We are mortal, our life is limited. But our life is bound up in God’s love and life, so we are free to boldly seek to become Christ, shaped to look like the one who loves the whole world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Texts: Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
You’re going to die. You know that, right? So am I.
Once a year, on this day, we remind ourselves of our mortality, we face this truth: none of us is living through this.
You’d think we’d know by now, given how much death we see. But as this past weekend once again reminded us, we’re still shocked and surprised when someone we love dies. We don’t seem to learn. What we know in our heads doesn’t convince our hearts and our hopes.
So today we tell the truth: you’re going to die. I’m going to die. We can’t change that. I’ve had the juxtaposition of putting ashes on a 95 year old head, reminding that sister that she will die, and moving to the two month old in his mother’s arms next to her, and telling him for the first time, ashes on that brand-new face with no cares or wrinkles, that he, too, will die. That’s the truth.
This day is about honesty: honesty about our sinfulness. Honesty about our mortality. As we begin our Lenten journey, we begin with the truth. And that’s because, as Jesus said, the truth will free us. Free us to live a life worth living in the time we have left.
People who know they are about to die often find freedom to live.
With nothing to lose, with only the months or days the doctor has given, people let go of lots of baggage they’ve carried most of their lives. Grudges long held. Anxiety over the future. Frustration with failed attempts to improve. All can be dropped. When you know you’re in the final stretch, that truth frees.
So, if we know we’re going to die, what do we have to lose? How do we want to live? By clinging to possessions, to habits, to sinful ways of being that hurt us and others? By lugging around fears and worries? Today’s honesty is a gift: now we know we’re on a countdown, we can focus.
This is a brilliant way to start our Lenten journey. Not to be reminded of our mortality as a scare tactic. To be reminded of our mortality as a life tactic: how do you want to live the remainder of your days? That’s what our Lenten discipline helps us learn.
The discipline of Lent is the discipline of a freed life. We’re shaped into something new and different.
Consider a flowering vine you’d like to cover an arbor in your garden. When you plant it, you gently tie the stems to the structure. As it grows, you keep connecting it to the pattern. One day you’ve got a green, flowering, beautiful gate into your backyard. In one of our houses Mary trained a rose bush over an archway; it was amazing when it finally got there.
Christ is our pattern, the frame, the trellis. Our Lenten discipline is the discipline of life shaping us to that pattern. Disciples are those trained into a new shape for a new purpose. Through this discipline, our wayward vines and stray flowers, our feelers and outgrowths, are nurtured and connected to Christ our frame, and eventually we become a beautiful thing. We look like Christ.
Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount provide the Church with the shape of Lenten discipline: sacrificial giving and works of love, prayer, fasting. And repentance, the turning around of our hearts and lives into God’s way. These are the tools that will shape us into beautiful growths of God in the world.
And that’s the point of our discipline. Not so others will notice or appreciate it.
Isaiah’s people have a huge complaint: God doesn’t appreciate all the fasting and liturgy they’re doing.
What’s the point, God, if you’re not giving us any credit? they say. We’re fasting, and you don’t see. We’re acting humble and praying, and you don’t notice.
This isn’t a wise approach. Because God says through Isaiah: “Let me talk to you about fasting. The fasting I want is freeing the oppressed, sharing your bread with the hungry. How about doing that? The worship I want is bringing the homeless into your house, and giving clothes to the naked. But you serve your own interests when you worship, you leave prayer and get into fights, your lives oppress other people.”
God’s righteous outburst reveals why we do what we do, and joins Jesus’ words today. We don’t do liturgy to draw attention to ourselves. We don’t practice Christian discipline to get credit from God or from others. If our ritual and liturgy and worship and prayer don’t train us into Christ, shape our lives into people who bear God’s love in the world, there is no point to them.
So what if our Christian discipline is unnoticed, unpraised, unappreciated? That’s not the point.
We’re all going to die. That’s the point. And Christ is what we want to look like in the time we have left.
We don’t give sacrificially, give alms as Jesus says, to get God’s notice or impress people. That attention is worthless. We give of our selves, our lives, our wealth, for the sake of others. So those who are hungry are filled, those who lack shelter are brought in from the cold. But also so we are shaped into Christ, whose love for the least and lost and forgotten is eternal. That’s the reward: looking and loving more and more like Christ.
We don’t pray so others can praise our words and our piety. There’s no value in that. We pray so that we might be connected to the Giver of Life, the Spirit who moves in us and shapes us into Christ. We pray that we might have eyes and hearts opened to the needs of those whom God loves and cares for. That’s the reward: living intimately with the Triune God.
We don’t fast, or put on ashes, so others can think we’re great Christians. There’s no reward in that. We fast, remember our mortality, turn our lives back toward God, to learn the discipline of letting go and losing for the sake of others. We let go of things for certain times to learn what it is to let go of things for our whole lives, baggage that drags us down and keeps us from being Christ. That’s the reward: living a life free of the brambles and weeds that would choke out our hope and our love.
Look, we’re all going to die. We might as well face that truth.
But we literally have nothing to lose because our lives and our deaths are bound up in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus. When we all die, we will be brought into life we only glimpse in pieces in this life.
So: we’ve only got so much time here. We know what awaits us when our time here ends. So let’s make the most of what we have, risk a little, that we might look on our outside, in our lives and words and actions, what God already sees on our inside: beloved children of God, embodied witnesses of God’s eternal love. That’s a life worthy of the time we have left.
In the name of Jesus. Amen