmist proclaims that God’s mercy and care are especially felt by those “who fear” God. It’s important to note that to “fear God” (or to live in the “fear of the LORD”) isn’t to be afraid of or scared of God. This is a particularly important point in a process-relational context, because we don’t traffic with the idea that God is coercive or manipulative in dealing with humanity; rather, we believe that God is persuasive and loving in the way God lures us into greater creativity in our lives. In his commentary on this passage in Psalms: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, James L. Mays offers some helpful clarification about the context of this phrase used throughout ancient Hebrew scripture. He explains that to live in “the fear of God” is not about cowering from God, but being moved by one’s awe for God in such a way that one is compelled to live in right relationships — with God, with oneself, with one’s family and neighbors, with strangers, with one’s community, with the world, and with all creation itself.

Living in “the fear of God” is about living in such a way that we are intentional in the way that we understand ourselves as being part of a larger web of life — in short, it’s all about the process-relational understanding of interconnectedness. Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has coined the word “interbeing” for this kind of intentional awareness of our interdependence. This intentional way of living relationally is central to process-relational thinking and proclamation, and certainly can provide us with a tool for self-examination as we enter the Season of Lent. With all that said, it’s important to also note that though the text of the Psalm seems to say that God particularly favors those who live “in the fear of God,” this isn’t about preference; rather, it’s the assertion that when we live our lives in right relationship with God and all life, we can’t help but be more aware of and mindful of God’s love, mercy, and grace.

In many Christian denominations, particularly those in the more liturgical traditions, the worship service for Ash Wednesday often provides a litany of things to consider how we have or have not been mindful of and respectful of the great interconnected web of life; this is often identified as a confession. This can be a great tool for promoting a mindset of “repenting” — that is “returning” — to living life more in alignment with God and God’s purposes, which is (and feels!) a lot less shaming than framing such a litany in terms of shame and failure. The idea is that the time of worship on Ash Wednesday can be one more way of participating in God’s ongoing persuasive lure to living in such a way that all of our relationships are continually growing and becoming healthier, moment by moment, with ever-increasing levels of intentionality.

The closing of Psalm 103 serves as a great cosmic doxology (v. 19-22), in which the psalmist begins with acknowledging God seated on a throne in the center of the universe. The psalmist then lists the heavenly host, those who do God’s work, and all of creation itself, before ultimately returning to where the psalmist began (v. 1), with the psalmist’s soul itself, situated in the greater context of the whole cosmos. Because the psalm both begins and ends with the self-admonition to “bless the LORD, O my soul,” it can be a great model of what the spiritual practice of self-examination can be all about. It is an opportunity to pause and reflect on God’s love and mercy, as well as how well we who are loved so deeply by God have been responding (or not so much) to God’s lure toward those things which most clearly reflect God’s loving nature.

2 Corinthians 5:20b — 6:10

This passage, as the Revised Common Lectionary presents it, tunes into the middle of one of Paul’s major points in 2 Corinthians. Because of this, it may be advisable to actually begin the reading a few verses earlier at 5:16, where Paul begins his discourse on reconciliation, along with his assertion that the process of reconciliation is made possible by our being made into a new creation in Christ. Though it is often understood that Paul is stating that he and his preaching associates are the ones who have been given the ministry of reconciliation (v. 18), a case can certainly be made for the assertion that the “we/us” who have been given that ministry are all of us who are made new creations through our faith in Christ.

In both evolutionary thought and process-relational theology we understand that creation is not a fait accompli, but that creation is still being created. The way Paul lays out his urging of the Corinthians to be reconciled to God (as well as to each other, since we know that this particular Church to whom Paul wrote was known to be contentious and given to factions) supports the idea that we are always being made new, and that together with God we are all in the ministry of making things new by our participation in Christ. This may well be one of the best scriptural passages to underscore how, when we follow the Divine lure, we are continually finding ourselves (and each other) in ongoing moments of holy concrescence. The act of being a “new creation” isn’t limited to a one-and-done moment in time, but it is an ongoing process. This further emphasizes Paul’s already emphatic statement that “now is the acceptable time… now is the day of salvation!” That moment in time shouldn’t be limited to the time and date that Paul set his pen to paper, but should be seen as an “eternal now” in which we are always being lured into new concrescences of reconciliation — both with God and with each other.

