“Flesh” Ash Wednesday 2017

Our Lenten theme for this year is a little different.   Normally the Ash Wednesday Gospel reading is taken from Matthew 6, and the instruction that is given on fasting and praying as we prepare for the discipline of Lent.

This year, we’re going with a theme of Bodily Worship of the Triune God.   The theme comes from Psalm 103 which reads, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name.”   Implied in that psalm is the understanding that when we come to worship, we are to engage all of ourselves, our body and soul, into the art and act of worship.

That may seem like a no-brainer, but I assure you, it is harder than it seems.

Who hasn’t come to worship and found themselves miles away in their thoughts?  The hands are folded, the knees are bowed, but the mind is racing elsewhere.

“Did I turn off the oven?”

“What should I do about this or that?”

As the Word is preached the Pastor mentions something that suddenly takes the mind to a completely different place, and while the face looks attentive, and thoughts are miles away.

It’s hard to remain in the worship moment with the whole of one’s self.

Rolf Jacobson, Old Testament professor at Luther Seminary points out that in our usual translation of Psalm 103, we miss two very important nuances.

The first has to do with the translation of the word “bless”, which in this psalm is better translated “bend the knee.”   “Kneel before the Lord, O my Soul.”   That part of the translation has us engaging bodily, dropping in reverence or submission.

But now that brings us to the second translation error, which has to do with the word for “soul” in Hebrew, which is not what we think it is.

This “soul” spoken of here is not some disembodied spirit that somehow resides in the husk of a body waiting to be set free — as the Greeks may have imagined.

No, in Hebrew the word is “Nephish” – literally the throat, esophagus, windpipe into which God “breathed” to cause life.   It is more of a metaphor for “the core of one’s being.”  It is “all of me,” it is everything that makes us what we are.

Therefore a better translation of this psalm, (if less poetic sounding) Professor Jacobson says would be “Let all of me kneel before God’s Holy Name.”    So, throughout the season of Lent we’re going to be taking a look at this matter of what it is to have all that we are kneel before God in worship, and we’re going to be doing that by focusing on the parts of the body that make us up.

The scripture readings tonight call on us to focus on the matter of flesh, it’s frailty, it’s resilience and how much God must love us to want to enter into it on our behalf.

We’re “fleshy” beings, you are I.  We are tied to this creation in fearful and wonderful ways.

The Creation Story from Genesis reminds us of how much we are tied to the things of this world.

It is out of dust of creation, the stuff of stars that we are made, as God’s hands take those elements to form and shape us.

It is God’s own breath that fills our lungs, expands the “core of our being” and gives life.

“Fleshiness” is our great gift.

It is also our great weakness.

“Fleshiness” sets us up to listen to voices other than the voice of God.   Because we are fleshy, we seek connection to other fleshy beings.  Relationship with the flesh sometimes comes into conflict with the relationship prescribed by God.

“Fleshiness sets us up to follow our appetites and desires, to partake of the tree that we know we are commanded not to eat from, but which our fleshiness longs for, just a taste, just a sample, what could it hurt?

“Fleshiness” sets the limits and boundaries of life.   It marks the difficulties we have to endure to earn a living, as “by the sweat of our face we eat our bread.”

“Fleshiness” reminds us of our mortality, how the things of this world return to the dust from whence it was formed.

Paul reminds us that whatever extraordinary powers we may think we possess and claim as our own are really things that belong to the God who breathed life into the core of us.  Like clay jars that hold the precious gift of life, we are prone to brokenness, we are finite in lifespan, and our usefulness is tied directly to our fragile and incomplete carrying of the precious gift at our core.

This is what God comes to inhabit, we are told by John.   God became “flesh” and lived among us, full of grace and truth, as a sign and symbol of how the fleshy can take on the imperishable.

But there is something else at work in this “Word becoming flesh thing.”

In becoming “Fleshy” like us, God now also has access to our “fleshy” parts.

God can come now to the ears, that we may hear the voice of Jesus.

God can come now to the mouth and open the lips, speaking in and through us as God comes out of the “core of our being” to others.

God can come now with hands to touch, to heal, to flip over tables when necessary and to lift up the fallen.

God can come with feet to journey with us, walking the pathways with which flesh must become acquainted.   Sometimes those are hard pathways of struggle and work.  Sometimes those are all too smooth pathways of temptation, the God who become flesh knows those walkways as well.   The God who has feet becomes acquainted with the way of faith and the stumbles failings along the way.

God can come now with knees, to kneel, and that is perhaps the strangest thought, that God would be kneeling with us.   We are so accustomed to being the one who is lowered, or who “takes a knee” to listen, that at first the thought of a kneeling God seems disorienting.  “What are you doing down here with me?”

But here too is the gift of fleshiness.  Here comes God to model with and for us what it means to become the servant, what the bending of the knee does for us how it opens us to find our place in a world created.

We are fleshy, and God has become fleshy with us, precisely so that nothing will be asked of us that God’ own self in frail flesh has not tried.

You are asked not because of how great, or how strong, or how powerful you are to follow the disciplines of Lent.

You are asked precisely because you are so fleshy, and in this way of all flesh, Jesus is now well acquainted.

You won’t be asked to do more than flesh can take on.

All of you, now; is invited to come to worship.

Come as you are able.

Come, for you are able.

Come, with all that you are, to the core of your being, into the presence of God who knows what it is to be fleshy, frail, and imperfect, and bids you kneel with him.

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