This week I posted a guest post on the Ministry and Motherhood blog. Here is the link. Hope you enjoy!
My six-year old is at the stage where she is becoming her own person. She dresses herself, can mostly bathe herself, and can do quite a lot independently. With that independence comes a lot of letting go on my part. She only occasionally wants to hold my hand – she is too busy running ahead. She no longer likes to snuggle for naps – in fact she refuses naps unless they accidently happen on road trips. She usually gets annoyed when I tell her I love her – she insists she knows already.
One of those sweet practices that passed away over a year ago was rocking her to sleep at night in her rocking chair. I even remember rocking her when I was pregnant with my almost two-year old. But last night, out of the blue, she asked me to rock her. I had a list a mile long of things I needed to attend to last night, and the awkwardness of rocking my lanky 45-inch child seemed challenging. But those thoughts only took me a nanosecond to process. “Sure!” I told her. She somehow managed to curl her long body into my lap, resting her head on my chest. Time stood still for a moment as we rocked. I remembered how small her body had once been and I thought how incredible it was to have her back in my arms again. What a gift from my child.
Last week I announced to my parish that I had accepted a call to another parish. It has been a hard week, full of all sorts of reactions. Though I am excited about where God is calling me, I am also quite sad to leave a group of people who have loved me like family. It colors Lent for all of us, as we prepare to say goodbye on Easter Sunday.
Thinking about my experience with my daughter and all that is happening at St. Margaret’s, I decided that my Lenten discipline this year is to just be present: be present to those who need to express their anger at my leaving; be present to those who want to express their anxiety and concern; and be present to those who want to take a quiet moment to reflect on the goodness and tenderness of these last years. It may sound simple or ambiguous, but for me, that is the gift I can give St. Margaret’s as I take my leave – the gift of my presence. Please know that I am here – to meet you where you are and walk with you during this Lenten journey.
The irony of this being the first Sunday in Lent after the week we have had is not lost on me. By now our parish should have received a letter from me explaining how I have accepted a call to a new position in Williamsburg, Virginia. The letter has been met with a variety of reactions, from surprise to disappointment, from understanding to hurt, from confusion to anger. But no matter what the initial reactions have been, the primary question from all has been, “What does that mean for St. Margaret’s now?” That question and the news of coming change alone would have been enough for the week. But then on Friday we lost one of the patriarchs of St. Margaret’s. Though any death is hard, as a founding member and a perpetual evangelist, Chet will be deeply missed. Given the week we have had, I cannot think of a better Sunday to talk about the wilderness.
In Luke’s gospel today, Jesus goes from the high of his baptism, where God proclaims Jesus’ identity as God’s son, out to the wilderness where he will be tempted for forty days by Satan. The people of God are no strangers to the wilderness. Before the people of Israel entered the land of promise in our Old Testament reading today, first they wandered for forty years in the wilderness. Those years typify what a wilderness experience is all about: confusion, fear, wariness, hunger, dissatisfaction, mourning, regret, anger, jealousy, and impatience. In the wilderness, the people of Israel wondered why they had ever left Egypt, even though Egypt had been a place of slavery. At least in Egypt they knew from where their next meal would come. In the wilderness, the people of Israel whined about everything – a lack of food, a lack of water, a lack of direction. They lost hope in God to provide for them so, in a moment of weakness, they had their priest construct a golden calf for them to worship. They behaved so badly that a whole generation did not get the chance to see the promised land. For Jesus, the wilderness is no different. The wilderness is marked by scarcity and temptation. Voices try to sway Jesus away from God. And when Jesus was at his weakest, Satan himself came to tempt Jesus to take matters into his own hands instead of trusting God to stand with Jesus.
Of course, St. Margaret’s is no stranger to wilderness times. Before we had parish status we went through several vicars, experiencing one transition after another. When the twenty-year tenure of our first rector ended, many wondered how we would survive. Clergy transitions can feel much like those wilderness moments for the Israelites. On the one hand, transitions are full of promise as we imagine what new life a different clergy person might breathe into our community. On the other hand, there are days when we glorify Egypt, when although our time in Egypt was not perfect and maybe had even become stale, at least we knew what to expect or had the stability of Father so-and-so. Likewise, we have been through many parish deaths. Each one hits us in a unique way, and each one makes us wonder what we will do without the person we have lost. Who will be our warden, our treasurer, our coordinator of ushers, or our major donor? How will we sing in the choir, laugh at coffee hour, or balance the budget without them?
