Sunday, April 5, 2020

Palm Sunday

Matthew 21:1-11

Grace and peace to you.

Throughout Lent we have been in the wilderness, exploring what it means that we worship a God of new beginnings, a God who asks for our obedience and commitment, a God who invites us into life together with our neighbors, and a God whose Word speaks against the death that we experience in our brokenness. And we have looked for the places where God shows up in the wilderness.

One of the places I see God is when the lectionary texts connect to our current events. The texts for today were chosen nearly forty years ago, long before anyone could have foreseen Holy Week happening in the midst of a global pandemic. And yet, listening to Mathew’s account of Jesus entering Jerusalem, we hear, “The whole city was in turmoil.” If we were hearing from Mark, Luke or John today, we wouldn’t hear those words.

There may be a lot about the first century life in Israel that we don’t know or can’t understand, but Matthew’s words connect immediately to our current experience, and we can say, “oh, yeah, okay, I know something about turmoil these days.”

God speaks to us where we are. And that is Good News in turbulent times.

I was caught by this particular word we hear in Matthew’s gospel; the word translated as “turmoil” comes from a Greek word that means “to shake, agitate or cause to quake.” It can be a physical shaking, but it can also be mental or spiritual agitation.

Matthew’s Gospel begins with one of the infancy narratives that tell us how Jesus was born into the world. And how the birth of the One who was called the Messiah frightened King Herod and when the wise men tricked him, he was angered and infuriated. The king and his understanding of both kingship and kingdom were shaken by the birth of Jesus, the incarnation of God’s own Son. The assumptions he had made and what he thought he knew were changed.

According to Matthew, more than thirty years later, the world was still in turmoil, shaken and out of sorts. This year, for us, I think it matters less why that was the case. It is simply reassuring that God’s people have lived in turmoil throughout the ages, and we have witnesses throughout the centuries that God’s people, and God’s church, have survived.

Later this week, on the afternoon of our Lord’s crucifixion, we’ll hear that the world was shaken again. Matthew tells us that after Jesus breathed his last, the curtain of the temple that separated the holy of holies from the nave or sanctuary is torn in two, the earth shook and the rocks were split. And yet, we know that isn’t the end of the story.

For today in the midst of a world in turmoil and shaken by uncertainty and having to let go of expectations, may we remember that Jesus still leads on.

Jesus, the Son of God who came and lived among us because God so loves us, leads the crowds into Jerusalem on this Palm Sunday, triumphant not because he has fought wars and won,  but because he has announced a new kingdom and new life for all who follow him.

He is, as our next hymn says, the one who guides us by our hands into the promised land. He is our comforter and consoler, leading us home.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Fifth Sunday in Lent

John 11:1-45

Grace and peace to you.

Sometimes when stories, like this morning’s gospel, are character-rich, the pastor preaches a first-person account, imagining the story from the perspective of one of the lesser characters. It’s one thing to hear the story and place ourselves in the roles of Mary or Martha, but imagine being the messenger who brought the news that Lazarus was ill, full of expectation perhaps that Jesus would return with him to Bethany. Or being one of the disciples who cautioned Jesus against returning to Judea, preferring to stay out of sight and away from the attention of religious authorities. 

What we hear, and see, depends largely on where we sit, or where we find ourselves in the story.

As I listened to the story this week, I found myself sitting with the ones who are grieving alongside Mary and Martha.

During these first two weeks of precautions to slow the spread of coronavirus, my grief has not been as immense as the grief that accompanies the death of a beloved, but it has been real grief all the same,

certainly for the loss of our in person gathered community and for the sacrament of Holy Communion, and for the absence of visits to congregation members in nursing homes and assisted living;

but also well beyond our congregation and ministry:

for the high school theater productions that won’t make it to the stage;

for grandparents who don’t get to visit newborn grandchildren as quickly as they planned;

for people living with illness or pain who are having to postpone medical procedures and operations;

for high school and college seniors whose plans have been disrupted;

for teachers who don’t know if they’ll see their students again this school year;

for employees who have lost work and pay, and for Shelby’s small business owners who have worked so hard to make uptown alive.

