Today is Ash Wednesday, a day where Christians all over the world participate in a public expression of faith. Many, as part of this worship, prayerfully choose to give something up as an act of sacrifice and discipline. Also, many will attend worship services, much like ours tonight, and have ashes marked upon their foreheads; remembering Jesus – fully God and fully human.
There is much of this day that is public and open. It’s a day, that as a pastor, I look forward to; as people seem more open to spiritual things like receiving ashes and prayers.
So it’s a little paradox, or a big one, that our gospel reading for today begins with this statement:
“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.” Matthew 6
As we take part in worship, in this public place, we will pray – proclaim and yes we have already received ashes; but Matthew’s warning against public acts of worship is a warning – a warning to consider what is at the heart of our worship. Tonight, I pose that Matthew’s critique of “showy worship” is actually a call to authentic worship. In short, Matthew calls us to be ourselves – our true selves; in worship, in our daily lives, in our relationships; and most deeply in our relationship with God.
Matthew’s gospel reminds us, to keep things real. To be who we are, wherever we are – to come to worship and into our relationship with God; as we are and as we happen to be. Jesus warns against showy acts of worship, because they can distract us from the grace that God gives us through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. Faith isn’t about a show – faith is about showing up.
Several years ago, an Anglican Pastor friend introduced me to an icon that helped me to see worship in a new way. This print is called Rublev’s Icon – it depicts three figures seated around a table with one open space. The Priest explained to me that the Rublev Icon was a tool for worship and prayer, saying that the three figures were representative of the Trinity and the open space was the space where a person was invited to sit – to pray – and to be in the presence of God. The icon was not something that people would pray to, but a visual prompt, or a window to invite each person to simply be with God. Time and time again, scripture reminds us of God’s action of coming to humanity – reaching out to people and calling humanity to be in relationship with God-self. Lent is a season, where we all are called to the table – in communion, in prayer and in pause – to simply be the presence of a loving God.
The season of Lent, a time of devotion and prayer, is a space where we are invited to bring all that we are; to be reminded that “from dust we came, and dust we shall return”; but in all of it – we are dust that is beloved by our Creator. Lent is a space for us to spend time, to soak in the fact that each of us is known by and beloved by God. Lent gives us sacred space to be our authentic selves with God – to allow God to bridge the gap between secular and sacred – to show up as beloved children of God where we are. Lent calls us to be ourselves with God in all sacred-secular spaces.
Have you had an opportunity to meet with a close friend face to face, after a long time and distance apart? That friend may reach out to you, set a place and time and you meet to catch up. Something amazing happens in time and space with a dear friend; all pretenses are gone, all time apart disappears, somehow in the confines of that space, with that person – who knows you so well – authentic connection happens. As you and your friend share; you are open and vulnerable – you share who you really are because you know you are loved and accepted.
Lent is a special space and time, with not only a close friend; but the creator of life – the Creator of you. Lent give us time to remember Jesus, but also give us time to BE WITH JESUS. Lent gives us time to simply be with God.
This Lent, I encourage you to not only remember Jesus; but to take time to pause and be with Jesus. Each of you will find many ways to engage in this time with Jesus; through prayer, scripture reading, or fasting. But before we get too busy doing things in Lent; I encourage you to be in Lent with Jesus.
Like a long put off reunion with a friend, I encourage you to take your time, to be yourself and to embrace this space of spiritual nurture. Open your heart to this opportunity for Lent as a sacred space built on the foundation of God’s love and forgiveness.
There is an old love song that goes like this, “getting to know you, getting to know all about you; getting to like you, getting to know you like me…”; this tune captures the heart of vulnerable relationship, a space made sacred by love. This Ash Wednesday, being Valentine’s Day – this emphasis of giving and receiving love – is not lost on me. As human beings, we have an innate desire to be loved. In Jesus words from Matthew’s gospel, the Rublev Icon, and St. Valentine’s Day – God calls us to the table or relationship. God reminds us that we are beloved children. As we remember we are dust and to dust we shall return; we know that God has already set the table. The sacred space of Lent is set – God help us to show up and be.
Help us to walk into and through Lent not only thinking about Jesus, but being with Jesus. Help us in our weakness and open our hearts to your never-ending love for the next 40 days and beyond.