Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 51:1-17; 2 Cor. 5:20-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
For some, yesterday was Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras. For me, yesterday was our annual appointment with the tax man. Keith has been our accountant for many years; thankfully, he knows his way around the strange & complicated world of clergy taxes. Keith is also a Christian.
While he was doing the calculations he noticed that I had my Occasional Services book open. I said Yes, after this, I have a graveside service I’m going to. It was for Walter Cook.
That mention of death sparked something in Keith. He told me that his mom was ill, probably near death. Then he told me that he’d lost his father this past year. As he recalled the experience, he began to weep.
Now, think about that. I’m at a tax appointment–which is all business–& all of a sudden the tax guy & I are talking about, of all things, deeply personal matters of life & death, grief & loss.
I didn’t plan that moment & neither did Keith. And yet, there we were, ready to do business, when the Holy Spirit showed up in a wonderful way.
The readings for Ash Wednesday are the same readings we have every week; not the same book or chapter & verse but the same message: the readings for this day are an invitation to freedom. Consider Isaiah:
6. Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼7. Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them…
Do you hear the language of freedom? “Freedom” is the theme of today’s psalm, second reading & gospel, as well. Verse after verse is an invitation to each of us: an invitation to be freed from whatever weighs us down, & to use our freedom to help others be released from whatever is weighing them down.
One word we use for freedom is salvation. Too often we Christians think of salvation as something we strive to achieve for the afterlife. But God’s people in the stories of the Bible spent very little energy worrying about that kind of salvation. They were concerned about political freedom, bread to eat, peace, the health of their communities & reconciliation with others—very practical, everyday needs that we also have.
Salvation—freedom—was what that conversation with my tax guy was all about. Keith could’ve carried his burden inside. Instead, he decided to share with me the grief that he was experiencing. I couldn’t fix it for him—I didn’t have to—but by simply listening to his story maybe God used me to move him a few steps toward healing from that loss—a few steps toward freedom.
When we read the Word of God, an important question to ask ourselves is: Where in these words is there an invitation to freedom? Where is that word an invitation to me? Where is that invitation an opportunity to use my freedom to help free others from whatever is weighing them down or holding them back?
I invite you to remember this question because if we don’t remember that God’s Word is always an invitation to freedom we can easily experience God’s Word as a burden.
In the first part of today’s first reading, for example, we could get the impression that God’s job is to judge, scold & accuse. But as the reading unfolds we discover that the goal of this harsh language is not punishment or revenge, but freedom.
When we hear a word of God’s judgment, always we should ask, Where in this message is there a word of freedom for me, & for others?
Sometimes it’s well-hidden—but it’s there. The journey that begins tonight is a journey to the cross. Jesus’ death was about his own freedom, & setting other people free.
As Jesus died, so one day will we. Tonight we hear the words, Remember that you are dust, & to dust you will return, not as bad news, but good news. As St. Paul once said, whether we live or whether we die we are in the hands of a gracious God. Knowing that we will die, we ask ourselves, how will I live in the meantime?
As every page of scripture is an invitation to freedom, so every day of our lives is an invitation to live as free people, & to use our freedom to free others from fear, despair, worry, grief, or whatever keeps them un-free. God gave me an opportunity to practice freedom in a conversation with my tax man. In the ordinary routine of your day, what opportunities is God giving you?
Let us pray…