Ash Wednesday: The People Between

(Note: I preached this sermon at Messiah Lutheran Church on Ash Wednesday 2017)

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Lent: it arrives every year whether you need it or not. Worship becomes a bit more somber and reflective. We give something up, a luxury or a habit. We hopefully devote ourselves more persistently to prayer, charity, and fasting.

And today I want you to journey back with me to Lent as it was practiced in the ancient church. In those old, old days, Lent was devoted to the special needs of two groups.

The first was people preparing for baptism, or “catechumens.” These were people who had been learning the essentials of Christian faith and living for months or years to prepare for initiation into the Body of Christ. They had been enrolled as catechumens in worship and been blessed by the bishop and the people. But they were not yet full members of the church. They would come to church for the readings, the sermon, and the prayers. But they were dismissed before the Eucharist. Only the baptized could even be in the room for the celebration of the holy meal.

And during Lent, the preparation of the catechumens became more intense. They were examined by the church, they fasted, they prayed. And the people prayed and fasted with them. It was a momentous thing to bring someone from death into life in Christ, and Christians did it together.

The second group for whom Lent was especially important was the penitents. The penitents were baptized people who had committed some grave and public sin. They had been removed from the fellowship of the church. They wore sackcloth and ashes. They could not come to worship, but they could gather at the door of the church and ask for the prayers of the people who came to worship.

Like the people preparing for baptism, the penitents could spend two years or more preparing to be restored. But when they were ready, during Lent, they would share in the fasting and prayer.

On Holy Thursday, the bishop would lay his hands on their heads and forgive their sins, and they would be restored to full membership in the body of Christ. And on the night before Easter, the catechumens would remove their clothing, go into the great baptismal font, and be baptized into Christ. They would receive a new white garment and be anointed with oil, and they would finally share in the celebration of Holy Communion.

That was Lent: the fallen were restored to the body, and the new believers were brought into the body. And the church dedicated itself to the support and care of both of these groups that were on the edge of the church, waiting to come fully inside.

But I wonder about the people in between. The ordinary Christians. The people who were not preparing to be initiated or begging to be readmitted. They tended to be very average people whose faith put them in a strange position in the world. They worshiped a God who was executed on a cross, but they were citizens of an Empire that imposed that cross as a punishment. They looked to a Kingdom of God where all would be fed, but they lived in a world that rationed every good thing based on your class or your ethnicity. They were told by Jesus to imitate the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, who do not toil or reap, but they were responsible for their roles in the world.  They were told by Jesus to sell their possessions and give everything to the poor, but they kept their possessions and gave some. They were told to be perfect as their heavenly Father is perfect, but they were not perfect.

And this has been the puzzle of Christianity ever since. We read these stories and hear these commands and these promises that are so vast and awesome and yet were are just folks. We hear about a Kingdom of God that will right every wrong and bring down what is high and lift up what is low, but we live on in a world where wrongs do not get righted, where the high stay high and the low stay low.

So it has always been tempting to try to solve this puzzle by pushing one way or another. We are tempted to make ourselves pure. We are tempted to make almost everyone into a penitent, push them outside of the church door and make them work hard to get back in.

Or we are tempted to baptize everyone and everything, to extend the wide welcome of God not just to sinners but to sin itself. We are tempted to say that God is so kind, so forgiving, that the way we live does not matter.

We are tempted to get rid of this space in between. Because the space, and the people, in between, live with doubt and struggle and contradiction.

So this is what is so important about Lent: it allows all of us who are in between the catechumens and the penitents to imagine ourselves in their place. Today, ashes are imposed on everyone, so that we might all have the experience of mourning what is wrong in our lives and yearning to be restored to health. We will spend the whole season confessing our sins and seeking the face of God with the penitents.

And at the same time we will journey together with those who are coming to the font of new life. We will hear the same promises. We will be renewed in the same faith.

In Lent, those of us who are in between, who are regular folks trying to live out our faith, will be moved to the edges of the church. We are invited to feel the fear and exclusion that sin creates for us. And we are invited to welcome the grace of God as if for the very first time. When we stand in between, it’s only because we are being pulled both ways at once.

This is why we do things together as Christians. We bear each other’s sins as if they were our own. We carry each other to the font as if we are coming ourselves. We confess together that we do not fear, love, or trust God. And we celebrate together when God claims a new member as his own all the same. We weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice, because weeping and rejoicing belong to all of us. We stand as redeemed people in the middle of an unredeemed world, so that the world would know what redemption is. Amen.

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