Return to the Lord With All Your Heart

ASH WEDNESDAY - Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 - 1 March 2017 - A sermon given by The Rev. Peter A. Munson for the people of St. Ambrose Episcopal Church, Boulder, Colorado

Return to the Lord with All Your Heart

For those of you who follow the world of sports, you know that there is something out there called “March Madness.”  It has to do with this time of year in college basketball, where there are league tournaments and then the various NCAA national tournaments for women and men.  It now spills over into April, truth be told.  But along the way, as teams are eliminated, there is the “Sweet Sixteen” and then the “Elite Eight” and then the “Final Four”... the “Terrific Two” - I just made that up - and then the national champion.  The pressure increases along the way, and the champion is a team that handles all that pressure, maybe wins a game or two with the help of good fortune, and sometimes, well... a little-known role player does something spectacular, and Cinderella teams pull off an amazing upset.  It’s pretty exciting stuff.

During this March Madness, we in the church are going through the season of Lent.  And, if we were to use our own alliteration, we might call it March Mindfulness.

As you know, the themes of Lent are repentance and self-examination and returning to the Lord, and the traditional practices advocated in this season revolve around prayer and fasting and reading the Bible and confessing our sins and giving alms to the poor.

What’s true is that we are given a gift this time of year.  We are given 40 days... a little over a tenth of the year... to put a renewed emphasis on God and how we might grow in love and faithfulness.  We start on this day - Ash Wednesday - and make our progression... one day at a time... to our Lord’s death on the cross and his time in the tomb, prior to his being raised from the dead.

Here is another thing that is true:  When we mindfully observe these forty days together, we are changed.  God works on us and teaches us and molds us, and we are different people at the end of this time.  We don’t just stay the same; we are changed.

We hear God say through the prophet Joel, “Return to me with all your heart...” (Joel 2:12)  When it comes to following our Lord, should our discipline and practice be any less than the time and effort that young men and women are putting in when they are trying to win a basketball championship?

Here are some reminders of how we can return to the Lord:

•  Spend some quiet time in prayer each day.  I am convinced, more and more, that if we want to be people who show up to others in love, we must keep hearing the message - on a daily basis - of how much God loves us!  Do you know what I think? We tend to hear that message in the silence.

•  Read your Bible on a daily basis.  There are all sorts of devotional tools in the narthex that can help you spend a few minutes each day with Scripture.  Hear this:  There are so many people speaking to us and at us through the internet and through books and music and various kinds of media.  A fair amount of that stuff is not good for us.  Some of it is simply vile and does not build up the people of God.  You and I need to be hearing what God is saying to us, underneath all the other voices.  And one of the ways we hear God’s voice is by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.

•  Be mindful of your listening.  Are you listening as least as much as you are speaking?

•  Be mindful of your words.  Remember that our words are powerful.  They have the power to heal and the power to harm, and God is calling us to be healers.

•  Take time to bless God and bless others.  This overlaps with the practices of gratitude and sharing appreciation.  If you do nothing else this Lent, practice being grateful every morning and before you go to bed at night; your life will be transformed for the better.  I guarantee it.

•  Be thankful for the patience and the mercy and the graciousness and the lovingkindness of God.  Be thankful that God is a forgiving God.  Make that part of your March Mindfulness.

•  Be mindful of your eating and your giving and the way that you spend your money.  This all ties into our Gospel reading for today.  Think about if and when you want to fast during this Lenten season.  Jesus seems to have assumed that we would fast now and then, in the same way that we pray or give to others in need.

•  In Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, we are reminded to think about reconciliation.  Do we need to be reconciled with God?  Do we need to be reconciled with another person?  If so, let us go to God in prayer, and seek guidance on what steps we are being called to take.

•  Jesus is also advising us to be more mindful of God’s will, and what pleases God, as opposed to worrying so much about how other human beings see us or respond to us.

•  Finally, reflect on these questions:

•  What do you treasure?

•  Do you treasure those people or things or activities which enhance life?

•  Do you treasure some things that are actually harming you in some way?  If so, would you be willing to ask God to help you let go of those?

Jesus makes it very clear that our hearts follow the things that we treasure.  So pay attention to what you treasure.

This is a season for mindfulness.  We are being invited to be players in March Mindfulness and April Awareness.  And here’s the thing:  Every single one of us can be a champion - in God’s eyes.  All that is needed is a commitment to return to the Lord.