"Life-Giving Devastation of Lent" – Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
I’ve been dreading this Ash Wednesday worship service.
I knew it would be an emotionally-difficult one for me and for many of you in the congregation; primarily because its timing – on the heels of our brother, Chris Barrett, beginning hospice care and nearing death.
At this service, as you all come forward to receive an ashen cross on your forehead, I anticipated I would eventually reach out and touch the foreheads of Chris' family: Elise, Emma Ruth, Margaret, and Erikson. Would I trace the cross on the forehead of a wife whose husband had just died? Would I trace the cross on the foreheads of children whose father only have a few more days or hours of life? Or, would I not even have the opportunity to trace the cross on their foreheads because they remained home, in the presence of their own living reminder of mortality – ashes to ashes, dust to dust? Or maybe Chris would feel well enough to come to worship and would bend his head down so that I could put the black mark of mortality directly on his forehead?
I knew there would be others here tonight; others for whom I would have to muster a great deal of intestinal fortitude to speak the words “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” People like…
- Dave, still fiercely fighting aggressive prostate cancer;
- Stephanie, whose mother is nearing the end of life;
- Connie, whose newborn granddaughter is taking her last breaths;
- Denise, mourning the passing of her dear friend last month;
- Lindsey, who said goodbye to two grandparents in the past year;
- Steve, whose recent cancer diagnosis likely caused him to think about his mortality;
- Debbie, who tonight will go visit her aunt for perhaps the last time.
We all carry a story, a memory, a relationship, that is approaching death; and soon we will display a symbol of this death on our foreheads for all the world to see. If I think about it too much, it gets unnerving. For many of us, the very last thing we need right now is a reminder of our mortality. Death is already very much on our minds. We know all about ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
For many of us, the very last thing we need right now is a reminder that we are not in control. We’ve very aware of our inability to change our situation or the situation of someone we love. We know all about not having control.
For many of us, the very last thing we need right now is to be reminded of our sin. We’ve very aware of our inadequacy, our anger, our despair, and our constant inability to do our best or be our best. We know all about being unlovable.
And yet we gather here tonight to be reminded once more. All of that death and sin, that’s what our forehead crosses are made of.
Once we admit that, once we can look in the mirror and see our death and sin on display in all its ashen glory on our foreheads, only then are we ready to hear the good news:
The promise that death is not the end.
The promise that God is in control.
The promise that our sins do not define us.
A worship service like Ash Wednesday invites us into an inner journey into our heart of hearts to recognize our deepest fears and our greatest pain. It’s hard work to allow yourself to be completely submerged under the mysterious waters of honest self-reflection and total surrender. And yet, as people of faith, we trust that God is there in those deep dark waters. We trust that the promises of God can only be found in the midst of our deepest fears and our greatest pain.
It’s one thing for me to say this in front of you. And trust me, I’ve been plunged into the dark mysterious waters on several occasions; so this isn’t hypothetical for me. However, I thought it would be most important tonight for you to hear about the good news from our brother Chris.
I sat down with Chris last month and was able to record some of his memories and insights about living with a terminal illness. There was one part of our conversation where we ended up talking about this important message of faith in the midst of honest reflection. He used the phrase “life-giving devastation” to describe his journey with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Here’s a bit more, in his own words.
"One of the life-giving devastations of the process has been relinquishment after relinquishment after relinquishment. And part of that relinquishing the stories we’ve held fast, relinquishing the convictions that we’ve thought have made us who we were (and in large part have made us who we were) but the degree to which over the last four years we have had to relinquish the old has reminded me of a phrase that one of the theologians at Duke loved to say, 'Historians have it wrong. History is not narrated through cause and effect but by death and resurrection.' Throughout the whole process there have been death after death after death. Whether it’s the death of my pastoral identity; whether it is the death of the patterns and practices that Elise and I had shaped over our marriage that were not sustainable under these new circumstances and had to, in the midst of all the rest of it, we had to let go of those in order for something new to take shape.
"In the parlance of the bone marrow transplant world they call it the “new normal.” And for us there have been these new normal, new normal, new normal, and just when you think you’ve sort of got everything at an equilibrium, the whole thing tips again. The constancy of recalculation, it’s like all the GPS lady is saying is “recalculating, recalculating.” And yet, in the midst of that, what I guess you have to do is hold fast to the precious pieces.
"I’ve found that finding an interior space that is sufficient to hold all these imbalances, that’s been probably the key project and it’s involved all kinds of growth, all kinds of discoveries that were horrifying at the time. To know this was true about me or that was true about me; but to know it was to be able to receive that wound as a gift. To hobble around for a while and grow toward healing. The sense that the suffering has been a means of grace in a weird way. I’ve been kinda blown away by it. The things you thought were essential, aren’t necessarily. And the things you believed were constant identifiers no longer…they never even occur to me now."
At least for a few hours tonight, allow the reality of your suffering and death throw everything off equilibrium.
Because as long as those ashes remain on our foreheads, we don’t get to choose what identifies us. We are death and sin and lack of control. So too, we are life, forgiveness, and trust in the God who makes all things possible.
And for that we say, “Amen.”