The Holy Gospel According to Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21
When I was on internship learning how to be a pastor, the congregation I served was in the habit of making space for the confession and forgiveness nearly every Sunday. This is generally how we began every worship service in Lent. This part of our liturgy calls to mind all our sins, all the ways that we have fallen short of the glory of God, and sets apart a silent space for us to confess those sins to God, and, when it is all done, receive absolution for those sins from God. My first Sunday on internship, this was to be my job. I would stand in the back of the worship space with the cross bearer, and I would speak these words loud and clear. Being my first Sunday my supervisor was eager to give me some tips, in hopes that I wouldn’t bomb too badly. Don’t wait too long once you tell people to confess their sins, a good rule of thumb is to say the Lord’s prayer quickly in your head, my supervisor told me, they really start to get uncomfortable if you give them too much time, so you have to keep it moving. They really want to get to the forgiveness part quickly.
Keep it moving, and get to the forgiveness part quickly. Don’t let them get too uncomfortable. These words stuck in my head this week as we celebrate together Ash Wednesday. Get to the forgiveness part quickly, but today, we can’t. Not on this day, because on this day, we really drag it out, stretch it out, wait much longer than a quick mental rehashing of the Lord’s prayer. We stop and wait in the middle of the confession until we are uncomfortable. And perhaps, on this day, what we might find there is not a place to rush, but a space within ourselves that needs to be examined, that needs to be seen, that is uncomfortable but that underneath is a place for us to grab hold of the holy.
This may be why those who aren’t all that into Lent complain that it seems to be just a season to feel bad about ourselves. This is not a self-esteem encouraging up-building season, they would argue, it is just depressing. Who wants to come to church to feel bad about themselves? Lent certainly doesn’t have the marshmallow bunnies of Easter, or even the sweet carols of Christmas. If you find yourself on the bus after services, with ashes smeared on your forehead, it is more likely someone will tell you that you have dirt on your face than wish you a good Ash Wednesday.
If you look through scripture, you won’t find anything about the season of Lent coming out of the mouth of Jesus, but you will find plenty of things that mimic the season- Jesus tempted and waiting in the desert for forty days, the same number of days as this season we begin tonight. Elijah hangs out in a cave waiting for the still small voice of God to come to him in silence which only happens after 40 days. The Israelites wandered for forty years seeking the Promised Land. You might not hear the term Lent, but in scripture you can recognize calls to fasting, and prayer, and alms-giving. You hear words like repentance pretty much all the time if you even give a cursory glance to what Jesus has to say.
So what is good about Lent? What is it that we are preparing for starting this very evening? Is it all just about being sad and solemn and sorry?
First, it is tonight that we recognize that sin is real. This is a pretty uncomfortable truth, because it implicates me and you and what it means for us to be together. We often hear sin talked about as if it is just a list of things we can refrain from doing. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Don’t do any manner of questionable behaviors. But sin is much more than that and much deeper than that, and it isn’t something we need to flee from but something on this night, of all nights we can turn toward with good courage. Sin is something that keeps us bound, it is not just a set of moral failings and it isn’t really about self-esteem at all. Tonight we confess that there are hungry children dying every day in a world with enough food, and we haven’t done anything about it. We confess that even on this Ash Wednesday we heard the news of another school shooting, and we skimmed the article, because we have become desensitized to gun violence. We confess that sexism, racism, transphobia, and heterosexism are systems of oppression still a part of our everyday life, and many of us benefit from these systems every day. We confess that when we see people broken and bleeding and in trouble we turn away. We confess that the earth is in serious trouble and some days we make it worse. We confess that when we see politicians bickering and claiming Jesus for their own and ignoring those on the margins while making policies that hurt and kill people in our world everyday, we shake our heads, figure there isn’t much we can do, and call them crooks. We confess sins that are big and overwhelming and for which we are only a small part. And we confess sins that sometimes seem small, but can capture us. We confess that we are more interested in ourselves than others, that we are addicted to our own comfort, that we hurt one another, that we cause pain and we break relationships.
Some might say staring all that in the face is depressing, but I will tell you that not looking at it, pretending that I’m okay and you’re okay, being satisfied with the cultural story that tells us that whatever feels good is the best thing for us, that will never, ever, ever heal what is broken. Hiding and pretending and telling ourselves that the world is someone else’s problem, that the brokenness around us is someone else’s problem, that is just going to make it worse. So, on a night like tonight we just look at it. All the darkness and the things that are wrong and we say, okay, God, I’m not hiding. I am going to see where all these things will take me, and I am going to try and turn around.
Because that is what it means to repent. To literally turn around. To see where we are going, to recognize it is about as far from the vision of God as one can get and to turn around and go in the other direction. That is what Lent does, it helps us remove all the things that have blinded us to sin in ourselves and in others, and to say, that is not the direction I want to go anymore. I want God to help me move my feet, to help me change direction, because the only way that is going to happen is a divine miracle.
But today is not just about looking at sin, it is also about confronting death. I was talking to a chaplain friend of mine today, who has been distributing ashes all morning in the hospital. People around here see death all the time, he said, and they still want to be reminded. But death is not the message of the more popular seasons, it is not a cuddly baby, it is the end of things. Marking our faces with ashes and saying that we are dust, that we are on this earth for only a time and then we, too, will be gone. People will weep for us. Prayers will be said at our graves.
So today we stand with courage as we remind ourselves that this life will not last forever. We are here and then we are gone. And it isn’t to be sad and morbid, it is God’s honest truth. We cannot live forever, and with the time that we have before us, we want to live faithfully. We want to have lives that are marked by generosity and love, patience and humility. We need a season to remind ourselves that all the things that want to steal our time and our lives, all the powers and the schedules and the stuff that says it will give us life, isn’t the thing that gives us real life. Real life is found in living with our hearts and our minds set toward God, in right relationship with each other.
Our text from Joel tells us that it is not our clothing that we should tear, but our hearts. We have to mention hearts at least once, it is Valentine’s Day after all. This might be one reason why people dislike facing Lent, because it is a season of broken hearts. Of recognizing where we are, who we are, how much trouble we are in, and of truth telling that we aren’t going to get this right on our own. Our hearts are broken. Yet we have a choice of what we will do with those broken hearts. We can try to push the pieces back together on our own, ignore the brokenness itself, or we can see that broken hearts are further open for God. We can let ourselves not be broken apart, but broken open, that more of God might come in.
So, I hope that with me, you will look forward into this season with courage. Courage to hold a broken heart and ask for more of God’s presence. Courage to face what is real and not hide. Courage to ask for help in prayer and community. Courage to name our sins and know that it is not impossible for the miraculous to happen. Let us be of good courage, my friends, broken hearts and all. Amen and thanks be to God.