I expect you can add your own half-dozen or more laments.

And I want to give you a minute to do just that.

In the chat or comments, aloud from wherever you are this morning, or silently in your hearts, name something you have lost during this time of social distancing and staying at home.

In our grief it would be easy to join Martha and Mary in saying, “Lord if you had been here,” it would have been different. (v. 21, 32)

But Lazarus didn’t die because Jesus wasn’t there.

It’s true that Jesus stayed away and it’s true that Lazarus died, but there’s no cause and effect relationship between the two events. As much as we want to see one, because we want an explanation that makes sense, there isn’t.

Similarly, I have heard and read where people are saying the coronavirus is like God hitting a reset button, or that God is getting our attention by letting the virus spread, so that we will pay attention to first things and return to God.

I absolutely believe God is present in the midst of this disease and our community’s response, but I do not believe that God willfully let more than 30,000 people worldwide, each one beloved by God, die because we weren’t devoted enough.

“The way of Jesus doesn’t avoid death.” Facing the reality of human mortality and finitude, that death cannot be avoided, Jesus didn’t perform a miracle. Jesus knew that God’s future hope for the world is persistent, that God is at work even when all we can see is the death in front of us.

So when Jesus met Martha and then Mary away from their home, he didn’t hurry their grief or ignore the weight of their loss. He grieved alongside the sisters, weeping for the loss of their brother and his friend.

And then, together they waited for the Lord because, in the words of the psalmist, in God’s word is our hope. (130:5)

In John’s prologue we read, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us….”(John 1:14). In Jesus, God’s Word is alive for us even when all we can see is the death in front of us.

Grief is complex. There is grief for what we have lost, there is grief at our circumstances now, and there is anticipatory grief for what will be different in the months ahead. Martha and Mary bear witness to the complexity of grief and how we can hold anger, frustration or disappointment and faith at the same time.

Unnamed grief creates separation and distance, cutting us off from others. But Jesus embraces the sisters letting them name their disappointments and reminds them what they know about God’s saving power. Together at the tomb where Lazarus is buried, Jesus then calls out to him by name and commands him to come out, telling the people around him to unbind him and let him go.

Again this is God’s Word at work against death.
God’s call restores us to community, whether we are buried by grief or entombed, behind heavy stones. God calls us to come out of the places where we have been stuck, even when the stench of whatever sin binds us still lingers. And God invites others to help us find freedom and new life.

“The way of Jesus doesn’t avoid death.” But it does defeat it. And that is Good News indeed.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Fourth Sunday in Lent

John 9:1-41

Grace and peace to you.

Friday I was outside for most of the afternoon. The grass, and a whole lot of clover, is growing and I needed to mow it. While I was in the yard I was delighted to see buds on the branches of two volunteer Japanese maples I brought home from my grandparents’ place. My granddaddy planted the original trees and the small pointy maroon leaves make me smile.

The buds have already burst into leaves on one of the trees, and the forsythia and azaleas are blooming but I really haven’t done much outside yet. I know it’s still too early for tomatoes, but I’m starting to play with the idea of having a real garden – the kind with raised beds and lots of dirt. And I am delighted at the idea of watching the transformation that is possible with some seeds or seedlings, some dirt and water and sunshine.

The beginning of our Gospel for this morning is a lot like that; Jesus uses a little bit of saliva and some dirt to heal the man born blind, and the man is transformed, and each time he has to answer another question about his encounter with Jesus, his understanding of who Jesus is deepens.

First his neighbors ask him, “How were your eyes opened?” (v. 10) and then the Pharisees question “how he had received his sight.” (v. 13) and then the Jewish authorities demand to know, “How did [Jesus] open your eyes?” (v 26).

