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Ash Wednesday February 21st 2007 Old Zion Lutheran Church in Philadelphia

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Ash Wednesday February 21st 2007 Old Zion Lutheran Church in Philadelphia

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 Philippians 3: 7-12  Matthew 6:1-6, 16-20



I would first like t thank everyone in this congregation publicly for making my installation here such a wonderful and blessed celebration. I cannot begin to name all of you and all the hard work and thoughtful ways that you contributed so that we could do ourselves so proud her at Old Zion. The ministers yesterday responded so warmly to it that all those who could not make it understood that they had really missed a great event. So thank you, thank you, thank you, and in a resounding voice let us say,

“Glory be to God, praise God’s holy name.” Amen!



So here we are after the wonderful dinner, back in Lent, the season set aside for sharing in the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ and getting a glimpse of the sorrows we all share as we worship around his cross, his bitter suffering and death.

Many of us take up a Lenten discipline for these forty days and nights of Jesus’ Passion before he “passed over” from death into life. One pastor joked that what we give up in comparison is like the sort of piety that is composed of eating pie, strawberry, apple, loll-berry pies or what have you. But to do something, we give up candy, cake, movies, alcohol, smoking, or other things that give us pleasure. Some things are not healthy, so just forget doing them even after Lent. We have to discern what is good and right and what is not. We heard about a young woman, always dieting, who wanted to give up bread. Now, that is not healthy, nor is it healthy for women to try to fit themselves into the false ideal that our society tries to imprison them in. Such women would do better giving up self-denial, until their self-denial truly led to the fulfillment of their lives in Christ and not to their victimization by our corrupt and profane society.

Giving things up is one way to practice self-denial, but another way of a Lenten self-discipline could be to add something to your life. We are always guilty of sins of commission: things we do; and sins of omission: things we should do but don’t. Thus if we were to add things to our lives, that would be another way to observe Lent. What about prayer? Do we find a little secret closet and get down on our knees each morning and evening and pour out our hearts to God? Jesus tells us to do it in secret, so that the Father who is in secret, in heaven hears you.

What about giving hand-outs to the poor? Jesus calls that giving alms. What about increasing your offering to the church? That is real self-denial. Imagine all the things you could do for yourself if you didn’t give your offering to the church? But that is a discipline that comes out of the self-giving nature of Christians. We deny ourselves and give to others. I know people who would make sandwiches and go out on weekends and give them to the homeless. Some put in several volunteer hours a week in homeless shelters, while others served the homeless in food kitchens. Doing something like that – and I am just giving you examples, really smacks you right in the face with self-denial. It is a Lenten discipline that starts making you feel the cruel rails of Jesus cross quite quickly. “Foxes have holes and birds have nests,” but Jesus was homeless and had “nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).

One time we grew tired of giving up things and we decided to add a Spanish service each Sunday in Lent. What a discipline that was! These services, completely in Spanish, continued for ten years in Coney Island. What a blessing that became! One time we struggled with the problem of family selfishness. We decided to have our Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners in the social hall of our church, much like the wonderful dinners you already have in Old Zion. We did not want people to be objects of our charity. We wanted to eat together, the way the pilgrims and the Indians did. Thus Nora’s mother, for example, who wore a mink coat, sat opposite a family that lived in a cardboard box under a bridge. Prostitutes stopped working a while to enjoy the meal. One fellow threw Nora’s mother and many of us for a loop. He was a man, but showed up for the dinner with breasts like a woman. He must have given himself hormone shots. We were so shocked!

But that is where I discovered when God’s poor, maladjusted people are all together our souls just become as large as that of Jesus and our heart starts beating in time with the one who loved sinners. We and they are all in the throbbing heart of Jesus.

“Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love!” (Joel 2:13)

Some people only love themselves and that is not really love. Some people only love their families. That is a thin kind of love, an impoverished love. Some people only love their tribe, their clan, the circle of their friends and relatives. That love is somewhat richer, but cutting off all others, it is a problematic love. You limit human being to your circle and can do anything to those outside of it or you can completely neglect them.

We have to be able to love even the unlovable, because that is the love of the Father in heaven. It is not because we are lovable that God loves us. We become lovable because God loves us. While we were yet sinners, Christ loved us and died for us. What a pleasure it is to love those who are lovable and can love us in return. What about loving those who are unlovable, so that our capacity to love grows, so that we exercise our love, just like we do our bodies and minds, hopefully!?! If not, there you have another Lenten discipline.

Now I do not mean to marry someone unlovable. We have to distinguish between different kinds of love. When we speak about God’s love we are speaking about agapé, redeeming love. A marriage requires eros a love between those who are really attracted to each other because of what they love about each other. But we all know that each of us has an unlovable side and we confess and offer it to God, who accepts us, sinners that we are, and in that gracious acceptance, brings about our marvelous change.

The society we live in today has gone down a few notches in morality again. Wars always bring physical, mental, and moral degradation as their by-products. Wars curse us by making us just like our enemies. Therefore we need the peace that passes understanding that makes us more Christ-like. We need the secret power from God that ambushes people unawares with random acts of kindness and senseless act of love. Someone ahead of you pays your toll and you didn’t even know them and can’t thank them. Someone pays the college tuition of a student who could not afford it, but really deserved to go to college. I remember the way someone paid for my milk when I was in grade school, because my family could not afford it. What a joy when you know a child is benefiting and you can do it secretly and get this deep feeling of joy within.

