February 26, 2023
The past few weeks have been filled with some pretty crazy, unsettling stuff. There’s the distant but disheartening news of the earthquakes that happened in Syria and Turkey, and the ongoing war in Ukraine. The national news was captivated by that Chinese spy balloon, followed by more unidentified flying objects; then that huge train derailment and chemical explosion in Ohio threw more confusion into the mix. And closer to home, the tragedy of teenage car wrecks have mixed with the onslaught of this week’s roller coaster of a winter storm. We’ve even been thrown off by having to cancel our Ash Wednesday service. Confusion, uncertainty, fear—that’s what greets us this first Sunday in Lent.
And maybe we’ve spent the last few weeks wondering how to cope? What do we do in the face of the uncertainties and fearful confusions of the world? The prophet Joel speaks to a time that felt a lot like our times. Most likely writing his prophetic words after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon, Joel was speaking to a people who were feeling dislocated and uncertain. A famine was apparently looming, and they were trying to get their feet under them in the home they’d lost once before. There was social confusion and hard times everywhere. And Joel gives some salient advice.
“Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” In uncertain times, more than any, is the opportunity to turn toward God. When the world is uncertain, when armies—metaphorical or literal—are marching, return to the Lord your God. When chaos reigns and the sky grows dark, return to the Lord your God. When the confusion of the world seems insurmountable, return to the Lord your God. And how do we return to the Lord our God?
Jesus tells us three ways in this morning’s gospel reading. And these three ways are the ancient Lenten disciplines—practices that the Church has used for almost two thousand years every single Lenten season. Pray, fast, and give alms. Whenever the world has been crazy, the Church in Lent will pray, fast, and give alms. When there is uncertainty and doubt the Church in Lent will pray, fast, and give alms. And when all is right with the world and peace reigns, the Church in Lent will pray, fast, and give alms. We do this because Jesus used this as the simplest formula for us to use to “return to the Lord your God.”
When we fast, it gives us focus. When we notice what we lack, it makes us more aware of the poor who lack even more. Fasting helps us notice God’s work to provide for us and through us, and makes us more aware of God in the world.
And when we give alms, it helps us practice charity. We recognize how much we’ve been given, and how much we can offer others. Giving alms opens our eyes to God’s work and God’s presence by helping us to see the poor around us.
When we pray, we spend time with God. We name the things we want to share with God, and we listen for God’s response. Prayer makes us more aware of God’s ongoing presence in our lives, and more able to name the ways that God is at work—our “God sightings.” So we pick up these disciplines of praying more intentionally, fasting from what distracts us, and being generous toward others during Lent.
The steadiness of these three disciplines are what we can use to anchor ourselves in God during the wild and confusing times that we are in. And when we do them, Jesus calls us to have the right motivation. “Do it in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” That isn’t to say make sure no on ever notices the good works that you do, or is inspired by your piety, or comes to know and love Jesus because of your example. Instead, we’re called to be oblivious to earthly praise for the right things that we do. We’re called to, as Joel put it, “rend your hearts, and not your clothing.” We may not avoid the confusing and worrying events of the world, but when we take on the disciplines of Lent, we will start to notice how God is always with us in and through those same events.
And I think that’s about the most amazing part of what we can learn as we begin our Lenten journey. Because just a few minutes ago y’all came forward to receive the ashes on your foreheads. These ashes were accompanied by the words, “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s a reminder that you are fleeting. You are mortal. You are small and swept up in the currents of all the craziness and uncertainty happening in the world. You are dust—here today, gone tomorrow. And yet.
God takes the time to notice you. To care about you. To love you. And not just a passing notice, but a deep knowing enough to be passionate enough about you that you are given these instructions on how to carry on through the most challenging of days. You matter enough to God that you have God’s own promise to be with you! That same cross on your forehead that will be marked in ashes tonight is the same cross on your forehead that was sealed by the promise of baptism. God sees your mortality, your ashes, your dust, and chooses to love you with all of eternity.
So when the events of the world feel like a day of thick darkness, turn to prayer, and fasting, and almsgiving. Go back to the steady bulwark of faithfulness toward God. Where the world is uncertain and ever-changing, Christ who guides us remains the same. Return to the Lord your God by steadily doing the things that showcase the kingdom. And do it because you need to see God more, you need to feel God’s presence more, you need to trust in God more. Rend your hearts. God loves you, even in dust and ashes.
Thanks be to God. Amen.