Ash Wednesday Lectionary Passage: Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you… 16“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
So, several years ago, I heard some pieces of an interview with a political figure questioning another well-known political figure’s religion. The claim was that it was difficult to discern whether or not this person practiced “legitimate Christianity”. Really? And what in the world, pray tell, is “legitimate Christianity”? And how do you know? I mean, especially since we’re apparently suppose to be in our rooms with the door shut praying in secret! But then, aren’t we supposed to be out in the world showing the love of Christ? Whew! Well, regardless of the fact that it must have been a slow news day, sometimes it’s just a whole lot of mixed messages, isn’t it?
Today we begin this season of mixed messages, the season of “both-and”. First of all, Lent itself, literally “springtime”, means that we begin clearing all of the winter debris that has grown and gathered in the flowerbeds and leaving room for new life. This season is about both pruning and fertilizing, cutting and nurturing. It’s about cleaning out and freshening up. Theologically, this season brings images of walking through darkness toward the light, through the wilderness toward home, of giving up and taking on, of death and new life. We are told to let go and to take up, to lay down and to rise up. We are told to breathe in and to breathe out. And now, to pray in secret and go out and serve the world.
So, is your head spinning? Maybe that’s why this season is so difficult. There’s no baby; there’s no star; there’s not even, when you think about, anybody around to tell us not to be afraid. No one comes to tell us what is going to happen. There is no appropriately convenient Lenten Annunciation. We just have to start walking that pathway toward Jerusalem with both assurance and humility. But this time, in many ways we walk alone. This God who has walked with us every step of the way has seemed to have gone on at least a few steps ahead of us. Where Advent kept pushing us back, telling us to wait, in many ways, this season of Lent is pulling us kicking and screaming into something we do not understand, something that, given the choice, we might choose not to do, choose to go back into our room and shut the door. And yet, we’re told to follow.
I’ve shared this story before, but it is one of my favorites: A rabbi once told his disciples, “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on their needs. When feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “Ani eifer v’afar; I am dust and ashes. But when feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or without hope, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “Bishvili nivra ha’olam…For my sake was the world created.”
Talk about mixed messages! We are dust and ashes, resembling that cast-off debris. And we are loved more than we can even fathom. We are so very human, struggling with greed and hubris, with some inflated sense of our own worth that makes us think we are better than others or deserve more than others, makes us think that there is some sort of “legitimate Christianity” in which we are called to participate to prove our very worth. And, yet, somewhere in the midst of our humanity, in the midst of all those things that we do not do or those things we do not do well, there is a piece of the Divine. Bishvili nivra ha’olam. Do you even know how much you are loved? Do you even know how to imagine a God that has given you the world?
Perhaps the mixed messages are because we cannot let go, cannot see what God is offering, cannot fathom how much we are loved. Today is the day when we proclaim we are dust, when we confess our sins and lay prostrate before the ruins of our lives. Today is the day when we take burned palm branches and allow them to be smeared across our forehead in the faint shape of a cross. Today is the day that we remember we are dust, remember that we are particles of waste that are left from what was. Today is the day when we go in our room and shut the door. But the only reason we do this is so that we will stop what we are doing, look at our lives, and know how very much we are loved. Bishvili nivra ha’olam. For your sake, the world was created.
Faith is about mixed messages–letting go and taking on, human and Divine, death and life, sending and return. Perhaps this Season of Lent is about realizing that there is a Holy and Sacred “And” connecting it all. Lent is not about giving things up; it is about emptying your life that you may be filled. Lent is not about going without; it is about making room for what God has to offer. And today is not about clothing yourself in the morbidness of your humanity; it is about embracing who you are before God.
There was once a question posed to a group of children: “If all the good people in the world were red, and all the bad people in the world were green, what color would you be?” A little girl thought for a moment. Then her face brightened, and she replied: “I’d be streaky!” We would all be streaky. To be human is to be a mixture of the unmixable, to be streaky. It is to live incomplete, yet yearn for completion; to be imperfect, yet long for perfection; to be broken, yet crave wholeness. It is to live with mixed messages. And as we begin what is essentially our own journey to the cross, we note that it is one that not only recognizes but embraces the fact that there are many conflicting and disjointed ideals that God, in God’s infinite mystery and wisdom, allows to exist together—arrogance and humility, good and bad, faith and doubt, human and divine, cross and resurrection, death and life—none can exist without its counterpart.
Faith is about living a life of breathing out and breathing in. Neither can exist alone. So…remember…you are dust and ashes…breathe out…..For you the world was created…breathe in….
My ego is like a fortress. I have built its walls stone by stone to hold out the invasion of the love of God. But I have stayed here long enough. There is light over the barriers. O my God…I let go of the past. I withdraw my grasping hand from the future. And in the great silence of this moment, I alertly rest my soul. (Howard Thurman)
Grace and Peace,