There are no words of thanksgiving or praise recorded here, only skeptical questions and accusations, and ultimately, rejection. John tells us that when they weren’t satisfied by his answers, the Jewish authorities drove the man out. Because they could not explain what had happened to him or because his experience was outside their understanding, they sent him away.

I thought about this gospel on Friday when the local newspaper initially and in error reported that someone had tested positive for the coronavirus in our county. Like the characters in our gospel, readers commenting on the online story were asking all kinds of questions, demanding to know the person’s name and address and where the person had been. There were no words of compassion or prayers offered, only fearful demands for information.

While, thankfully, that report was mistaken and the person doesn’t live in Cleveland County, at some point, it’s likely we will have someone in our county who tests positive. What do we learn from this gospel about how we respond to our neighbors?

I believe the first thing we learn is that love draws near.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I recommend we follow the federal guidelines to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. That’s why we are gathering online and on the phone. The recommendations now encourage us to keep six feet apart and limit groups to fewer than 10 people. Social distancing will help limit the reach of the disease and right now, for the sake of our neighbor and for the world, love for our neighbor looks like empty pews and church buildings.

But in the Gospel, when fear leads the other characters in the gospel to reject the man, Jesus responds with love.

Instead of casting blame or pointing fingers, we can draw near. And in this time of social distancing that will look different but it is more important than ever. We can draw near with our phone calls, with our letters and cards and with our prayers.

At Ascension we say one of our core values is prayer. As the people of God, I ask you specifically to pray, without ceasing and with confidence in God’s boundless love.
for the people in our congregation, perhaps even by name. It is hard to be apart and to lose the face-to-face community that we love. More than ever we must remember God is with us wherever we are and the church is not the building.
  • for the residents in nursing homes, patients in hospice and the hospital, inmates in prisons and for their families who are not able to visit.
  • for the people who cannot self quarantine or isolate or for whom home is not safe and food is not secure.
  • for the essential services and workers who continue to collect the trash, deliver mail and provide food, gas, medicine and healthcare.
Maybe Jesus’ first encounter with the blind man was by chance, but when the man has been cast out, Jesus goes and finds him.

Nothing could separate the man from God’s love – neither the physical blindness he had been born with, nor the spiritual blindness of those in the community.

And isn’t that Good News for us today?

God’s love reaches us no matter where we are, and when we encounter Jesus, our lives are transformed.

There is a lot of uncertainty in our lives today especially as the world responds to the pandemic. We can choose to respond with fear, anger and frustration. Or we can choose to respond with faith.

Responding with faith doesn’t mean we don’t follow the guidelines for protecting our health and that of our neighbors. It means choosing to remember that no one and nothing is beyond God’s far-reaching love.

May we be alert to where God is still acting in our lives and those of our neighbors.

May we draw near to one another and share the hope that is in us because of Christ Jesus. (1 Peter 3:15)

And may our witness shine brightly in the darkness. (John 9:5)

Amen.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Third Sunday in Lent

Exodus 17:1-7

Grace and peace to you.

This Sunday, the wilderness we are in is the one we hear about in the text from Exodus. Moses led the people of Israel out of slavery and they were singing praises to God, saying, “The LORD is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father's God, and I will exalt him. (Exodus 15:2)”

And almost as soon as the words of praise left their mouths, they began complaining. And the Lord heard their complaints.

The water was bitter, so the Lord made it sweet.
The food was scarce, so the Lord provided manna.

In the reading this morning, the Israelites are in an unfamiliar place with a lot of uncertainty ahead. They are unmoored and they are quarreling with Moses.

I expect they were quarreling with each other too, sharing the bits of information and stories they had heard from each other. I expect their patience was wearing thin and they were questioning everything they were hearing and wondering what to do next.

It sounds a lot like where we find ourselves this Sunday morning, where we are experiencing new and unfamiliar circumstances because of concerns about COVID-19 or the coronavirus. It is unsettling to live in the midst of uncertainty.