That is the scary thing about the wilderness. The wilderness tempts us into thinking and doing all sorts of things. Although the three specific temptations of Jesus that Luke describes are certainly challenging, what is more unsettling is the underlying nature of temptation itself. As one scholar argues, “…temptation is not so often temptation toward something – usually portrayed as doing something you shouldn’t – but rather is usually the temptation away from something – namely, our relationship with God and the identity we receive in and through that relationship.”[i] What the wilderness has the chance to do is undermine our confidence in ourselves and in the community God made us to be. That is what Satan is trying to do to Jesus: erode Jesus’ confidence in his identity, in his security, and in his worthiness before God. Satan did the same thing to the people of Israel for forty years, and Satan will do the same thing to St. Margaret’s if we let him. Satan will try to erode our confidence that God is still acting and moving in this place and will continue to make this community a place of sacred encounter and experiences with God and God’s people.
As I was thinking about the wilderness of Lent, transition, and death, I kept coming back to the Holy Spirit. You see, when Jesus goes into the wilderness, he does not go alone. The text tells us that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. The Spirit does not just drop Jesus off to fend for himself. “…the Spirit continues to abide with him, enabling him to grow stronger through this season.”[ii] Being filled with and accompanied by the Holy Spirit is the only way one gets through the wilderness.[iii] The Spirit stays with Jesus in the wilderness because being chosen and anointed for one’s mission is not enough. Jesus must be tested, being led to places of hunger and despair. Only then does he learn dependence on God, who graciously provides for all our needs in all of life’s seasons.[iv] The Holy Spirit enables Jesus to journey through the wilderness so that Jesus can learn that lesson about dependence upon the Lord our God. The Holy Spirit’s company allows Jesus to see the powerful presence and abundance of God in his deepest need.
Thinking about the Holy Spirit this week has shifted my energy. Instead of thinking about the wilderness with a sense of dread and familiarity, instead of bracing myself for impact, and instead of erecting soaring walls of protection to keep pain out, I found myself asking a different set of questions. Where have I experienced God’s faithfulness in the wilderness? How has my relationship with God been transformed? How strong are the temptations of returning to old ways – to ways of relying on myself?[v] Somehow, shifting the questions from where has God been absent in the wilderness to where has God or the Holy Spirit been present in the wilderness gave me a sense of hope. Instead of looking for the bad – the dreariness of Lent, the burden of transition, the grief of death – I found myself wanting to look for the good – the blessing of time set apart with God, the opportunity for new life and growth, the reminder of resurrection promised for us all.
I will not tell you that the next forty days or even forty weeks will be easy. In fact, I know that many of those days and weeks will be very hard. But having been through Lents, transitions, and deaths before, and having watched Jesus held up by the Spirit, I can tell you that we have all experienced God’s faithfulness in the wilderness. Though none of us likes the wilderness, the wilderness is a necessary part of our formation in Christ – like the necessity of wildfires to restore health and wholeness to ecosystems. Just like those fires can contribute to overall forest health, the wilderness can contribute to our overall spiritual health. In these next forty days, I invite you to not turn inward toward fear, protection, and isolation. I invite you to turn to one another for strength and companionship. I invite you to come to me as we all process what this change means for St. Margaret’s. But mostly, I invite you to remember the Holy Spirit who is keeping vigil with each one of us. The wilderness of Lent this year may be more palpable than in years past. But I invite you to hold on to the hope of God’s promise to be with you in the midst of the wilderness. Amen.
[i] David Lose, “Lent 1 C: Identity Theft,” February 9, 2016, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2016/02/lent-1-c-identity-theft/ on February 11, 2016.
[ii] Jeffery L. Tribble, Sr., “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 44.
[iii] Karoline Lewis, “Filled With the Holy Spirit,” February 7, 2016 as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4291 on February 11, 2016.
[iv] Tribble, 44.
[v] Kimberly M. Van Driel, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 47.
Several weeks ago I had a conversation with a friend about an automobile accident in which she was involved. The accident was not her fault – in fact the other driver was being oblivious to those around him and plowed right into her. My friend and the other driver waited for the police to arrive to complete a report. That was when she learned about a law in New York of which neither of us were aware. In New York, even if the accident is clearly one driver’s fault, both drivers are expected to contribute to a portion of the costs of repairs. The non-fault driver must pay a small percentage even though the accident was in no way her fault.
As we talked about this law, we were initially outraged. The law hardly seemed fair. If someone side-swipes you, runs a stop sign, or hits you while distracted, why should you be responsible for someone else’s fault. We hypothesized about whether there might have been some way for her to give the driver a wider berth to avoid the accident – basically being a better defensive driver. But we both could imagine situations in which there is no way to see an accident coming. To us, the law just did not seem fair.
