We Episcopalians have it pretty easy these days on Ash Wednesday! Go back about 1100 years and it’s a whole different picture. Those earlier Christians did some serious repenting. Of course they did some serious sinning too. But sinning, which is to say, the terrible things we do to one another and to God’s creation, is at least as bad now as it was then. Back then, however, they made you go much more public about it. A little research reveals that in those days if you sinned badly, and if your sins caused scandal, you were excommunicated. You were placed under discipline: You were publicly censured in church for what you had done; and then they prayed over you and the priest laid hands on you, and put ashes on you, and dismissed you before the Communion, while the congregation read penitential psalms aloud, like the 51st Psalm that we’re using today.
And in those weeks following during Lent, you would attend services as usual, and hear the lessons and sermon, and pray the prayers, but you would always have to leave before the Communion. That’s what excommunication meant. And it was serious business. Then, near the end of Lent, on either Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, if your repentance had been sincere and your behavior reflected it, you would be received back into the fellowship of the church in an appropriate ceremony. After that, you could resume receiving Communion. The great Eucharist of Easter would be a glorious reinstatement of your status as a communicant.
Now, that sort of public excommunication and reinstatement doesn’t happen very often in the Episcopal Church today, although the Book of Common Prayer continues to provide for it. The one instance I am aware of during my own lifetime happened in a suburb of New York City near where I grew up. An Episcopal rector in that town excommunicated a very prominent member of his congregation, and notified his bishop immediately as required by the disciplinary rubrics of the Prayer Book. The bishop backed the priest up entirely, but the prominent sinner went ballistic and the story reverberated through the national media.
I’m sure you want to know what the sin was! It was a case of blatant discrimination and injustice. A young debutante had invited her boyfriend to escort her to her coming-out party at the local country club. But the young man was Jewish and the rules of the country club forbade Jews from being on the premises. Hence she was told she would have to un-invite him. That didn’t sit well with her and she objected strenuously. But the final court of appeal turned out to be the member of the local Episcopal Church whose prominence included the presidency of the country club. And he wouldn’t budge from his decision to exclude the Jewish boy from the party. I don’t recall any other details of the case, but I always admired the courage of that rector for supporting the young debutante and striking a blow for justice by excommunicating the country club’s president.
Which brings me to the Ash Wednesday reading from Isaiah 58. I have long favored it over the traditional reading from Joel because it’s all about justice, and genuine repentance, and the kind of inner transformation which brings healing to a broken world. Joel, to his credit, does warn of God’s wrath upon Zion for its sins and utters those famous words, “Rend your hearts and not your garments and return to the Lord, your God.” But in Isaiah Chapter 58 the great prophet reveals his deep awareness of how outward rituals, and outward expressions of fasting and contrition, can mask an unrepentant heart and an indifferent spirit. He accuses his people of ostentatious posturing before God—and then complaining because God seems not to favor them: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves but you do not notice?”
Have you ever complained because God doesn’t seem to take into account how good you’ve been? We fancy ourselves to be somehow “in charge” of God so that the more religious we are, the better things are going to go for us. I heard of a homeowner in the Midwest whose house was spared in a tornado that destroyed many others and who remarked with a sigh of relief, “Thank God I’ve gone to the early service at church all those years!” That’s not the way it works! Nor does it work the other way around. How many times have you heard from a suffering soul, or perhaps said yourself, “Why me? What have I done to deserve this illness, this setback in my business, this treatment from my family?” That’s not the way it works. It’s not the way God works. There’s no such thing as a reciprocal arrangement with God such that our behavior determines God’s action toward us. We’re not in charge of God; God is in charge of us!
God calls us to single-minded trust and obedience. Part of that trust and obedience is of course worship—worship week by week with a thankful heart, and a profound awareness of our blessings, and an honest coming-clean before God of how we have fallen short in our love for God and one another. And there are special times like Ash Wednesday and the Lenten Season when we are called to special acts of fasting and self-denial. But the point of it all is most assuredly not to curry God’s favor or obtain our worldly wants. Whatever disciplines we undertake are for the sole purpose of ridding us of the encumbrances that inhibit our spiritual growth and allowing God to equip us and empower us to walk with Christ in lowly service to others. “Is not this the fast that I choose,” declares the prophet in God’s name: “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free…? 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, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.”
The prophet has it right. And you and I have it right when we treat our Lenten fasts and sacrifices as God-inspired means of serving others in the name of Christ. As I’m sure most of you know, St. James’s has just lost one of its most beloved saints in the death of Buzz Valentine. How I wish I could have known him in his earlier days when he was such a vital presence and practitioner in all the good things this parish does. But rarely have I been as touched by a human being as I have been by Buzz over the year I have known him. I think he would have been in his pew here on Sunday mornings even if he had had to crawl the final fifty feet! What a shining example of keeping holy the Lord’s Day! From time to time I had the privilege of bringing communion down to him. His face always radiated the joy of the Lord. When I would stop by to visit him at his little apartment in Avalon, he always made me feel like the most important person he knew.
It was no surprise during Buzz’s last days, when I got better acquainted with his children, to find in each of them that same gentle, warmhearted, loving spirit. But always implanted on my mind will be the comment one of them dropped about their father as we said our goodbyes: “Dad always lived for others.” Through Buzz, light broke through like the dawn. Jesus said, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven….For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” There was never any question where Buzz’s treasure was—or his heart. As I take up my own Lenten discipline this year, and try to be serious with the Lord about the state of my own life, I hope God will endow me with something of the generosity of spirit, and passion for serving others, that Buzz so beautifully personified.