And it is easy to become quarrelsome, frustrated and even fearful. It is our very human response.

The third time the Israelites wonder aloud whether Moses intended to kill them by leading them into the wilderness, Moses challenges them to see that their complaints are actually a test they are placing on God.

They had accepted God’s assurance that God would free them and deliver them from slavery, trusting in God’s redemption and judgement against the Egyptians. (Exodus 6)

They accepted God’s Word that said, “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.” (Exodus 6)

And they believed in the promise God gave them to bring them into the land that God swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Exodus 6)

But they still wanted God to perform, to demonstrate God’s providence on their timetable and for their comfort. As Old Testament professor Terence Fretheim wrote, “Israel’s testing of God [said] “if we are to believe that God is really present, then God must show us a concrete way by making water materialize.” …[They] made their belief contingent upon such a demonstration.”[i]

It reminds me again of the old joke about the religious man that I’m sure you know. It goes this way:
There once was a very religious man who was caught in rising floodwaters. He climbed onto the roof of his house and trusted God to rescue him.

A neighbor came by in a canoe and said, “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll paddle to safety.”

“No, thanks,” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure God will save me.”

A short time later the police came by in a boat. “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll take you to safety.”

“No, thanks,” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure God will save me.”

A little time later a rescue services helicopter hovered overhead, let down a rope ladder and said. “The waters will soon be above your house. Climb the ladder and we’ll fly you to safety.”

“No, thanks,” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure God will save me.”

All this time the floodwaters continued to rise, until soon they reached above the roof and the religious man drowned. When he arrived at heaven he demanded an audience with God and he said, “Lord, why am I here in heaven? I prayed for you to save me, I trusted you to save me from that flood.”

“Yes, you did my child,” replied the Lord. “And I sent you a canoe, a boat and a helicopter. But you never got in.”
In this period of living differently in response to the pandemic, people have quarreled about who is at fault and questioned whether the response is too extreme.

There will be some who will insist God will save them from infection or disease, and refuse to take precautions, but God is not a servant at our beck and call.[ii] Public health, medicine and science are part of God’s good creation, as well, and the people who are called to those vocations are working for the public good.

After issuing his challenge to the Israelites, Moses leaves the quarreling crowds and asks God what to do. Periodically, I need the reminder, too, not to complain or worry or ask my neighbor their opinion, but to seek God first, and ask God for help.

And God hears Moses and responds. God appeared to Moses and the elders of the tribe and made water appear out of the rock at Horeb. God satisfied the human longings - both the very real and material need for water and the Israelites’ need to see that God was still with them, even in the wilderness.

The text tells us that Moses then named the place after the quarreling Israelites whose question and test had been, “Is the LORD among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7)

It’s a question I believe many of us carry through our days. “Is the LORD among us or not?”

The Good News is the answer is a resounding “Yes!” The Lord is among us, always.

Even when we cannot worship together on a Sunday morning.

Even when we cannot share supper and evening prayer on a Wednesday night.

Even when we are grieving the loss of what is familiar and the potential loss of what we have hoped for in the next few weeks or months.

The Lord is among us when we call the person we usually sit near, or send a text or a smiley face emoji to someone we haven’t seen, or mail a card to someone who isn’t able to have visitors right now. I am especially concerned for people who are already physically and digitally isolated, but I have confidence that the Lord is among us and we will find other ways to connect.

Yesterday I was in a meeting with volunteers who are planning to serve together at the Kairos Outside retreat later this spring, and we were talking about finding gratitude even in the midst of rapidly changing news and evolving plans. It is hard to choose gratitude and thanksgiving when we are grieving loss or we are afraid or frustrated. But we began naming the places we could find gratitude even in the pandemic:

the opportunity to stop the busy-ness of our lives and rest

the ways we can connect by phone and technology

the time families will spend together because school and activities have been canceled

The psalmist today echoes Moses’ own song that I quoted earlier, telling us, “let us shout for joy to the rock of our salvation.” (Psalm 95) The Lord is our salvation and is among us in this wilderness.

