Ash Wednesday Sermon

In the book, To Dance With God, Gertrud Mueller Nelson tells of a time when she was working hard on a sewing project. Her daughter, Annika, who was 3 years old at the time, found her and began picking through all of her fabric, choosing colorful strips which she took with her when she left the room. After awhile Nelson decided to check on her, she found her in the garden sitting on the grass with a long pole. With as much tape as she could manage, she was taping the strips of fabric to the pole. “Look, Mommy!” she exclaimed, “I’m making a banner for a processional! I need a procession so that God will come down and dance with us.” And she stood up and began to dance, twirling the pole all around her.

Our relationship with God as a child is one of wonder. We want to know how it is that God can be everywhere. What really happened when God created the earth. We are grateful for what we have and content to be in the present moment.

But somewhere along the way, our relationship with God becomes more complicated as our very lives become more complicated. We question God’s motives; doubt our own gifts; wonder what the bigger plan is or even if there is a bigger plan. And we begin to question what God would want to do with us at all. I know so many people who have convinced themselves that God could never really love them. So they rely instead on their own acts. They try to learn to pray the right way. They make sure to come to all of the right stuff. They convince themselves that they can’t bring who they are to God so they only bring the parts they think are presentable.

But on this night, Ash Wednesday, we come to be reminded of who we are— that first and foremost we are children of God. We are invited to bring our whole selves- like the hokey pokey- we bring our whole selves in to this relationship with God who loves our whole selves— not just the parts that we want to reveal or the parts that we think are the prettiest or the parts we are willing to share with other people—God invites us to bring our whole selves to worship— and to leave our masks behind.

Some of us are experts at wearing masks. We have a mask that we wear to work and a different one for home. We have the mask that we pull out when we come to church and a different one that we put on to go to the gym. We have the mask that surfaces when we have to deal with conflict and the one that comes out when someone hurts us. But I’m here to tell you, that you don’t need a mask with God. God invites us to take off our masks— to let down our guard— and to be fully loved.

In the Gospel of Matthew this evening Jesus tells his disciples not to draw attention to themselves for their piety. Don’t show off when you give to the poor; don’t pray out loud so that others will hear you; don’t weep and moan when you are fasting so that everyone’s attention is drawn to your goodness. Don’t gather together all kinds of treasure here on earth. Instead, Jesus says, get right with God. Pray to connect. Fast to remind yourself that you are more than your desires. Give to the poor by standing in solidarity with them— not to puff yourself up or alleviate your guilt. Put God at the center of your life— and realize that you are 100% fully loved no matter what. No matter what.

During this season of Lent our theme is Practicing Imperfection. So many messages of the world are telling us to be something else. Have a perfect body; a perfect marriage; a perfect job. So what happens if just for six weeks- even if we can only do it for six weeks- we practice being who we are- we rest in God’s presence and instead of focusing on the perfect life, we focus on what is possible when we bring all of who we are to God, lay ourselves at God’s feet, and accept God’s love for us.

This Lent we will be practicing imperfection.- heresy to Methodists! Aaaah, but not so much. John Wesley never wanted us to be something we cannot be- rather to be our best selves— to fully accept God’s grace and live into that grace.

We cannot live in God’s grace and accept God’s love when we are trying to be perfect. It does us no good to try to earn our way into being loved when God loves us without end already!

On Ash Wednesday we come to remember who we are— that we are children of God. We come with our whole selves— nothing has to be left at the door when we enter this Sanctuary. And, in fact, if you are leaving something at the door as you enter, or rather putting on a mask to cover up a part of yourself, than that’s exactly the part that you need to offer to God.

Somewhere along the way in history church got the reputation of being a community to only show your best selves. But what that does, is make it difficult for God to work. When we are constantly putting on a mask to come into church, dressing up in our best and being polite, leaving our vulnerability at the door, than we are just pretending to be the church. Jesus called people to let go of the pretense. To do things authentically rather than for show. In the Gospel of Matthew this evening he tells his disciples not to draw attention to themselves for their piety. Don’t show off when you give to the poor; don’t pray out loud so that others will hear you; don’t weep and moan when you are fasting so that everyone’s attention is drawn to your goodness. Don’t gather together all kinds of treasure here on earth so that the whole world will be able to see that you are well off. Don’t use your religion to fill your own unhealthy needs. Instead, get right with God. Pray to connect. Fast to remind yourself that you are more than your desires. Give to the poor by standing in solidarity with them— not to alleviate your guilt. What Jesus is saying is to put God at the center of our lives— build our lives around serving God, and everything else will fall into its rightful place.

New York Times columnist David Brooks said that being virtuous just means having your loves in the right order.