Today, as I was thinking about Lent and forgiveness, I was reminded of my friend’s accident. The more I thought about New York’s rule, the more I realized that New York may be on to something. You see, whenever we talk about forgiveness, we often think of ourselves needing to forgive someone else for something they have done to us. Letting go of anger is an important step toward meaningful forgiveness. But solely focusing on the actions of the other lets us off the hook from thinking about the ways we may have contributed to problem that needs forgiving. I am not suggesting that the blame is 50-50. But the blame might be 90-10 or even 80-20. Anyone who has been married or who has navigated close friendships or family relationships knows that even when we are totally in the right, there is always a little blame to be shared by all.
As we start our Lenten journey, I invite you to consider taking an inventory of those relationships in your life that need mending or healing. As you prayerfully consider those relationships, review the ways in which you have participated in the relationship and what ways you might hold some of the fault for the brokenness of the relationship. The work will not be easy – we like being right so much that we may not be able to really consider mending those relationships. But as you journey through the complicated web of fault and forgiveness, consider praying the Lord’s Prayer again: forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. My prayers are with you on the journey.
Today is a pivotal day in the Church year. In Advent, we start out the Church year anticipating and then celebrating God taking on human form in the Christ Child. After Christmas we celebrate the season of Epiphany – a series of moments in which the true identity of Christ is revealed. We hear first from the magi who devote their lives to finding Jesus. At Jesus’ baptism we hear God claiming Jesus as God’s son. In Cana, Jesus reveals his power at a wedding. And then today, we close out the season of Epiphany with another revelation of the true identity of Christ – the transfiguration.
An epiphany is defined as a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something; an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure; or a revealing scene or moment – in our case, of the divine. That is what is happens to Peter, James, and John on the mountaintop: a revealing of the essential nature of Jesus as the divine son of God. When they see Jesus standing there with Moses and Elijah, talking about Jesus’ pending departure or exodus,[i] Peter, James and John can finally connect the dots about all Jesus has told them. And in case the dazzling white light, and the appearance of the ancient prophet and lawgiver are not enough, out of the cloud they hear God’s voice saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen.” On this last day of Epiphany, we get the epiphany of epiphanies!
Many of us have had our own epiphanies when it comes to God. Whether we suddenly and clearly hear God’s voice, whether someone says something so profound that it shakes us to the core, or whether we see Christ in the face of a child, we have all had those revealing God moments. My favorite epiphany story comes from the parish I served as a curate. The associate had a rare Sunday where he was the only clergy person serving at the altar that day. Everything had been going along smoothly in the service. After he pronounced and shared the peace, he started to make his way back to the altar when something caught his eye. He froze as he realized at the corner of the alter sat a bat. Panicked, he turned around and looked down the long aisle. There, he says, standing in the Narthex by the baptismal font, bathed in light from the morning sun stood our Sexton, Walt. The priest, mesmerized by and grateful for Walt’s presence, briskly walked down the long aisle to Walt. As parishioners looked on with curiosity, the priest quickly whispered to the sexton about the rodent sitting on the altar. “Don’t worry,” said Walt. “I got it.” The priest walked shakily back down the aisle, giving the bat a wide berth on the other side of the altar. Before he could even start fumbling at the credence table, Walt mysteriously appeared from the side door with a t-shirt, walked past the priest, swooped the bat up with the t-shirt, and then disappeared out the other side door. Though Walt would never claim sacred status, the priest that day saw Christ in him not unlike the disciples on the mountaintop.
Most of us have more traditional epiphany moments in life: baptisms, confirmations, ordinations, or weddings. Today, we will honor two people who celebrated their wedding twenty-five years ago. Weddings are not unlike those mountaintop experiences. The soon-to-be-married couple sees each other bathed in light – if not literally, then certainly figuratively. That day seems to be a day when the couple sees only the goodness in the other person: their beauty, their care, their compassion, and their love. There is a certain clarity that comes on a wedding day: this is the person who makes the other better. Together they are better servants of God than apart. Time almost stands still, noises drop into the background, and suddenly, the couple is offered a moment deep assurance that this is a good and holy decision. I had fun talking with Bob and Janet about that day for them so many years ago.