Even in the uncertainty of this wilderness, we remain both a human family and the body of Christ and our relationships, our care for each other and our love for our neighbor are not canceled.

Believing the Lord is among us frees us to love our neighbors, and right now, that love looks like empty pews. But it also frees us to look for ways to show up for one another when we cannot show up in the church sanctuary. May we see God in those very places.

Amen.

[i] Terence Fretheim. Exodus. 189.
[ii] ibid

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Second Sunday in Lent

John 3:1-17

This week the wilderness we encounter in the Gospel isn’t one of desert sand, rocks, or mountaintops. Instead this wilderness is a place of not knowing or understanding. For many of us, it can be as vulnerable as standing in the elements outdoors, protected neither by knowledge nor ability.

According to the Evangelist, Jesus is in Jerusalem near the time of Passover when the Jewish people remember how God saved them when they were enslaved by Pharaoh. He has chastised the temple authorities for letting the money changers onto the grounds, and now Nicodemus, one of the Pharisees - Jewish leaders who were dedicated to teaching the law - approaches Jesus at night.

We don’t know why Nicodemus arrives in the night. We imagine he chose night because the crowds who had been following Jesus would have dispersed and they might not see them together. But we cannot know his reasons really.

Maybe he had responsibilities that had kept him away until nightfall. Maybe he was embarrassed by his own questions and confusion as he listened to Jesus teach. Or he may have been afraid of being associated with Jesus because of the spectacle he was creating.

Similarly, we don’t know if it’s eight o’clock at night, or closer to midnight, or sometime before dawn. We don’t know whether he finds Jesus sitting outside or goes into a house where Jesus was staying. Does Nicodemus wake him up?

Nicodemus is himself a teacher who calls Jesus “Rabbi” and acknowledges the miracles he has worked. We don’t know if others observe them. Do they whisper, or talk in hushed tones so they won’t disturb anyone who may be nearby?

Imagining these details helps us hear the story anew.

Personally, I wonder which questions drove Nicodemus to find Jesus. We don’t hear the questions he brought with him. Jesus acknowledges his greeting and they start talking about being born from above and the conversation goes from there. Of course, it’s possible Nicodemus didn’t have specific questions that he wanted answered; maybe he just wanted to spend more time with Jesus because he was clearly teaching and healing under God’s authority.

After listening to Jesus, Nicodemus asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” (v.4) Because of what he says next about returning to our mothers’ wombs, we often hear his question as only wondering about the impossibility of physically being born again.

But his question is also about what is possible “after having grown old.”

Certainly, he could have simply been referring to age. The word used here is the same as Sarah uses in Genesis when God speaks to her about the child she will have. (Genesis 18:12) Maybe Nicodemus is simply a realist who wonders about the limits he faces as he ages.

But there’s another way to hear his question. First century society was based on a household system that placed power into the hands of men, and Pharisees were respected for their knowledge and for their leadership. So, “having grown old” meant Nicodemus had not succumbed to illness as a younger man; he was respected and honored; he had wealth. So, Nicodemus had a lot to lose if he followed Jesus. Maybe what he is asking is, “What is this going to cost me?”

It’s a question we hear in the synoptic gospels, too. Speaking to the rich young man, Jesus tells him, “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." (Matthew 19:21) And he also tells his followers, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)

Following Jesus is costly. We are asked to empty ourselves, including our ego, our security and our independence, so that we may be filled and used by God.

Jesus continues talking to Nicodemus, drawing comparisons between things of the flesh and things of the Spirit (v. 6) and between earthly and heavenly things (v. 12). And then Jesus describes God’s love for the whole world, saying God’s desire is not separation and condemnation but life with God and salvation.

