March 5, 2014
Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21
Earlier this week a friend of mine posted a picture on his Facebook page of a box of Peeps all of which had tiny charcoal crosses etched on their fore heads. It made me chuckle. And it made me think. For me, and for my tradition, you have to go through Lent to get to Easter. Is it because we need to remember how humble are our beginnings as part of our repentance and acceptance of our new status as God’s people, named and claimed in our baptism? Is it because we need to remember that we are interwoven into the natural world by our creation from the earth – that human and humus share the same root? Or is it because we need to remember that the personal touch God gave to the creation of humanity is the same personal presence brought to us in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, God’s presence in our history?
Maybe the tradition of ashes on this night at the beginning of our preparation for Easter is all of those things, and maybe even more. The symbolism of this night is thick – filled with layers of history and layers of meaning, and perhaps for each of us what we will carry away from our time together and our ash anointing will also be multi-layered enough to keep us going for the six weeks of Lent.
When I was growing up, Lent was a time of penitence. We spent the whole of the time talking about what wretched sinners we were. I heard that my sin had nailed Jesus to the cross, and that only through God’s great generosity was my sin carried away. All the preaching and singing reminded me of my failures, and Jesus’ great sacrifice for me. When I was in high school, I met Roman Catholics who had holy days of obligation. They had to go to church, had to give up meat on Wednesdays and Fridays, and were encouraged to give up something else that would help them understand God’s great sacrifice for their sins. The language of deprivation made real sense to me, and I joined in many of their practices as a way of honoring Jesus’ love for me, and showing how grateful I was to receive such love. Many of you have joined in such practices in the past and may feel that it is a fitting way to prepare your hearts for the joy that comes when Jesus rises from the grave, carrying away all that keeps our hearts in bondage to our own lack of love and inability to live the life we profess.
But over the years, I began to add things to my practice for Lent. I committed to daily devotions, or to a new practice of prayer for the six weeks before Easter to led a new spiritual guide inspire me, or to led the Holy Spirit open some new doors in my understanding of God’s love for me and my sense of mission to live that love in the world. In the course of my theological training, I realized that I had moved out of the practice of denying something during Lent, and turned instead to adding something in hopes of gaining a new heart and a new Spirit that would continue past Easter and into the rest of the year.
I realized that instead of being focused on my own sinfulness, I was focused on God’s great love for me and how that made me long to live more and more faithfully in that love. Instead of thinking of repentance as giving up something, I began to think of it as praying for a change of heart that would allow me to see with more compassion, and to recognize injustice.
The reason I tell you this long story is to invite you to join with each other in committing to a way of Lent that works for you. Does your heart tell you that you need to spend some time meditating on your failures, your lack of love, your self-centeredness, so that you can see God’s intervention in your life and the opportunity to ask for the change of heart that will let your forgiveness lead you to new life?
Does your heart tell you that you need to commit to a daily practice that will inspire you or teach you something new about prayer or Scripture or the life of God’s people?
Does your heart tell you that you have forgotten that God called you Beloved at your baptism and that you are uniquely gifted to spread God’s love by doing something for someone else who needs to feel beloved?
Does your heart tell you that you need to take better care of the body that gives you life and is the gift of your presence to your family and friends, so that you can enjoy the days you have ahead of you?
Whatever you need to do or be in the coming six weeks as you prepare for the shock of new life that will be Easter, I hereby give you permission to do it. Dig deep into repentance and find release from your failures. Love your body, and give it the gift of healthy food and the joy of movement. Open that book or that Bible you’ve been meaning to read and find refreshment and a new path. Spend some time teaching or encouraging someone whose life will change because of your care and interest. Take this time to love God by loving yourself and your neighbors and the world.
“Do not store up for yourself treasure on earth…but store up treasures in heaven. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” It’s not that your commitment to a practice of Lent is ringing up the cash register in heaven for you. It is that when you are practicing out of gratitude for God’s forgiveness, and out of the love that has been lavished on you shown in Jesus’s death, you are already living in heaven right here on earth. You are already enjoying the eternal life won for you in Jesus’ resurrection. So I encourage you to use the next six weeks, however it works for you, to get dusty. Live the life that is promised to you wide awake and grateful, so that when Easter morning dawns you too will be celebrating new life unfolding for you, as you join in singing, “Alleluia.” Amen.