I think God knows that we need those sacred moments because God knows what happens next: we come down the mountain.[ii] I always like to remind couples about their wedding, especially those married for a long time, because their mountaintop experience may feel far away. When we come down the mountain, we see the realities of life. No matter how dreamy someone seems basked in light, all of their imperfections are obvious outside of the light. In Luke’s gospel, the next verses tell the story of a young man who needs healing. The disciples fail to heal him and the father of the young man begs Jesus for help. Jesus is frustrated with his easily distracted disciples and scolds them. The disciples are definitely not on the mountain anymore. Jesus is no longer gloriously bathed in light – now he is just a scolding teacher.
We know that feeling too. For as many mountaintop experiences we have had – whether at a wedding or at a retreat or even in a holy moment of prayer – we also have those experiences in the fields of everyday life. We may even wonder where that glorious God is in those moments. In fact, when we stay in the valleys and trenches too long, we sometimes wonder whether we imagined the mountaintop. How could we have seen things so clearly and radiantly when in everyday life we feel nothing but God’s distance? We may begin to doubt, to experience anger, or to simply feel like God is absent.
Luckily today’s text gives us some hope in our valley and trench moments. First, epiphany moments are so strong that they keep revealing themselves to us. On occasions like an anniversary, we can go back to that mountaintop moment and ask, “Why did I choose this person?” We do not need long to be flooded with list of reasons. Suddenly all the little annoyances fade, and what is left are the loving, tender moments, the caring, sacrificial actions, and the joyful, abiding experience. I imagine that is why Luke tells this story today. Only three of the disciples were privileged enough to be on that mountain. But in Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, I imagine they returned to this story again and again, recalling with affirmation how God had said that Jesus is God’s son.[iii]
Second, today’s text also gives us hope through the other part of God’s words. God says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” We are all going to have hard days. But those hard days are even harder when we refuse to listen. No matter where we are, no matter how low the valley, Jesus is there speaking to us. We simply need to listen. All the answers to our questions, all our cries for support, all our loneliness and aching is answered when we listen. When we get caught up in the illusion of self-sufficiency and having everything figured out, we forget God’s words. The epiphany today – Jesus’ transfiguration – reminds us that God is speaking. We need only to listen.
This week Janet and Bob will bask in the glory of their anniversary and the renewal of their vows. They may even experience some of the radiance of that initial wedding day. But eventually, the anniversary bliss will fade as they come down the mountain. In that journey back to reality, their hope will be in listening to Christ as God commands. The same will be true for us. This week we begin the journey of Lent. As we step into that time of penitence and fasting, God’s words offer us hope, “Listen to him.” If God is telling us to listen, we can be assured that Jesus is speaking. Our journey off the mountaintop and into the valley in these next forty days will be blessed and full when we listen to our Redeemer speaking to us. As grateful as I am for a retelling of that transcendent day on the mountain, I am even more grateful for the reminder that disciples, like us, came back down the mountain. But even on that journey down, Jesus is still with them, speaking truth, love, and hope. Amen.
[i] N. T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 114.
[ii] Lori Brandt Hale, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 456.
[iii] Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 135.
When I do premarital counseling with couples, I often find that they select the passage we heard today from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. They may not know anything else about the service, but they know they want this text. Of course, I am happy to oblige. I think the passage is the perfect passage for a marriage – but the reasons I like the passage are probably not the reasons the enamored couple likes the passage. The couple usually likes the passage because the passage sounds so dreamy. If I do not have love, Paul says, “I am nothing…Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful…” The couple usually looks lovingly at one another and says, “Yes! That is how our love is. And we want to always have this love.” Watching the couple is sweet, really. Seeing young, hopeful love reminds me of days long ago when I had that same naivety, and helps me remember all the goodness of my partner.
But the reason I agree to read the passage at weddings is because Paul is not describing romantic, dreamy, caring love. Paul is describing how truly hard love can be. Do you know how hard it is to not be irritable at 6:00 am after a sleepless night with a newborn and without the blessing of coffee and a hot shower?!? Do you know difficult being patient is when you have asked that your partner do something a certain way ten times?!? And love is not just difficult among partners – love is hard among family, friends, and churches. Who among us with a sibling has not struggled with envy or resentfulness? So, when a happy couple asks me to read this passage, I am happy to read the passage because I know that five, ten, twenty years from now they are going to need desperately to remember that love is patient and kind, is not envious, arrogant, or rude, and does not insist on its own way. Because love the way Paul describes love is beautiful. But love the way Paul describes love is one of the hardest things we do.
