By Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
In Lent, we are challenged to face our own mortality and to live with discomfort. These are not easy things for us. We live in a society that largely keeps death at a distance, and that provides us lots of ways to ensure that we stay comfortable.
We choose to confront our mortality and to live with discomfort, in Lent, because Jesus did.
In Lent we remember that Jesus experienced discomfort when he chose to spend an extended period alone in the wilderness after his baptism, preparing for the work of ministry. During that time he confronted and denied himself the temptations of taking the easy path. I suspect that he may have been wrestling with recognizing the difficulties that lay ahead for him, wondering whether he was up to his calling.
Jesus also suffered discomfort during the long road that he traveled after he turned toward Jerusalem, preparing to face the final confrontation with the powers and principalities of the world, and to die on the cross. We’ll hear stories of those day on the road in our Sunday readings during Lent, how Jesus was informed that Herod wanted to kill him, and how another group was executed by Pilate. We’ll hear him teach about fruitless trees cut down by gardeners, and listen to the story of how he was anointed in preparation for burial.
Jesus chose these hard paths in order that we might know that sacrificial love is the way, and that God can be trusted.
And so we begin, today, the journey of confronting our mortality and living with discomfort. We do it by marking our faces with ashes. Ashes are, of course, the burned remains of what was once alive. Throughout the biblical narrative ashes are associated with repentance, and with mourning.
Ashes are a reminder of our finitude, a reminder not only that we will die, but that we are limited, despite the many ways in which the world loves to indulge our fantasies that we can have it all, that we can overcome anything. It just isn’t so.
Ashes remind us that we are frail and transitory – that so much of what is important to us in life - including our life itself – can and will end.
“You are dust, and to dust you shall return”. The sentence we will say as we mark our faces with ashes are the words God said to Adam and Eve as they were expelled from the Garden, a mythical moment that acknowledges the reality that humans live lives of toil, struggle, pain, and mortality.
Today’s gospel is really about the same thing. In it, Jesus is teaching about not practicing religion like “the hypocrites” who show off their religiousness in order to be admired by others. Jesus is concerned that we distinguish between what is real and not real, what is important and what is not. The superficial gratifications of the world are transitory: they pass away. The real “treasure” that we should seek is relationship with God.
Jesus contrasts “earth” and “heaven” when he’s teaching about what treasure is real – don’t store up treasure on earth, but rather, store for yourself treasure in heaven.
He’s NOT talking about life on earth versus a life with God after we die. Jesus is NOT rejecting or devaluing human experience because it is “earthly”. He is warning about the seductiveness of many of the things the world values, but which are not the values of God’s realm - those experiences that are about power, rather than love, about receiving rather than giving, about things rather than people.
Relationship with God is the treasure we build through serving others, through letting go of our need to win, through accepting and embracing others as they are. And relationship with God is what does not end when our bodies return to dust.
Part of the discipline of Lent is that of forgoing some of the creature comforts with which we soothe ourselves: probably many of us did our best, as children, to abstain from chocolate or perhaps, as adults, from alcohol.
One of the ways in which Christians have traditionally sought to walk with Jesus through Lent is by practicing penitence – being honest and naming for ourselves the ways in which we HAVE invested in earthly treasures, the places where we have chosen the easy paths.
You have, hopefully, read about the focus that Heather and I are inviting all of us to for this Lent – centering our penitential reflections on our collective brokenness in relation to the systemic racial injustice embedded in our culture, and on our responsibilities in relation to the climate crisis.
Our mortality involves not only in the fact that we will pass away. Part of our brokenness – the old theological word is “sinfulness” – is our willingness to look away from those things that we don’t want to see, the things that are hard to look at, hard to listen to, perhaps especially those places where our comfort is tied to others’ suffering.
These are the comforts we can work at putting aside, work at abstaining from. This Lent we can work at not protecting ourselves from seeing the structures and practices and ideologies that benefit us at high costs to others who share our world.
Around the perimeter of our sanctuary, this Lenten season, we have mounted a series of icons that we can use to help us do the work of looking deeper into, in the words of one of our confessions, “the evils we have done and the evils done on our behalf.”
They show us some of those things we’d rather look away from:
We invite you to sit with them, to feel with them, and to pray with them.
It is our hope that developing increased honesty about our part in evils that enslave all of us is a small way of rejecting the treasures of the world.
This Lent, let us again do our best to walk with Jesus. May our reflections and our prayers, with the help of the Spirit, lead us into the wisdom and the will to shape a world that is more just, more compassionate, more open, and more loving. AMEN.
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