How often during our growing up years, maybe especially during our teen years, did our parents tell us (often and with feeling) that it wasn’t “all about us?” How often did we tell that to our own kids when they were growing up? I’ve learned as a father of five, three boys and two girls, that there is definitely such a thing as karma. You know about karma, right? Everything you do, the good the bad and the ugly, comes back to you threefold. That would be me… times three… times five. Oh my. Actually, I feel like I got off pretty easy… through no particular merit of my own. Our kids did OK, by and large. I was just lucky, I guess.
In any case, as we get older, most of come to understand that the world’s a big, complicated place… with a lot of folks going about their business, living their lives, trying to take care of themselves and their families… and that we won’t always be able to have things our own way. We’ll often have to work together… and compromise… and “do unto others…” (Matt. 7:12) not only to achieve our own goals but also because, at some level, we understand that, in doing so, we make the world a better place for our children… and our children’s children. Jesus gave us the Golden Rule for our benefit. It’s not just some arbitrary edict from above. Sure, it pleases God when we’re faithful to Jesus’ teaching, but it’s also good for us when we do it. God’s tricky that way sometimes.
So, as my faith has matured, I’ve begun to consider this question in a whole new light: “What if it really is all about us?” What if, after we (God’s people) messed everything up in the Garden, God came after us… not to punish or destroy, but to bring us back into relationship? What if, despite our persistent rebelliousness, God entered into one covenant after another with us, with Noah, with Abraham, with Moses and David, all aimed at restoring his people to wholeness with him and the rest of creation? What if God sent Jesus Christ as the bearer of a New Covenant to rescue us from the error of our sins, and open to us the gates of everlasting life? What if God will stop at nothing to bring his lost sheep home?
You know, each liturgical season has its own particular focus: in Advent, we await the birth of the long-awaited Messiah. During Christmas we celebrate the coming of Immanuel, God with us. Throughout the season of Epiphany, we marvel at the manifestations of God in Christ during Biblical times, as well as in our own day and time. During Holy Week and Easter, our attention is on the death and resurrection of Jesus who, by rising from the grave, destroyed death and made the whole creation new. And throughout the Great Fifty Days between Easter and Pentecost, we learn about the early church and the great deeds of power done by Apostles whom Jesus had empowered to continue his ministry after he was gone.
But the season of Lent is different. Lent is for us. It is a time for us to examine our lives minutely to discern what is separating us from God, and to do whatever is necessary to remove those barriers. Certainly, Lent is a time for repentance, but I wonder if we should be doing it less for God… than for ourselves! God knows us… down to the number of hairs on our heads. God knows our deepest, darkest secrets… things done and left undone that have become a canker in our souls… and God is aching to relieve us of the burden of that sin, to sooth us with the balm of divine forgiveness so that we can be at-one with him. That’s where we get the word atonement: “at-one-ment.” God’s arms are always open to us prodigals, but we must return the embrace. That’s what we mean when we say we are saved by grace… apprehended through faith. So, one might argue that, during the season of Lent, it really is all about us… and our relationship with God. Repentance and walking the path of “at-one-ment” is what Lent is about.
I wonder if some of us might be experiencing some “cognitive dissonance” between our Gospel lesson today and the structure of our Ash Wednesday Liturgy. Matthew’s Jesus warns us against “practicing our piety before others…” you know… doing things like parading around with ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. Oops! But you know what? What Jesus said was, “Beware of practicing your piety before others… in order to be seen by them” (v. 6:1). And that’s not what we’re about here. We are gathered… on this day and in this place… to take the first steps of our Lenten journey together, in community with each other, warts and all, in order that we might be more fully at-one with God and with each other. We’re not here to impress anyone. We’re here because we’re trying to be faithful and receptive to God’s movement and purpose in our lives. It’s a tall order—we have our work cut out for us. Are you ready? Then let us begin….