Fresh off the presses. It's a sermon, so if it reads a little weird for you, that's because it's not entirely meant as a blog post...
Ash Wednesday 2014
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Andy Griffith. Perry Mason. Arthur Fonzarelli. Marsha Brady. Cliff and Clair Huxtable. D.J. Tanner. Corey Matthews. Though no one here may be terribly familiar with all of these people, I would imagine that there is one name I just listed that each of you here knows a lot about. You might know about that individual’s life work, struggles, triumphs, like and dislikes—all sorts of things about that person. And they all have one thing in common: they’re not real!
Isn’t that the way we live sometimes, though: knowing more about people who aren’t real than we know about the real people sitting right around us? Usually, this is because we don’t let too many people know the “real” us, either. It seems like we often put a great deal of energy into ignoring our true selves—when we hurt or break or ache—and we put on a happy face and tell people we’re “fine.” Try this sometime: when someone asks how you are, don’t say you’re “fine” or even “good” or anything so meaningless. Tell that person how you’re really doing and see how long he or she is willing to listen. I admit that I don’t do that well at listening, myself—I have found myself at times thinking back through people I’ve talked with over the course of a day and trying to remember if they said they were “good” or “fine” or gave me some other clue to the “real” them that day.
But this is Ash Wednesday. And we’re in the middle of a busy, busy week in the life of our church. And if I were the betting type (which I’m not because I’m a United Methodist), I’d bet that some of you are longing to tell someone else here how the “real” you is feeling tonight. Are you tired? Are you aching? Are you out of sorts with yourself or with someone else? The prophet Joel tells the people of Judah—and us—be real before God. When his people experience devastation due to a locust plague, Joel tells them, All of you—little babies to old folks, no matter how busy you are—gather before God and raise your voices in lament. Let God really know how you feel. Come together in this time of trial and be a community that cries out to God. Let’s be real. And who knows…God may just turn back and help us out. When the people let God know their distress, Joel wants them to realize, then God will listen. We may not think we need to tell God anything, if God knows all things, but as Joel points out, part of being in relationship with God is actually speaking up and saying how we really are doing, even to the God who created the whole universe.
We read from Joel on Ash Wednesday because Joel reminds us that no matter what our parents may have taught us about crying (and if I had a dollar for every time my mom said, “Crying never solved anything!”…) or how much we would rather not own up to our own suffering and our need for God, we have to do it—we have to be real, before God. And Joel tells us to do that together.
Be real before God and be real with each other, Joel says. And Jesus comes along much later and tells us a similar message. When he teaches his disciples about being faithful, he tells them that they should put their energy into practices of the faith so that they can draw closer to God, not so that other people can see what they’re doing. Jesus wants them to know that the practices of faithfulness are important—fasting, giving, praying—but not because anyone is keeping score. These are the ways we learn to be more “real” with God, by letting God work in our lives through disciplines and spiritual practices. Don’t do them in order to draw attention to yourselves because that is not their purpose, Jesus says.
Maybe it seems to you like what Joel is saying—for everyone to get together and cry out to God in the assembly—and what Jesus is saying—don’t do your fasting, giving, and praying in public so others can see it—sound like they conflict. What they are really telling us, though, is that if we believe in the God who made all things and is able to make all things right, then we must practice coming before that same God just as we are, our real selves, even the parts of us we’re not proud of, the parts that feel broken and ugly. Come before God and get real, both Jesus and Joel tell us, in very different situations—in everyday practices of the faith and in the midst of devastation and hardship.
And when we hear the call to “get real,” it doesn’t just mean that we finally are able to come to God and confess, repent, and ask for grace, but also that we learn to become more real with others. Joel tells the people to cry together—don’t just sit in your own houses and mourn the ways we’ve all experienced loss through this locust plague. Come together and weep as a community. Be with one another in this misery. Share with each other in the pain that we are experiencing, Joel tells them. That’s what getting real means—knowing that we are all broken, and being in this, together. There is an Irish proverb that says, “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.” Though we practice different disciplines or ways of growing closer to God during Lent, the call to self-examination and repentance comes to all of us, and we need the help of each other to “get real” this Lent.
The reason we do something different at Lent is not because it makes us better than people who don’t observe the season. That’s exactly what Jesus was warning the people against! No, during Lent we take time to offer ourselves to God in a new way, to let God work on us in different ways from the “norm,” so we can become more the people God is calling us to be. It is a time of self-examination—we may find stuff we don’t like about ourselves, and that “stuff” may be exactly what God is working on changing at this time. We need to take time to pray, fast, study scripture, give, and get into the disciplines of our faith, during Lent, if during no other time in the year. We may give up bad habits (last year, I gave up bitterness for Lent—that was a lot tougher than giving up chocolate ever was!), and we may give up things that we eat or drink or otherwise take into our bodies that don’t make us the best we can be, or things that we say or do that don’t show love for God, ourselves, or our neighbors. These are not easy things to do—and we will need God’s grace to work in us to follow through on the commitments we make to become more “real” through Lent.
So we come to church on Ash Wednesday to worship together. We sit together, while we hear the call to observe a Holy Lent. We covenant together to embark on this journey toward Easter—toward the celebration of our own redemption, our hope, once again. We are truly always on a journey, but during Lent, perhaps, we realize it more than at any other time of the year. And it’s gonna take all of us to get through it, as we live in the shelter of each other and find strength through our community and in our God.
None of us will do a perfect job with our Lenten disciplines this year, most likely. We may find ourselves complaining about whatever we’ve decided to do or not do. We may completely forget about it, some day. But we have come together tonight to commit to trying to be different people, at the end of these 40 days (plus Sundays), and it will take all of us together—and God—to make that happen. When you receive ashes tonight, know that you are human and sinful, made from dust, as the ashes remind us—but also know that you are God’s—marked by God’s own sign, the cross of Christ. And we are in this together, all of us who have that same mark from God, all of us called to be in community together. Let’s get real through this Lenten journey, and let’s do it together, with God at our side the whole way. Amen.