The long list of calamities and woes which Paul and his preaching colleagues have endured for the sake of the Gospel, if not framed carefully, could easily eclipse the former verses of this passage making it seem like enduring such hardship is what is necessary in order to attain the kind of faith which will facilitate our being made into “new creations,” or even being “reconciled to God.” It’s easy to see that list as being some kind of litany of prerequisites which enabled Paul to boast about how he is most qualified to be in a position of authority over the Corinthians. However, the list can also be seen as a metaphoric set of any kind of circumstance in which we are tempted to lose faith.

In the context of Paul’s day, both he and the Corinthian Church knew what it was like to experience isolation or persecution for their faith. Though Christians in North America don’t run the risk of that same kind of persecution, there are certainly imperial forces present in our lives which certainly tempt us to not live as fully in our faith as many of us believe we are called to do. If we are truly called to be “ambassadors for Christ” (v. 5:20a) and to join in his “ministry of reconciliation” (v. 5:18), we are certainly called and empowered to stand up for those who do suffer the long list of calamities of which Paul writes. As one example, for instance, we are called to make room in our lives and our communities for those who are refugees fleeing from these kinds of persecutions. It would be easy to not stand up for the hope that these people would find by coming into our communities; but we are called to stand against the forces which would collude to exclude them from our lives and our communities. The work of being an ambassador/reconciler is never easy work; but it is the work which we are called to do, joining with God in the ongoing work of creation, moment by moment.

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

When using this text in public worship, it will be important to include some proper framing of the parts which seem to be railing against synagogues and Jewish people in general. The author of Matthew was, of course, Jewish; as was Jesus. So the words which Jesus uses against certain behaviors should never be understood to be about him speaking about all of Judaism; rather, he was displeased by those who were using their acts of piety to promote their own self-interests. In the world of ancient Rome, it was a widespread activity to do anything — even being kind to poor people — in order to promote one’s station in life, and one’s esteem by one’s peers and superiors. Jesus was simply pointing out that those who do this kind of self-promotion through so-called spiritual piety” weren’t reaping any of the spiritual benefits of these acts. They were only harvesting their own self-interests.

In contemporary society, the whole idea of doing spiritual practices has come to seem rather dated, if not downrightly irrelevant. It’s important to keep in mind that Jesus wasn’t trying to dismiss the spiritual practices of contributing toward the relief of those who suffer poverty, prayer, and fasting; his words are phrased in such a way to show that he expected that these things are part of the lives of faithful people (“when you give… when you pray… when you fast…” not “if you give…”, etc.). Jesus was making the case that doing these things quietly and without undue attention being drawn to oneself will bring a greater spiritual satisfaction to one’s life than doing so publicly.

The heart of this collection of sayings of Jesus can be found in the final verses of the passage — “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” As demonstrated in some of the other readings of this day, Jesus seems to be calling us to the spiritual discipline of self-examination — where is my heart? what or whom do I treasure? What do I value the most in life? One of the ways that we can readily begin to find answers to these questions is to examine and meditate on where, how, and with whom we spend most of our time, energies, and money.

Once again, as with the other readings for this First Day of Lent, the importance of how we relate to others is central to the health of our faith and our spiritual lives. As process people, we affirm the fact that we are relational people; and that God is continually luring us to being mindful of how we treat each other (and ourselves, for that matter). It’s important that we contribute to the relief of those who suffer from poverty. It’s important that we pray. And it’s important that we fast from those things which would distract us from living in right relationships with God, ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and creation. We do these things to bring our full attention to these relationships, rather than to bring attention to ourselves. The relationships which we nurture with our love and our full attention are what bring us the greatest treasures, in both this life and, in the life to come.

The Rev. David Grant Smith is a priest in the Episcopal Church, and he lives in the village of Penn Yan, in the Finger Lakes region of New York. He has served in both parish ministry (Episcopal Diocese of Rochester) and as a hospital chaplain (Christiana Hospital in Newark, DE; and the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD). Prior to ordination, David worked for many years as a lay professional as pastoral associate, choir director, organist, and minister of music. In addition to his interests in weaving Process Theology in and through preaching, liturgy, teaching, and pastoral care, David enjoys travel, writing, and spending time with family & friends.