It’s not clear that Nicodemus ever “gets” it, but he stays and listens to Jesus. He recognizes God’s presence in Him. The Pharisee doesn’t flee from the wilderness of unknowing, retreating to the safety of the familiar; instead he takes a risk, draws near to the divine and trusts Jesus.

Throughout Lent as we explore the wilderness, may we also risk drawing near to Jesus, hearing the invitation to bring our questions and our wonder. May we learn to listen, even when we cannot find neat and tidy answers. Most of all may we know that God loves us with an expansive love that makes room for our unknowing.

Let us pray…
Holy God,
In our wilderness wandering, we lift our eyes to you, thankful for the depth and breadth of your love for us.
Encourage us to seek You any time of day or night, confident that you invite us, as we are, into life with You.
May the wisdom of your Spirit guide us to bring about your kingdom here on earth.
We pray in your Holy name.
Amen.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

First Sunday in Lent

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Matthew 4:1-11

Throughout the forty days of Lent we’ll be exploring the “wilderness”, recognizing it’s not always someplace we go willingly, and yet, sometimes, it’s where we need to find ourselves so that we can draw closer to God.

Wilderness looks different in different parts of the world and it means different things to different people. We are close to Linville Gorge and Shining Rock but wilderness could look like the Boundary Waters of Minnesota or the Mojave Desert in California. And the wilderness that Jesus experiences looks different from those and even different from the garden where we meet Adam and Eve and the serpent in the Genesis text.

Importantly, no matter what our experience of the wilderness is, there is no place where God’s love cannot reach us.

I want to begin with our reading from Genesis that Lisa read. It’s part of the first three chapters of the the Bible, which have not one, but two, different creation stories in them.

The first is where God declares that the works of creation are good, and then, when humankind is created in God’s image, it is very good. (1:31)

God creates us to flourish and loves us.


Our verses for today come from the second creation story. Here humankind has been created for relationship with each other and cautioned against overreaching, and eating from this one tree, but the humans disregard God’s plan or intention for them and, instead, they seize the chance to “be like God knowing good and evil.” (3:5)

I doubt that we’d hear the parallels if we didn’t have these texts side by side like we do today, but when Matthew tells this story of Jesus’ temptation, it is immediately after his baptism when the Holy Spirit of God had descended upon Jesus and God had declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved,” with whom I am well pleased.” (3:17)

God has said again, “This is very good.”

And then the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness where he faces the tempter. In Genesis, humankind justified eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil because it was “good for food, and …a delight to the eyes and ..was to be desired to make one wise.” (3:6) But in Matthew, Jesus pushes back on each distorted claim the tempter makes and is satisfied and sustained by God’s Word.

But the point isn’t that “Jesus got it right where humans messed up.” Or to assure us that Jesus knows what it’s like to be tempted so if, or when, we break our Lenten fast, he’ll forgive us.

So, what do we learn from these wilderness stories?

(pause)

It goes back to being God’s beloved.


Adam and Eve are already created in God’s image and do not need anything else. Created to live as servants of creation and do God’s work in the world, they fail to recognize the breadth of God’s love or the expansive freedom God has given them and they make self-serving choices. In his book Simply Christian, Bishop Tom Wright described the human propensity for distraction and disobedience, saying it’s like we are following one route and then we choose to take a left or a right, and head in a different direction, and God accompanies us, saying, “Well, that’s not what I had in mind, but I’ll go with you. Now you’ll need to take these turns…”

Jesus doesn’t take any detours or look for shortcuts. He hears God say, “You are my beloved” and knows his identity as the Son of God. He trusts God to provide for him –confident his hunger will be sated and his thirst will be quenched; he is obedient to God and doesn’t try to secure his own way, and he chooses his relationship with the Father over anything the tempter offers.

The Good News is we are God’s beloved, too.

