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Ash Wednesday Meditation: Taking Our Own Cross” (Matt 22:37-40)

February 20, 2015

As we begin the Lenten season of this year 2015, some people are planning to give up something for Lent. Ask anyone who grew up Catholic what they’re doing for Lent, and they’ll probably tell you what they’re giving up. The notion of giving something up some for the 40 days of Lent seems to keep up with the penitential character of the season. There is an interesting writing in which someone presents 102 things to give up for Lent that includes something essential, such as giving up greed, or laziness, or gossip, but it also presents such pointless things as giving up snacking between meals, or drinking more than one cup of coffee, or eating meat, or texting and driving, or being a backseat driver (see 102 Things You Should Really Give Up For Lent by Christina Mead). I ask myself the same question: “Which is better: To give up something for Lent or do something new for Lent? William Lawrence answered, “The answer would be both” (Pastors debate value of Lenten sacrifices by Heather Hann). As I impose ashes on your foreheads, I want you to reflect on the meaning of cross. Traditionally, the cross is a sign of mortality and repentance. So the words used traditionally to accompany this ritual are: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). But the cross is a symbol of Christian life.

Recently, Steward UMC hung up a new banner inside the sanctuary which demonstrates our mission statement in the three taglines: “Worship, Connect, Service.” The banner also shows our love language in which we practice the love of God and the love of neighbor based upon Matthew 22:37-39 and John Wesley’s sermon “The Almost Christian (1741).”

In Matthew 22, a lawyer asked Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Then Jesus answered him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Mat 22:37-39). Notice the fact that the lawyer asked Jesus a question (singular), but Jesus answered both the love of God and the love of neighbor (plural). Jesus reinterpreted the central message of Torah, combing the two passages of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. In his book, 40 Days Living the Jesus Creed (Lenten Devotion), Scot Mcknight expresses it as “The Jesus Creed” which describes Jesus’ double commandment to love God and to love others.

I believe that one side of love either the love of God or the love of neighbor is incomplete. So both love of God and love of neighbor will complete what the Torah teaches us. I call this the cross love. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan will be a good example for the cross love. The priest and the Levite knew and observed their Torah, especially the purity law (Leviticus 21:1-4). In effect, they were doing what the Torah said. But that wasn’t enough for Jesus.

In his sermon, “The Almost Christian (1741),” John Wesley draws out the distinctions between two types of Christians, the high-minded hypocrite (the “almost” Christian) and his new conception of the “altogether” Christian. As I read his words, I was struck by how true his words are for us today. We live in a society filled with “almost” Christians. So Wesley encourages us to become “altogether” Christians. The “altogether” Christian is the one who has faith in action: the love of God and the love of neighbor.

We give up indifference, violence, injustice for Lent, but at the same time, we take up the charge, the challenge, or we lift up the healed. We do something good things for Lent. The Rev. Clayton Bulice suggested that fasting should be more about doing something good than doing nothing by citing the true meaning of fasting in Isaiah 58:6.

Today, I will impose the cross on your foreheads by saying the love of God and the love of neighbor. We are reminded of the water and oil used to mark our forehead with the sign of the cross of Christ, the children of God. It is a reminder to us that we are forgiven, redeemed, given new and eternal life through Jesus Christ. The ashes mixed with the oil remind us that we are both sinner and saint. May the power of the cross of Christ that marks our foreheads today strengthen us as we take our own cross! Amen.

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