Psalm 51; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 March 6, 2019
Relentless Joy. In January when we decided on Relentless Joy as our theme for Lent, and it sounded wonderful to me. Six weeks to focus on joyful living; six weeks to read Paul’s letter to the Philippians and soak in all of the joy he talks about. I’ve always like Lent for this reason— perhaps because I grew up Methodist and wasn’t forced to give up chocolate every year, I always saw Lent as the time to do things different for six weeks and see how those six weeks then shaped my relationship with God. One year in high school I fasted every Friday with my best friend. The year I went before the Board for Ordination I added an hour of prayer to my morning routine to keep myself calm. One year I just committed to reading poetry because I missed reading it and knew that it would be good for my soul. One year Todd and I gave up TV and didn’t take it back for about four years after that. I liked the idea of Relentless Joy because it truly reflects what I’ve always thought was the best part of Lent— choosing to live joyfully by trying something new for a little while. As it says in the Westminster Catechism, our purpose is to worship God and to enjoy God forever. If our purpose is to enjoy God forever, why shouldn’t we start in Lent?
But this week, I didn’t feel any of those things. With the decisions of the United Methodist Church last week and the chaos that has ensued; with the deaths of several congregation members in the past month and the illness and grief of others; I just kept thinking this week that God has a horrible sense of humor.
And then I remembered the Gospel for tonight, and I laughed out loud. “Beware of practicing your piety before others” Jesus tells us. Beware of praying out loud so that others know you are praying. Beware of making yourself look sallow when you fast so that you will be looked upon as righteous. This is the Gospel reading that has been chosen for us for this Ash Wednesday and every Ash Wednesday, the one day of the year when we mark our foreheads with a cross and go out into the world and people who are in the grocery store with us all of a sudden know that we are followers of Jesus.
This is the night when we recognize the foolishness of the cross, as Paul calls it, as we mark our foreheads with the symbol that has become synonymous with Christianity, a symbol that used to be synonymous with failure and violence before Christ redeemed it.
This is the night when we have to set aside our foolish pride and come face to face with the fact that we are mortal, that our institutions are mortal, that everything comes to an end. We say to one another, “from ashes you came, and to ashes you will return.” And it is precisely this acknowledgment— that we have come from God and that will return to God—that brings deep and abiding joy.
You see Ash Wednesday doesn’t just give us a time to confess where we’ve gone wrong, although this is a good time to do that too. It also invites us to see how all of the things that we feel we’ve done right, can also blind us from participating in God’s goodness. All of those things that we’ve done that we think make us worthy of God’s love and attention— doing things the right way; praying beautiful prayers; being successful in our work; giving away what we have— all of these things are responses to God’s love, they are not what gets us loved by God.
That part is already taken care of. God already loves us unconditionally, and there’s nothing we an do about it. And that’s what brings us joy— relentless joy— because God’s love is relentless in our lives, no matter what else is happening.
As we explore Relentless Joy in the next six weeks, we will be doing so not so that we can all learn how to be our most joyful selves in six weeks or less! Instead, we will be reading a love letter from the Apostle Paul to the followers of Jesus in Phillipi. And we will explore and ponder where Paul’s joy comes from; how his letter is speaking to us today; and what God’s relentless joy looks like in our own lives. And hopefully, through all of that, we can take with us a sense of humor to not take ourselves too seriously, but to hold ourselves as lightly as dust, to find joy in delighting in the God who created us and gives us life.