When we find ourselves in the wilderness,
the tempter may meet us in those wild places and distract us with distorted claims, but we are not the first ones to be in the wilderness and we do not need to be afraid. “For as long as there has been creation, there has been wilderness.”[i]

Sometimes, we may think we are making wise choices for good things, but it turns out that those things are not what God has intended for us. The very One who breathed life into us gives us God’s Word, its commands and promises, teaching us how to live with God and with each other.

Other times, we may be isolated, footsore and famished, but God, who loves us and calls us very good, is with us accompanying us on each step. We are not alone, and we will find a way forward.

Let us pray…
Good and Gracious God,
We give thanks for your beloved Son Jesus and for your Spirit that accompanies us even in the wilderness. Forgive us when we are distracted or choose our own ways over You. Inspire us to have confidence in your promises, remembering we are loved and created to serve and love. We pray in your Holy name. Amen.

[i] From “The Wilderness is Somewhere We’ve Been Before.” Prayer by Sarah Are |A Sanctified Art LLC| sanctifiedart.org

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6 and Joel 2

These verses from Matthew’s Gospel that we hear each year on Ash Wednesday are from a section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the first of five discourses Jesus makes in Matthew. This is the sermon that gives us the beatitudes and later the Lord’s prayer. Jesus is teaching the disciples about the promise of God's blessing and a new kind of kingdom righteousness that looks different from the Roman occupation they have known.[i] And in this part of his sermon, Jesus warns his followers against performing their faith “like the hypocrites” who were the stage actors of the day.

It’s hard to ignore the irony that here on Ash Wednesday we listen to Jesus teach about giving and praying in secret and yet, in a few minutes I will mark an ashen cross on your forehead and you will walk back out into the world with the ashes visible for all to see.

With his warnings about practicing piety in public though, Jesus was contrasting the public displays that were part of Roman patronage designed to bring special attention to those in power.

Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage and all men and women merely players.” But the kingdom of heaven is not a stage.

There is more to following Jesus than playing a part. Discipleship isn’t about wearing the right clothing, costume or mask, and it isn’t about remembering the right words or following a script. Ash Wednesday invites us to stop role playing, or pretending, and move from performance to relationship, where we find our identity as followers of Jesus.

Wearing the ashes marked into a cross on our own skin is not a prideful or vainglorious action. Instead it is an act of humility. With these ashes, we acknowledge our own human frailty and mortality. We recognize that our identity is not found in ourselves, our achievements or our abilities, but in Christ alone.

It may be the person you next see will try to wipe away the smudge on your forehead, not understanding its significance. But others will see the cross and know that it marks you as a Christian entering the season of Lent.

The trumpet that Matthew bans becomes the trumpet calling us together to worship in the prophet Joel’s words. Ushering us into Lent, Joel calls the whole community together, from the infant in arms to the elderly, and tells us what the Lord commands:
return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.[ii]
Like Matthew, the prophet’s concern is not on outward appearances or performances but what is happening within us in our hearts.

The prophet’s call is communal and it is personal. It is not private.

And while often the Hebrew word in this text shuv suggests repentance — turning around and changing direction —Hebrew professor and Episcopal priest The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney suggests on this day, in this text, it can be read as “a call to draw closer to God.”[iii]

At the beginning of this forty days we are being called to rededicate ourselves to a life following Jesus.
The prophet promises forgiveness from our tender God, who “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”[iv]

And forgiven, we come to the Table to receive the wine and bread, to be fed and nourished with the gifts of God that will sustain us in the desert wilderness of Lent.

Let us pray…
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.[v]

[i] “Matthew.” Enterthebible.org, Luther Seminary. https://www.enterthebible.org/newtestament.aspx?rid=2, accessed 2/25/2020.
[ii] Joel 2:12-13a
[iii] The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney. “Commentary on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17.” Workingpreacher.org, Luther Seminary. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3564, , accessed 2/25/2020.
[iv] Joel 2:13b
[v] Book of Common Prayer. The Episcopal Church.