(This blog post is Pastor Will's homily for Ash Wednesday, February 26, 2020)
Read Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
So I acknowledge that Ash Wednesday is kind of weird.
It’s a worship service that doesn’t happen on a Sunday, it’s right here interrupting the middle of our week, and so now that we took the time and energy to come to church on a Wednesday, the minister then rubs dirt on our forehead and reminds us that we are mortal and that one day we are going to die.
That’s not something we do very often... OK... we do it once a year on Ash Wednesday.
And then on top of that, us Lutherans who tend to be more reserved,
not as outspoken, and quieter when it comes to our faith and evangelism….
We finally get to hear a word from Jesus that gives us permission to NOT put our faith on public display, and yet today is the one day we choose to literally walk around with a visible cross on our foreheads.
But in a weird way, that’s why I think today is one of my favorite liturgies to be a part of and lead.
No, not because I get to tell you to your face you are an imperfect mortal being, but rather the flow of this liturgy cuts to the heart of, and practice of, our faith.
Today we gather in community with a collective sense of humility and confession.
We acknowledge together that we do fall short, that we are not perfect,
that we are mortal and have a limited amount of time here on earth,
we acknowledge together that none of us are God.
And then out of that confession and humility, God’s word breaks in,
we then hear God’s word spoken and revealed to us, a word that reaches out to us longing to be in a relationship with us.
A word that challenges us to reflect on what our heart truly treasures.
And then our liturgy today has an invitation to embark on this journey called Lent…
A journey that calls us to discipleship, a discipleship that involves following and learning from our Rabbi and teacher named Jesus.
A discipleship that involves the practice of prayer, fasting and sacrificial giving.
It is a journey that leads us to somewhere specific, a place and story called Holy Week.
The week of Jesus’ passion, his death on a cross, and then to an empty tomb with the strangest proclamation of all… Someone rose from the dead! And that because he lives, we will live also.
Then takes another turn.
We are invited to a table, to a thanksgiving meal.
A table where we share bread and wine that somehow is mysteriously and intimately connected to Christ’s very essence, and when we consume that essence, we become what we eat.
And then from this table and we are called to leave this space to be THE hands and feet of Christ in the world where we live, work and play.
For us Lutherans its uncomfortable and can feel weird but then today of all days when we leave this space, we have a visible sign that we have been to worship, that we go to church, that we are a baptized follower of Jesus.
The reason I do like the season of Lent is that there is a sense of intentionality to it.
We often coast in our routines in life, in our relationships and in our faith.
I know I do.
So its helpful to mark a certain amount of time, like the season of Lent, to do things a little different to wake up from complacency and laziness.
The rhythm of this liturgy, the rhythm of Lent, this intentional time to confess and acknowledge our brokenness and limits, to listen carefully to God’s word and promises to us, to return to the waters of baptism and this table of grace, and then turn to serve our neighbors beyond these walls.
This IS the rhythm of our faith.
And so when we get into this rhythm of faith, and we put our faith into practice, that’s when Jesus’ words we hear from the sermon on the mount can sink in a little deeper.
Jesus’ caution, warning… his “Beware!”… is rooted in challenging our motivation and intention behind our practice of faith.
Notice it’s not “If” you pray, fast and give.
He says “when” you pray, fast and give.
These are the drumbeats within the rhythm of our faith.
Prayer, fasting and giving in love are not optional in our discipleship of following Jesus.
Now there is this language of "reward" that Jesus uses.
But I need to be clear.
We pray, fast and give not to get extra attention or faith-points from your pastor,
or to earn God’s favor and grace, nor will it make Easter happen or not.
But rather this is for the deepening of our relationship with God,
A relationship that has already been birthed and initiated by God in our baptism.
That’s the call and invitation to Lent, and our faith at large, a call to go deeper with the God who loves us with an eternal and unconditional love.
We have been watching The Good Place TV show with our Lutheran Campus Ministry students as our “TV Bible Study”.
I love the show so much and highly recommend it.
I’m not spoiling anything by saying that the show calls out “points system spirituality”.
The show holds up a mirror to stereotypical default religion that is focused on rules and if you are good enough to earn a spot in heaven. This show leans into the very Lutheran theological proclamation that life is not about earning points with God in order to earn a spot in the good place, or “oops, you didn’t give up something for Lent so you may end up in the bad place.”
Your standing and status with God is that you are already in the good place.
Because here’s the thing…
This smudge of dirt and ash we put on your forehead is in a particular shape.
It’s in the shape of a cross.
The same cross that is traced on your forehead at baptism, when we proclaim that you are a beloved child of God and nothing can take that away from you.
Lutheran pastor and public theologian, Nadia Bolz-Weber shared on Instagram today,
“If our lives were a long piece of fabric with baptism on one end and our funeral on the other, and we don’t know the distance between the two, then Ash Wednesday is a time when that fabric is pinched in the middle and the ends are held up so that our baptism in the past and our funeral in the future… meet.
And in that meeting we are reminded of promises… That we are God’s, that there is no sin, no darkness, and yes, no grave that God will not come to find us in and love us back to life.”
God loving us back to life.
And so may we embrace the weirdness of Ash Wednesday
The weirdness of Lent
The weirdness of faith
As weird as it may sound and seem…
The rhythm of Lent and our faith can and will help us go deeper in unconditional love of God that brings us out of the grave and back to life.