The Jews used to clothe themselves in sack-cloth and sit in ashes in order to mourn. They would throw the ashes into the air and get it all over them. We do not want the external imposition of a smudge of ashes on our foreheads here. We need to do that in our hearts to mourn the degradation of our society and its relentless violence.

The Joel text said, “Let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep, between the vestibule and the altar, and let them say, “Spare your people O Lord. Do not let us become a mockery, a joke. Why should people, who do not fear and love God, be able to say, “Where is their God?”

Do you see the vestibule? It is way in the back of the church. And do you see the altar? It is all the way up here. That means Joel is not speaking only to me, your pastor, but to all of you.  You and I are the priesthood of all believers together and weeping we intercede for this society and put God into a bind. “O Lord, spare your people. Do not leave us at the mercy of our sins. We are counting on you and we depend completely on you and if you do not help us, then your faithfulness, your honor, your majesty are at stake. We have nothing to stand on on our own, but take our stand on your mercy, and we believe that you will respond with your almighty forgiveness.”

An English translation comes after the following German: Bei dem Propheten Joel gab es eine Riesen Wolke Heuschrecken, die mit Raupen, und Käfer alles auffrasen, dass das ganze Volk nur Hunger in Aussicht hatte. Daher sollte das ganze Volk zusammen kommen und um Gottes Gnade flehen, denn viele wurden von Hunger und Krankheiten nun sterben. Der Prophet sah diese Wolke von Heuschrecken, welches alles vernichtete, wie ein Tag des Herrn, worin Keiner mehr bestehen konnte. Hier in Amerika gab es eine Novelle eins, namens, Day of the Lucust, der Tag der Heuschrecken, worin jeder einander vernichtete, wo Hass und Hader und Attentate Überhand genommen hatten, und jeder in einem oder in einem anderen Weg, einen Opfer der bösen Zeit wurde.

Daher sollte die Priesterschaft aller Gläubigen weinen zwischen Vorhalle und Altar und sagen: „Herr schone dein Volk und lass dein Erbteil nicht zuschanden werden, dass andere, die Gott nicht fürchten und lieben, spotten können, „Wo ist nun ihr Gott?“

Unser Gebet soll innerlich stattfinden, nicht äusserlich. Unsere Herzen sollen zerreisen. Wir sollen nicht unsere Kleider zerreisen wie damals die Sitte unter den Juden, welches ruhig äuserlich bleiben konnte. Wenn wir solch schweren sündhaften Geschehnisse Tagtäglich in unserer Gesellschaft sehen, dann zerreisen unsere Herzen. Anders gesagt, wenn unsere Herzen so zerbrechen, rufen wir Gott an, und wollen all unsere Herzen zu Gott bekehren mit Fasten, Weinen, und Klagen.

Dann werden die Geschehnisse unserer Gesellschaft sich verwandeln wie Nacht und Tag. Dann kommen keine Heuschreck-Menschen uns zu vernichten, sondern Gottes Boten, die Leben und Lebensfülle, nebst Gott-vertraun, Liebe und Hofnung mit sich bringen. Amen.

A translation of the Ash Wednesday German section:

In the time of the Prophet Joel, the children of Israel were attacked by a huge cloud of locusts. It was a plague in which the insects devoured everything and died leaving the putrid smell of their carcasses. What the locusts missed, the caterpillars ate, and what they missed, was eaten by other insects. Hunger stared the people straight in the face, because all their food was gone. Thus Joel calls all the people together to plead for God’s grace, because many were about to get sick and die. The prophet saw this thick, dark cloud of locusts, which destroyed everything, like the Day of the Lord, in which no one could survive. They ate everything with a loud crackling noise, even the bark off the trees. A novel appeared about Hollywood, I believe, named Day of the Locust, in which everyone destroyed each other in their relationships just like this plague of grasshoppers. Hate, conflict, and the atrocities they generated, got the upper hand and everyone became a victim of that evil time.

For the plague in Joel’s time, like the plague in our time, the prophet calls the priesthood of all believers to weep for the people between the vestibule and the altar and say, “God spare your people!” Let’s take a stand on the mercy of God and say, if we are destroyed while we depend on you, then you lose face O God! Will you vindicate the unbelievers?

Jesus taught that we should pray in our inmost hearts in secret, not have outward showy prayers. Our hearts are supposed to tear up and Jesus does not think much of the way they used to tear their clothes in those days to express their grief. That practice can remain quite outward and not touch the heart. Just the other day a Bosnian young man took a shotgun and shot ten people before the police shot him. He was twenty years old. Six of his victims died and four are in critical condition. It hardly makes the news anymore.

When we see these murderous atrocities happening in our society, then Joel says our hearts should tear up in us. We usually say, our hearts should break, and we should call upon God to convert our hearts by fasting, weeping, and lamentation. Perhaps God will turn this wrath away from us. When we weep broken-heartedly before God interceding for the people of our society, then it will change like night changes into day. Then the day of the locust will change into the day that sends God’s messengers among us who will come with life and life more abundantly. They will come with fresh trust in God, new hope, and fill our whole society with overflowing love. Amen.


Written by peterkrey

March 5, 2007 at 4:10 am

Posted in Selected Sermons

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