Growing up in south Minneapolis, when the Minneapolis Star, our afternoon newspaper would come, I’d always grab it and go straight to the comic pages. I’m sure many of you remember the comic strip called: “Dennis the Menace.” I always loved that one. I don’t know…I guess I just kind of related to him in some strange, unexplainable way.
I remember one Dennis the Menace comic strip in particular: Dennis was riding in the back of the car with his friend, Joey. They were driving past a church. You could see the steeple rising up over the trees in the background. Dennis says to Joey “Hey Joey, that’s where I go to church!” Joey says, “How can you tell?” And Dennis replies “because it’s the one with the giant ‘plus sign’ on the top.”
It’s a good image. It’s a good image because it reminds us, that the cross always adds to life. It never subtracts. It always adds.
Today, Ash Wednesday, is a day when we focus on the cross. In fact, sitting up here today and looking out at all of you, it is hard to not focus on the cross. We all literally wear it. And Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, when we are reminded that we are people of the cross. We, who follow Jesus are called to be repentant, to seek forgiveness, and to forgive others. And we remember that we follow Jesus, all the way to the cross.
We are reminded that the ashes we wear today are placed in the exact same spot where the sign of the cross was first made, when you were baptized. The water was poured, and you heard the words “…child of God, you have been sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ, forever.” Right here. In this spot.
On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that as people of God, we wear the cross of Christ every day, everywhere. It is not a choice we make, or don’t make…it’s a gift we’ve been given. And we’re reminded that the cross always adds to our lives…never subtracts…it always adds.
There is a certain irony to our crosses tonight. Jesus is quite clear in our Gospel text, that there are parts of our faith that we don’t take public…so we don’t draw attention to ourselves.
“So, whenever you give,” says Jesus, “do not do it in a way that gets people’s attention, so that they can see how generous you are. That’s not what your generosity is all about.
And when you pray, don’t pray in a way that draws attention to your prayers, or that showcases how religious you are. That’s not what your faith is all about.”
And so, here we sit…with ashen crosses marking our foreheads…a very visible, and public, sign of our faith. Isn’t that just what Jesus was talking about?
Jesus wasn’t talking about what we do, rather he was talking about why do we do it. Jesus was saying “be clear in your motivations.” There is nothing wrong with giving, even in public settings. For sure, let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with giving. And there isn’t anything wrong with prayer, even in public.
But Jesus is telling us to be careful, and to let go of any selfish motivations in what we do.
Give. But don’t give for the sake of begin seen giving. Let go of that need for attention.
Pray. But don’t pray in public for the sake of being seen praying in public. Let go of that need for attention.
You don’t do those things for attention, you do them in order to grow deep in our relationship with God.
I was teaching a confirmation class once. There were probably about 20 8th graders and I in this room. At the end of our time, like I did every week, I asked if anyone in the group would be willing to close us in prayer? And, like every week: silence. So I waited. And I waited. And I waited. Finally, one of the young people raised their hand. (I think they realized that I was totally willing to out-wait them.) I said “Thanks Jeremy, go ahead.” And Jeremy began to pray. In Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish, but even I could tell that this was very bad Spanish. It turns out that Jeremy had just started taking Spanish that semester, so he was in the “early” stage. But pray he did.
The class ended, and as the group got up to leave, I asked Jeremy, “Why did you decide to pray in Spanish?” “Well, I figured I could, so I did.” “Well sure,” I said, “but none of us knew what you were praying.” Jeremy looked at me kind of funny and said “well, I wasn’t praying for you.”
On one level, Jeremy was just being kind of goofy. But on another level, he “got it.” Prayer is not about us. We are not the object of one-another’s prayers. God is. We didn’t need to understand Jeremy, because God did.
And so pray…pray out loud…pray in public…but remember that we are speaking to God, not to each other. And the same is true for giving, or fasting, or any other way that we practice our faith.
The season of lent is often equated with a time of giving up something, to represent the sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf.
People give up chocolate, or desserts. When I was in college, my friends and I gave up pizza. I know, it sounds trite…but the point wasn’t what we were giving up, the point was that we were making a change to mark this season.
In Jesus’ words from Matthew, he is giving his followers some important advice. He is saying “let go of doing things for the sake of looking good, or generous, or spiritual.” But implied within his instructions, he is also then telling us what we should do.
We should focus.
- Let our prayers be focused, not on each other, but on God
- Let our giving be focused, not on each other, but on God
- Let our fasting be focused, not on each other, but on God
- Let our serving be focused on God
- Let our worship be focused on God
- Let our caregiving be focused on God
- Let our love, be focused on God
Remember that you can focus on God because God first focused on you. Because God loved you so much that he sent his Son, Jesus. For you.
Tonight, we wear the sign of the cross…a visible reminder of Jesus’ journey and ours. And we wear it not to impress others. We wear it to remind ourselves, and our sisters and brothers in Christ, that we are all marked with the cross of Christ, and that it is on that cross, that we focus.
Pastor and author, Winn Collier, writes that “Jesus is making the argument that if we desire relationships with God and with others that are deeper and more potent; if what we really long for is God and the life God promises; then we’ll have to abandon our efforts to make ourselves look good. Jesus is not primarily interested in whether our faith is public or private, but rather in whether or not we have the audacity to surrender…to trust him with our lives. For centuries, Christians have approached Lent by practicing prayer, fasting and giving, exactly the things Jesus cautions us about. Lent invites us to embrace the truth that we all exist in the terrifying, beautiful predicament of being absolutely in the hands of God’s mercy.”
Let us wear our ashes as signs not of our spirituality and our piety, but instead as a sign of our total dependence on a loving God, and a Savior we follow, named Jesus. A let’s remember that this cross that we wear tonight, it is a gift, and it is a part of us. It always adds to life, it never subtracts. And this cross…this cross of Jesus…this plus sign…we wear it every day.
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