Of course, Paul’s letter is not meant for newlyweds. Paul himself never marries, and truly did not seem to give much thought to or even recommend marriage. Instead, Paul is still addressing the same Corinthians we have been hearing about these last couple of weeks. If you remember, Paul wrote to a diverse community deeply embroiled in conflict.[i] He had already written to tell them that although they each have varying gifts, each of their gifts is important. Last week, we heard the portion of his letter that reminds them that they are a body of parts, and that each part is crucial to the body. Into this set of instructions, Paul adds this next chapter about how the Corinthians are to act like that body: they are to love in a way that is patient, kind, not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude. In fact, Paul does not just describe how love looks, he describes how love acts. As one scholar explains, the original Greek is better translated, “Love ‘shows patience.’ Love ‘acts with kindness.’ Here, love is a busy, active thing that never ceases to work. [Love] is always finding ways to express itself for the good of others. The point is not a flowery description of what love ‘is’ in some abstract and theoretical sense, but of what love does, and especially what love does to one’s brother or sister in the church.”[ii]
Of course, we can sometimes be like dreamy lovers ourselves when we hear Paul’s words. We totally agree that our faith community should be one that expresses, and even actively shows love. That is, until we are faced with how difficult expressing that love will really be. This month we are reading Tattoos on the Heart, by Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who serves in one of the most violent gang-inhabited areas of the country. Father Gregory tells the story of a tiny kid, Betito, who became a fixture around the Homeboy Industries office. He was funny, precocious, bold, and only twelve years old. One holiday weekend, Betito was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was hit by a stray bullet. Father Gregory kept vigil at the hospital, but despite their best efforts, Betito died that night. At twelve years old. But that is not the hardest part of the story. You see, the police caught the shooters and Father Gregory knew them too. He says, “If we long to be in the world who God is, then, somehow, our compassion has to find its way to vastness. [Compassion] would rather not rest on the two in the van, aiming frighteningly large-caliber weaponry. I sure didn’t. …it was excruciating not to be able to hate them. Sheep without a shepherd. But for lack of someone to reveal the truth to them, they had evaded healing. …But are they less worthy of compassion than Betito? I will admit that the degree of difficulty here is exceedingly high. Kids I love killing kids I love.”[iii]
What Father Gregory is trying to do, and what Paul is trying to teach the Corinthians is how to love the way that God loves: with compassion, kindness, patience; in a way that is not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude; not insisting on its own way, avoiding being resentful. At weddings couples can easily profess how they want to love each other in the right way. What they do not often realize is how incredibly difficult that will be. In fact, a couple of years ago, a friend of mine celebrated his first wedding anniversary. We had had long talks about marriage before he even proposed. He told me in that congratulatory conversation that I had been right. That first year had been really, really hard. Marriage is no joke, he told me. But the truth is love is no joke. Love is hard to do. Love takes work, commitment, humility, right-sizing our egos, and patience. Paul never says that love feels good.
But the understanding that love is hard is not just for newlyweds. Understanding love is hard is important for all of us. Paul’s warning is for St. Margaret’s today just as his warning is for the Corinthians. If we distort what love is, we can be in danger of thinking that the mission of St. Margaret’s is to gather like-minded and likable people. Doing so would certainly make loving each other easier! “But true love is not measured by how good love makes us feel. In the context of 1 Corinthians, it would be better to say that the measure of love is its capacity for tension and disagreement without division.”[iv] Like any family, we are always going to have disagreements, conflict, and tension. No matter where we go or who we are, there is and will be disagreement and division.[v] The mark of us being a community of love is whether we can weather those disagreements, sources of conflict, and tension without division.
The good news is that we have the capacity to be a community of love because God first loves us. In verse 12, Paul says, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” We are fully known and loved by God. That love means that we are not left on our own to develop a capacity for patient, kind, un-rude love. The love described by Paul “is a love we experience as God’s unshakable grasp upon our lives. ‘That love’ is the source of our greatest security and, thus, our freedom to actually be patient and kind, to bear all things and not insist on our own way.”[vi] “We can love because God has already fully known us and [loves] us anyway, and is working to make our lives and our communities look more and more like…busy, active, tireless love.”[vii] Thanks be to God! Amen.
[i] Carol Troupe, “One Body, Many Parts: A Reading of 1 Corinthians 12:12-27” Black Theology, vol. 6, no. 1, January 2008, 33.
[ii] Brian Peterson, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13,” January 31, 2016, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2734 on January 28, 2016.
[iii] Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion,” (New York: Free Press, 2010), 66.
[v] Karoline Lewis, “Love Never Ends,” January 24, 2016, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4249 on January 28, 2016.
