No Show

No Show

“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.
Lord, in my words may your people hear your timeless word, Amen.
All day, people have been noting the overlap between Valentine’s Day and Ash
Wednesday. We don’t know whether to wear red or purple. Someone put on their Facebook page this pink note with hearts on it that said, “Happy Valentine’s Day. We’re all going to die.” This morning, a friend of mine said, you can’t spell Valentine’s Day without Lent.

It is so interesting that the showy Hallmark day of love, the day of candy that says “be
mine” is embedded with the word Lent. Lent, the truth that love is always messier than we
prefer. Lent, this reminder that the people we love most and the ones we really struggle to love don’t get to belong to us. They belong to God. Lent pokes at us to stay awake, to repent of our showy ways, and to face the cross on the horizon, trusting that beyond it there is the dazzling empty tomb.

If I am honest, the last four years changed Lent for me. During Covid, it seemed like
everything was stripped away already. We gave up so much. And since then, it is as if the world itself has been smudged with ash and soot and smoke, from Ukraine to Israel and Gaza to wildfires to tragic school hallways to the US Capitol building. When all this dust settled, there was real loss. My mom. Your friend. Your dad. Real losses that don’t come back at the end of this season. Lent teaches us to number our days, but for a while there, we weren’t sure what time even meant. Has it been 40 days or 4 years? I wondered if maybe there had been enough smudgey reminders of our fragility to last a lifetime. I wondered if Lent really needed to be rubbed on our faces again.

But here’s my weird answer. Yes. Yes it does. Jesus invites us to receive Lenten rituals as
the gift that they are. I imagine him saying, “Don’t post the picture of your ashen head on FB where people might give you a quick like and think you’re a deep kind of person. Instead, let that ash sink in deep enough so that you find a treasure that is despair-proof. A treasure that is better than the praise of strangers. Better than your colleagues thinking of you have it all together. A treasure that tunes your heart toward praise.” That treasure is knowing that God does incredible things with dust all the time.

In the beginning, God breathed into the dust and called forth life. In the Gospels, if you
remember this story, Jesus crouched and wrote words in the dust and we don’t know exactly what he wrote, but suddenly, people quit throwing stones at one another. In the books of Acts, the Holy Spirit animated a church that somehow knew when to stay planted and when to shake the dust off its feet and move. God does incredible things with dust all the time.

One of my favorite leadership quotes is there is no limit to what can be accomplished if
one doesn’t care who gets the credit. Whoever said it first believed it enough that I couldn’t
even find a way to give them credit for saying it. Maybe it was Truman, Reagan, or John
Wooden. But whoever said it, let’s agree that this way of living actually started with God. God made human beings capable of the deepest joy when they give their best gifts to God alone without seeking credit. Without comparison. Without holding on with white knuckles to outcomes. Without payment or prizes or prestige or praise.

If you look at the compositions of Bach you will notice a smudged set of letters in the
corner, SDG. It means Soli Deo Gloria. To God alone be the glory. It gives me goosebumps to
know he did this. It has a Lenten quality to it that I think is often overlooked. We don’t just give things up, in the sense of forgoing chocolate or Facebook. We give things up as in lifting them toward God. And that is where the real treasure is found. When we give things up toward God, something changes about us. When we don’t care about credit, we also are less concerned about blame. And that tends to make us braver. We might take heat for others because we trust God’s judgment more than our own. It tends to make us kinder. We start to think, “That person is probably giving his or her best. I thank God for that.”

If you really want to save time this Lent, don’t read articles that are obsessed with
assigning credit or blame in all these painful world events. It’s always a blurry smudgy grey area anyway. I listened to a podcast the other day with historian John Meacham. And he said no matter what historical event is being described, he was always hesitant to give one person or group all the credit or all the blame for something. It doesn’t work that way, he said. History, and he proceeded to quote George Elliot, is “dim lights and tangled circumstance.” Dim lights, tangled circumstance, smudgy.

So our invitation this year: Let’s focus on what we are giving up to God, what we are
offering up with trembling hands. Let’s focus on the kind of love that doesn’t care a wit who gets the credit.

I asked some preacher friends recently whether they had seen people giving in ways that
perhaps no one knew about. Anonymous donors. Quiet servants. I have observed many of you doing that, Burke, you sneaky generous people, and yet if I outed you in this sermon, it would squash the thing itself.

My friend wrote back this story: I knew this guy who was going through a difficult divorce.  And at a low point, he shared, offhand, one of the concrete ways that it was hard.  He had put up a Christmas tree and realized he had no ornaments.  It was symbolic of the struggle to put one foot in front of the other and give his kids some measure of joy and yet here again was a measure of grief.  He didn’t think he had ever felt so low.

And then the most amazing thing happened – ornaments started showing up in the mail! –
Day after day, throughout December and into January, postal service delays, with these
hilarious snarky tacky loving gorgeous ornaments, showing up all because his friends loved him through the worst time in his life.

Then, he mentioned that the guy was him. One of those tacky ornaments I had actually
mailed. It had been one of the highlights of Christmas a few years ago, to be part of that Covid-proof effort. And I had forgotten about it. And that meant it dazzled me twice.

Tonight, as we feel this ash on our foreheads… let us feel it as a treasure. As an ornament. As a kind of intimacy with the infinite. As the touch of Christ who gave everything to us on the cross for us without counting the cost. And that means every day of our lives is a smudgy offering too, Soli deo gloria.

I’ll end with this blessing by Jan Richardson, this lovely poetic Methodist.

All those days you felt
like dust
Like dirt
As if all you had to do was turn your face toward the wind
And be scattered to the four corners
Or swept away by the smallest breath
As insubstantial –

Did you not know
what the holy one can do
with dust?

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it through the burning

This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within the ancient ashes
That makes its home
inside the soil of this sacred earth

So let us be marked not for sorrow
And let us be marked not for shame
Let us be marked not for false humility
Or for thinking we are less than we are

But for claiming
what God can do within the dust
Within the dirt

Within the stuff
Of which the world is made
And the stars that blaze in our bones
And the galaxies that spiral
Inside the smudge we bear.