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March 7, 2019, 11:48 AM

Ash Wednesday - Year C - 2019


Ash Wednesday – Year C – 2019

Sanctify the Congregation

Time for a true confession from your priest: I am a nerd.  I am just a nerd in general, but I am specifically a Lord of the Rings nerd.  Lord of the Rings was written by J.R.R. Tolkien at a time when he saw the world around him changing at a dramatic pace.  He saw evil creeping into the world and realized how easily people were swept apart from each other by their beliefs.  There are religious themes in general, and Christian themes in particular, throughout Tolkien’s writing.

My love for Lord of the Rings was renewed beginning 18 years ago with the release of the first of the trilogy of movies directed by Peter Jackson.  Jackson dramatically projected onto movie screens the images conveyed by Tolkien in his books.  One of the ways that Jackson heightened the movies’ theme of the battle between good and evil is by creating hordes of ugly, horrible, mean, and dangerous creatures called “orcs.”

In reading today’s lesson from the prophet Joel, I was reminded of one specific image from the final Lord of the Rings movie – the image of an army of orcs so large and so numerous that the army looked like it covered the side of a mountain.  The prophet Joel describes the image “like blackness spread upon the mountains, a great and powerful army comes.”

As the army of orcs approaches the city, the ruler of the city fills with panic.  The ruler calls out to his own army, “Flee your posts!  Abandon the city!”  The sight of the approaching army of orcs, filling the mountainside, scares the ruler so much that he disbands his own army.

The city’s army starts to flee their posts, also scared by the sight of the army of orcs.  The city’s army separates and loses the strength that comes from fighting together.  It’s at this point in the movie that one of the heroes comes charging in on a white horse and orders the city’s army to return to their posts and fight.

The city’s army returns to their posts and prepares to fight.  The city’s army re-forms and gets ready to face the mountainside filled with the approaching orc army.  The only way the city’s army can beat the approaching orc army is by banding together and resisting the urge to flee their posts. 

“Yet even now, says God, return to me with all your hearts,” we hear from the prophet Joel.  “Yet even now,” when we see the orc army approaching our city, now is the time to return to God.  “Yet even now,” when we feel the temptation to flee our post, now is the time to return to God.  “Yet even now,” when we feel the temptation to separate from everyone around us, now is the time to return to God. 

Because, when we return to God, we also return to each other.  The prophet Joel says that returning to each other is a good reason to “sanctify the congregation.”  In this sense, “sanctify” has the sense of gathering the people together and reuniting for a larger purpose.  For Joel, it’s not just the soldiers who should regather and reunite, but it is the entire congregation.  Joel tells us to “assemble the aged, gather the children – even infants at the breast.”

All people – and all means all – should be part of the gathering.  Everyone has a part to play in the sanctified congregation.  It’s not just those the world sees as strong who have a part to play.  All people – and all means all – need to be assembled, gathered, and sanctified.  All people – and all means all – have a role to play in the sanctified congregation.

Jesus knew the value of a sanctified congregation.  Jesus could have taken his earthly journey alone.  Jesus could have been a solo Messiah, wandering through the streets of ancient Israel alone. 

But that is not the choice Jesus made.  Jesus chose to be a Messiah for and with a community.  Jesus did wander the streets, but almost always surrounded by a dedicated band of believers.  Jesus healed and prayed and preached and sacrificed and died and rose for and with a community. 

Now, we, too, have a role to play in the sanctified congregation.  What a wonderful image for Lent!  This season of preparation for Holy Week and Easter!  Throughout the recent history of the church, Lent has often been turned inwards.  Lent has been understood as a time of intense personal devotion, a time of extra prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – to use the historical language of the church. 

I’m not necessarily suggesting that we get rid of Lent.  I’m not necessarily suggesting that we get rid of intense personal devotion.  I’m not necessarily suggesting that we get rid of extra prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  Instead, I’m suggesting that we need each other to make Lent a meaningful journey to Easter. 

If we are giving something up for Lent, we need each other to make it a meaningful sacrifice.  Otherwise, we might fall into thinking that Lent is just a diet plan, helping us to avoid chocolate or other temptations.  We need each other to remind us of what we are doing and why we are doing it. 

If we are starting something for Lent, we need each other to make it a meaningful effort.  Otherwise, we might fall into thinking that Lent is just a time for renewing New Year’s resolutions.  We need each other to remind us of what we are doing and why we are doing it. 

The community of Joel was facing an army that looked “like blackness spread upon the mountains” – like the orc army the city faced in Lord of the Rings.  As modern followers of Jesus, we might not face a literal army, but we might face an imaginary army of temptations, forcing us apart, and separating us from each other. 

But we need each other – perhaps more than ever – in Lent.  As we gather on this Ash Wednesday, let us take strength from each other’s presence and witness.  Maybe we can partner with someone else for prayer.  Maybe we can commit to share our Lenten journey with one other person.  Maybe we can promise to be part of this congregation on a regular basis throughout Lent. 

Let us resist the temptation to flee our posts and separate from each other.  Instead, let us assemble as a congregation and take the Lenten journey together.  Amen.  


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