[vi] Jerry Irish, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 306.
One of the dangers of being a faithful Episcopalian is getting lured in by the liturgy. The liturgy is certainly what reeled me into the Episcopal Church. Having been raised as a United Methodist, I had seen a variety of styles and orders of worship. On any given Sunday, you never knew what text the preacher would use. And since Eucharist only happened 2-4 times a year, liturgy was not synonymous with rhythm. But not so in the Episcopal Church. Once you figure out the kneeling, sitting, and standing patterns, the liturgy becomes gloriously expected. You get so used to the patterns that your body almost does the movements without thinking. You love being able to be anywhere in the country and know that the liturgy will be familiar and the lessons predetermined. When seasonal changes, like Advent or Epiphany, happen, you expect and appreciate the subtle differences more. Since most people I know do not really like change, the Episcopal Church is like a little slice of predictable heaven.
The trouble with that sense of comfort is we can miss when something really powerful happens. Ash Wednesday is one of those kinds of days. Growing up in the south, I never really had an experience of Ash Wednesday. College was my first exposure to seeing others with ashes while being invited to don them myself. I remember thinking how exposed having ashes on one’s forehead must be. Ash Wednesday seemed like a big deal. But, I am an Episcopalian now, and like many other things in liturgy, the shock of Ash Wednesday has softened.
That is why I love having a young child around. The first time my oldest really understood what the ashes were all about she exclaimed, “Ew, what is that on your head?!?” Try explaining to a three year old what being dust means and why I needed to remember I would return to dust. Watch the child’s face as they process what mortality means. Wait for the heavy feeling in your chest when they ask if they can have ashes too – knowing that you will have to say, “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” to her precious, innocent face.
Today the Church invites us into a holy Lent. The Prayer Book says this is a time of prayer, fasting, and self-denial. Matthew’s Gospel talks about the disciplines of giving alms, prayer, and fasting. Some of us will take up these specific disciplines. Others of us will commit to reading scripture or a devotional book, giving up chocolate, or playing Lent Madness. The Church tells us these practices or disciplines are to help us walk with Jesus in repentance. The challenge with taking on a spiritual discipline in Lent is making sure the practice is not rote – much like our participation in liturgies can be rote. The Church is not inviting us into the practice of disciplines out of habit. The Church is trying to help breathe life into our faith – and one of the ways that we do that is to do something out of the ordinary to shake up our comfortable, unchanging practices.
Matthew’s gospel is pretty strict about the way those disciplines happen. Jesus says that we are to be private about our alms giving, prayer, and fasting so as not to seem like hypocrites, boasting about our giving, piety, or suffering. But who among us has not slipped on the slippery slope of hypocrisy? Those of us who give charitably often find ourselves claiming that giving on our taxes. Those of us who have ever attended a prayer breakfast or have told a friend that we will pray for them surely were being a little showy about our prayers. And let’s face it, I cannot imagine fasting without complaining at least a little bit. The question then becomes, “How can a text that implores private acts of righteousness be read on the day one receives the imposition of ashes, a very visible and public act of piety?”[i]
But Jesus is not looking to trick us. He is checking our intentions – our authenticity. The trouble with anything rote, whether liturgies or disciplines, is that we risk losing why we are doing them in the first place. When I am busy complaining about fasting, I do not have space in my thoughts to remember those who go without food daily. When I am busy talking about my prayer life, I am filling up the silence through which God most likes to speak to me. When I am weeding through giving materials trying to decide who to support financially, I lose sight of the gratitude from which my giving originates. The issue is not really whether or not public and private acts are authentic or inauthentic. The issue is being intentional about not only choosing our disciplines, but living into them.
I invite you today to use the tool of liturgy to awaken your intentionality this Lent. Listen to the prayers and psalms today. Notice the discomfort of kneeling – whether you kneel physically or kneel in your heart. Listen to and feel the gritty ashes being spread on your forehead, allowing the solemnity of the words wash over you. Taste the bread and the sting of wine on your tongue. As you allow the liturgy to be fresh today, take time in prayer to consider in what ways God is inviting you into deeper relationship, and what discipline you can realistically take on to get you closer to God. The liturgy today is not about sending us out with pious reminders to others about our faith. The liturgy today is about jolting our senses into understanding our humanity, sinfulness, and mortality. Today, the Church uses the Church’s most familiar tool to create just enough discomfort to help us turn our hearts and minds to God – the God whose arms are wide enough to spread on a cross and wide enough to embrace us all. Amen.
[i] Lori Brandt Hale, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 22.