Perhaps no set of readings produces a more incongruous way of thinking than our reading from Matthew 6 this day and our intentional marking of our foreheads with the sign of the cross. I cannot begin to tell you how many times parishioners have asked me if we are being hypocrites by participating in the service. Then there is the angst over whether to leave the cross in place or wipe it off before we go about our days. What are we doing?
Pay attention to what Jesus says in our readings. He does not say “Don’t.” He says “beware,” “be careful,” “be on the lookout.” Technically, I suppose, Matthew records Jesus as saying prosechete, but He is not saying “do not.” You see, God is always concerned with our hearts. Why do we do what we do? Do we really love Him? Do we really repent and want to follow Him? If the answer in our heart of hearts is “Yes!” he is a merciful and forgiving God. Think of David. He did terrible things, yet he is often described as a man after God’s own heart. Abraham and Sarah? They take matters into their own hands rather than trusting God, and still He made their descendents too numerous to count. Peter? Is there any spiritual hero more like us? He had amazing mountaintop experiences with his Lord, but Peter had some terrible moments recorded for us as well.
So why are you here this day? Why do you come forward to be marked with ashes and reminded that you are dust and to dust you shall return? If you come forward hoping the priest or others here will think you are pious, you are coming forward for the wrong reason. Be careful! If you are coming forward because you can stroll into work or school late with an excused tardy because you attended a “religious event,” you are coming forward for the wrong reason. Be careful! If you are coming forward so that you will become the focus of the office gossip, you are coming forward for the wrong reasons. Be careful!
Ideally, as we go through this day, people will nod their head and say, “ah, of course, that’s why you are the way you are.” How we live our lives among the people with whom we interact testifies as to whether or not we are Christians, not some stupid mark on our foreheads. If you find yourself in the uncomfortable position this day of having family, friends, co-workers, or others saying to you “You’re a Christian? Really? I never would have guessed,” then give thanks to God that He has given you the opportunity to see yourself as others see you. If people are surprised we are Christians, then we need to do a self-examination, we need to repent, and we need to give thanks to God for loving even us. Better still, we thank Him for using people like ourselves to carry forth His message of love, His message of hope, His message of mercy to the world! And the season of Lent calls us into that kind of self-examination where we endeavor to see ourselves as He sees us. Yes, it can be uncomfortable. Yes it can be painful. But He does not leaves us as we deserve.
The other call the Church makes on our lives during this season is one of a deepening relationship with God. Many of us will try to be more intentional in our prayer life. Some of us will try to go to worship every week. Some of us may study devotions or Scripture. A few of us may fast or practice other spiritual disciplines all in an effort to walk closer with God. And so, we as pastors, encourage parishioners to take on as well as give up during Lent. As your pastor I am less concerned with what you give up than how you work on your relationship with your Lord and Savior. Yes, I want you turning from the idols in your lives, but I remain convinced that as you intentionally walk with, talk with, and study God, you will simply lose interest in the idols of your life.
I read this week that some bishops were encouraging us to give up cell phones, mp3’s, laptops, and other techie stuff during Lent in order to reduce our carbon footprint. It’s an ok suggestion, if we are doing it to repent of the idols in our lives. But if we are doing it to stand out among our friends, peers, co-workers, and family, we should be careful. Why not, though, change the music on your iPod from whatever you listen to currently to a Christian version of that? Words of hope in rap? In heavy metal? In pop music? Yes, it exists. Why not use it to reach those around you, and maybe even yourself, instead of trying to stand out for your deep sacrifice? Perhaps, instead of texting “lol” and whatever other nonsense we text 6-8000 times a month, maybe toss in a few “God luvs u”? Certainly there are movies which give us entrée with others to share our faith (Avatar, Legion, and The Book of Eli come immediately to mind), probably there are computer games. Why not let God, creator and ruler of all things seen and unseen, use your interests, your fun, your very life to reach others? Part of that deepening relationship is trusting Him to use us as is best for us. What could be better than playing a small part in the salvation history of the world? Where is He calling you to work for Him?
Brothers and sisters, we live in busy times. We live in uncertain times. We live in an age that is increasingly hostile to God message of love as evidenced by the cross and His testimony of power at that wonderful Easter event. For the better part of 325 days a year, you and I are immersed in a culture that resists the One who would save and redeem it. But for 40 days, for only 1/9 of our year, you and I are called to be extra intentional in our relationship with God. We are called to examine our lives, to repent where we sin against God and others, to look with awe at the love He demonstrated for us and all His people throughout history, and go forth into the world bursting with the joy of a people redeemed! Yes, we are dust, and yes, we shall return to dust. But in between those events, you and I are tasked with the glorious responsibility of sharing His redeeming love and His unfathomable mercy with those in the world around us. We are tasked, as the prophet Isaiah reminded us a couple weeks ago, of living a life that testifies to the love of God. It is a love which proclaims freedom to the enslaved, joy to those who sorrow, and peace to those who worry. And it can be spoken by the mute, heard by the deaf, and seen by the blind because He can, in truth, overcome all things, even our death. I pray, in this season of Lent, that we will all hear His voice, go where He leads, and draw others to His eternal joy.