Year B; Ash Wednesday, 2.17.2021
The Ash Wednesday Bidding
Lorca Blue is the cutest little black Portuguese Water Dog puppy you ever did see! He joined the home of my friends Janice and Pierre a few months ago. Right now, he is in training. Pierre takes him a couple of times a week to learn discipline and to obey his commands.
Have you ever heard of “high value treats?” They are the most rich and tasty treats for dogs. Evidently, they are the key to getting your pup to do whatever you command. You merely keep a few small pieces in your pocket out of reach and quickly reward the behavior you want: sit, stay, lie down, fetch, maybe even roll over!
Janice loves her puppy Lorca Blue. She frequently sends me photos of his cute-ness. Janice also knows about “high value treats” and keeps them in her pocket. She tells me that Lorca Blue is so cute that she gives him these “high value treats” just for being cute. I kind of can’t blame her.
Lorca Blue seems to know he can receive treats from Janice for doing nothing at all. And Janice is ok with that – because he’s so CUTE! Janice laughed when I told her that this was kind of like God’s grace: God gives us the gift of God’s favor. There is nothing we do to earn it. We just receive it without merit. God’s grace blesses us just because of our “cuteness” and “preciousness.”
Well, not exactly.
God’s grace is solemn and divine and God’s way to demonstrate God’s favor and love for all that God created including you and me. It’s more than being rewarded with treats for our “cuteness.”
Our prayer book defines grace really well:
“Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and underserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.”
How powerful these benefits of God’s grace are! They are pure and divine: forgiveness of our sins – when we lament our sins, God grants remission and forgiveness every time. God enlightens our minds as we study scripture and the teachings of Jesus. God stirs our hearts by way of prayer and worship. God strengthens our wills to love God and our neighbor, even our enemies.
We are indeed “cute” enough for God to joyfully pronounce endless blessings on us. But we also know that we are sinful enough for God to call us to repent and return. The guarantee of God’s endless favor is the costliest gift of all, Jesus God’s Son who died and rose for the world God’s loves so much.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes about grace in his book “The Cost of Discipleship.”
Bonhoeffer defines two kinds of grace, costly grace and cheap grace. Costly grace, he writes, “…is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasure, from which she showers blessings with generous hands without asking questions or fixing limits…”
“Cheap grace,” he writes, “…finds a cheap covering for …sins; no contrition is required, still less is the desire to be delivered from sin…Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.” Cheap grace from the church he concludes, is ruled by dogma, doctrine, laws and ideologies.
We end up deceiving ourselves when we bestow divine favor on ourselves and call it “God’s favor.” We imagine that it comes from God without any sacrifice or recognition of our absolute need for God. We forget that God’s Son is “grace upon grace” for US. Costly grace cost God the life of his Son FOR US.
Ash Wednesday asks us to consider this gift and examine our lives against this gift.
And, at the end of Lent, Good Friday asks us to consider the cost of this gift when we ask, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
In the bidding in a few moments, Katie will say these words, “….it became the custom of the Church to prepare for the Lord’s passion and resurrection…by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness and restored to the fellowship of the Church.”
“Notorious sins?” “Separated from the body?” I’ve never really investigated this church practice. But I looked it up.
This is what I found: “The observance of Ash Wednesday originated in the penitential discipline of the early church when those whose notorious sins had caused scandal were excommunicated. After a period of penitence, which included sack cloth and ashes, fasting and prayer, intercession of the faithful and dismissal from the service before communion, these persons were reinstated.”
This process was quite public. The ‘notorious sinners” repented in public, and were refused Communion until Easter. I recoil at this public shaming and separation from the body of the faithful. Is that what God really wants? Maybe it is for those in whom evil has taken over.
But I don’t think I could stand the public shame and separation from God.
We have given up much this year, not for a Lenten discipline, but in order to be safe, and for the safety of our neighbors. No one at this time in our fellowship may be in-person for Communion and receive the Sacrament. This is not a penitential act for “notorious sins.” Rather, and more importantly, we are making this sacrifice for the safety of our community. God’s grace has never been absent from us in this sacrifice.
And yet, I do wonder if God is calling us, as we begin our Lenten journey, to take a gentle inventory – an inventory of how we have taken God’s grace for granted. I wonder about times we might have assigned our own grace to our own “cuteness” leaving God out of the equation
It is a profound relief that we are assured of God’s pardon. What a wonderful gift!
How will we respond to this costly gift this Lent?