Delivered at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit; Bellevue, NE; 02-17-10. Ash Wednesday: Isaiah 58:1-12 • Psalm 103:8-14 • 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 • Matthew 6:1-6,16-21.
Today’s Gospel tells us that our piety should be kept private – give alms in secret, shut your door and pray in secret, fast quietly because God sees in secret. And yet in a few minutes we will leave this church with ashes on our forehead, perhaps the most physically visible symbol of our faith seen all year. Could anything be less secret? How is this practice in line with the Gospel?
I do not believe that we are called to live in an individualistic, pull-yourself-up-by-your-boot-straps culture or church. I also do not believe that are called strictly to a life of community. I believe that as Christians, we are called to balance the two: secrecy and warmth, self-worth and community, and that Lent, which begins today, can help us find that balance.
Protestant Christianity is all about the individual’s personal relationship with God. That’s one point of today’s Gospel: what others think of you should not matter. Only the Creator’s love is infinite, and only God sees in secret. This is why Christ tells us how to focus our actions on God and how to use them to deepen our personal connections with Him.
My favorite image of God is that of a loving parent, sometimes stern and disciplinary but always hurting when the child hurts, perhaps feeling an even deeper pain than the child feels, and always rejoicing at a happy smile, perhaps with a joy more meaningful than the child’s. The way Christ wants us to act – in secret, looking only for God’s approval – brings us closer to that parent, our Father who art in Heaven. It’s right there in today’s Psalm: “As a father cares for his children, so does the LORD.” By removing the ego of the hypocrites or the praise of the market-goers, Christ leaves nothing standing between God and His children but love.
This is a constant theme in Christ’s teachings. We are told that we should strive to be Christ-like, to ask ourselves What Would Jesus Do? I would rather ask, What DID Jesus Do? One-on-one time with His Father was an important thing for Jesus, who set the example by praying alone and in secret quite frequently, whether in the Garden of Gethsemane or, as in Lent, the Wilderness.
Take also the Lord’s Prayer. Before Christ, to be forgiven of their sins, Jewish peasants were told that they had to trek to the temple and make a sacrifice to receive the priest’s blessing. That’s a pretty raw deal for a poor farmer who can’t spend time away from his fields or doesn’t have the resources for a decent sacrifice, but a pretty sweet deal for the powerbrokers and priests! But then along came Jesus who said no, God is with you everywhere with no one standing in between. Whenever you pray, wherever you pray, you can say all on your own, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
God is with us, one-on-one, everywhere we go, and our actions should aim to cultivate that personal relationship. And yet, for all that individual behavior - fasting, giving alms, praying – community remains one of the most important things about Christianity, and about life.
We talk often about being a church family, and those words carry great significance. If God is our Father, and we are God’s children, than we are truly with family everywhere we go. And just as children need one-on-one individual time with their parents to learn and to feel loved, siblings also need community time with one another. Going to a baseball game with your dad is a special thing, but large family gatherings are just as important. Be it five people crammed in a car for a road-trip or dozens at the Christmas table, children need one-on-one time with their parents, but they also need the community of the family. One cannot flourish without the other. The same is as true of God’s family as it is of the Empsall family or the Culp family.
This topic – the importance of, the need for, community and family – is addressed in Scripture at least as much as is the secretive nature of faith. Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Ah, Jesus – here’s a guy who always took a dozen friends with Him everywhere He went! (Poor Mary - imagine if you had to feed a dozen hungry grade schoolers every time your kid came home for dinner!)
Even today’s reading from Isaiah addresses the necessity of community. The actions Jesus tells us to take in secret – fasting, giving alms – do strengthen our individual relationships with God, but even more than that, they are meant to benefit our brothers and sisters: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice… to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?’
I have been learning this lesson, the importance of community, the hard way this year. It turns out that the typical Resurrection House experience has long accidentally included a lack of external community. Very few of the program’s participants, and certainly not myself, have ever found deep relationships or broad social circles in this, a new and temporary city. Friends, yes; close friends, companions, true connections, not really. Speaking for myself, I love working at Holy Spirit, but other parts my time here can be a real challenge. One of the goals of Resurrection House is to teach us the importance of community through its presence, but I am finding that the opposite is true: I am learning the importance of community through its absence.
This lesson was reinforced by my trip last week to my college in New Hampshire, a campus that for me is home. I saw many dear friends and met with faculty and staff whom I have long looked up to. But other people were missing – busy, sick, traveling, etc., so I had more down time than I expected. Even some of the wonderful relationships still there have grown complicated and stressful. I thought I was going on vacation, but God is using that trip to keep teaching me tough lessons, including the importance of intentionally balancing purpose, a sense of place, community, and love in one’s life. God’s lessons done God’s way, but it can still be very painful.
Clearly we are called to have individual relationships with Christ, and clearly we are to remain in intimate community with our brothers and sisters. The question we then face is, how do we strike the right balance between the two?
We cannot call ourselves followers of Christ if we do not recognize the image of God in everyone we meet. I have grown quite fond of the South Asian concept of “Namaste.” Literally translated, this Sanskrit word means “bow to God,” but it is not a bow I take to the altar. It is a bow I take to you. Other translations that capture the meaning rather than the literal translation of the word also capture the essence of Christ’s teachings: "I honor the Spirit in you which is also in me," or "That which is of God in me greets that which is of God in you.” Namaste: seeing the image of God in all of God’s children.
Lent begins today. By balancing the fellowship and education opportunities here at church with the traditional disciplines of giving something up or adding something new in our personal lives, Lent teaches us a very powerful message: that we are loved by God as individuals, but we feel that love when we are in close, even intimate, community. That we can only understand God if we recognize our individual limitations and learn from one another. That we can only endure the pain that is to come on Good Friday – and elsewhere in life – if we endure it together.
The glories of Easter – of knowing that we have a Savior who can overcome even death for us, of knowing that the love our Creator has for us goes beyond eternal – these glories are changed, they are deepened and heightened, if we experience Lent first and if we pay close attention to the Scriptures, services, and emotions of Holy Week. These Lenten changes are all about our personal relationship to God and so they happen at an individual level, but, like so much in life, they are far more powerful when shared with dear friends and with a church family – with community.