Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21
Preached at 2nd Church in Newton, Ash Wednesday 2014
It would probably not come as a great shock to anyone here that a person can put on a pair of skis, and yet never become a skier. Similarly, have you ever known of someone who is the best at what they do, or seems to have the perfect life, and you hear about that person’s life coming to a sudden, tragic end? That terrible news IS always surprising…but it’s not unheard of…is it?
We know that appearances can be deceiving, and we know that the way someone seems to be in public and who they actually are do not always match…so why is it then that we are always so surprised to hear that there is a difference between doing God’s work and knowing God? In our Gospel lesson tonight, this is exactly what Jesus affirms. Jesus lists all these people who are known for praying in public, giving their money to the poor, fasting and taking on religious practices; and yet, Jesus says that it is possible to do all these things and never know God. I’m going to repeat that because it bears repeating, because it is difficult to grasp: We can do the things that we know God wants us to do–share what we have with the poor, pray, worship, serve justice–and we can do those regularly for our entire lives…and that doesn’t guarantee that we actually know God. I wish I could explain to you why that is true, but I can’t. I wish I could tell you, “Here are exactly the things you need to do in order to encounter God, to know God,” but I can’t. Even Jesus couldn’t prescribe anything that would guarantee such an encounter. Jesus talks about God’s Kingdom being present ON EARTH, here, among us, NOW…but Jesus can only talk about such a thing with parables, riddles, stories that are hard to follow and always pointing toward mystery. Whenever people ask Jesus how they can be saved, or how they can get to heaven, or how they can meet God, the only answer Jesus offers is “follow me.” And yet he stands there now in front of these people, delivering the Sermon on the Mount, and he says to them, “It is possible to do all these good things, all these good works, and still not discover the presence of God.”
I wish I could crack the code for you and tell you exactly how it works…but it is a mystery…I have no answer to offer you…I only have ashes.
It’s possible to put on skis and never be a skier. I’m living proof. My junior year of high school my mother thought it would be a good idea for our entire family to go skiing together. This was something we had never done before as a family. My grandmother lead my youth group, and every year she would take the youth group on a ski trip. But we lived in Arizona, so one year–surprise, surprise–there wasn’t enough snow to have a safe ski trip, so my grandma cancelled the event. My mom said, “Wait…if you’re not taking the youth group up to the cabin for the ski trip…then that means there’s a free cabin, right? We should go as a family! We could go for a ski weekend!” And I said, “Yeah, but mom, we cancelled the trip because the it’s not safe!” And she said, “Oh, that’s for other peoples’ kids, not us.” Right, because we’re invincible or something. I didn’t want to go. I wasn’t a skier, I never liked going even with the youth group, so I definitely wasn’t excited about going with my family. My mom gave me the hard sell, “It’ll be fun, we’ll go skiing, which you will love, and we will all get to spend time together.” I argued with her, “Mom, we are a ridiculously close family, we spend all of our time together anyway. And, no, skiing will not be fun, I’m not a skier, I hate skiing. I would rather spend that weekend with friends, please don’t make me go.” My mom lowered her voice the way she did when what she had to say was going to be especially heartbreaking, “Come on, you’re a junior in high school, we may not have another opportunity to have a family vacation. This could be the last time we’re all together.” “Fine,” I said, unable to break my mother’s heart, “I’ll go. But I’m not going to have fun.”
The very first morning of the trip, bright and early, my family and I get out to the mountains, and it’s not until we are sitting on the ski lift that I think to myself, “I don’t like skiing…because I’m afraid of it. I wonder if I should have brought that up.” Teenage boys do not like telling people they are scared. We would much rather appear to be angry at nothing in particular, Rebel-Without-A-Cause style, than admit that we are afraid. So as we got to the top of the mountain, I became a jerk. We reached the top of the mountain, and my attitude only got worse when we found out that there was so little snow that all but one of the slopes was closed. I was scared because I was not a good skier. This whole time I had been thinking, “Fine, I’ll take my time going down a green slope, and I will gripe and complain, and they’ll be sick of me being slow and moody and they won’t make me do it again. This will be my only run today.” I was determined. Well, the only slope that was still open was a black diamond. I became livid, “This is so stupid,” I yelled, “I can’t do a black diamond, I’m going to die on this thing!” My step father pulled me aside and said, “you know how to ski, you know to just make a wedge, right, and then you control how fast you go.” And I said, “Yeah, Bill, I know that. I’m not an idiot! But this is so dumb I didn’t even want to be out here!” And he said, “Well, here you are. I wish I do something for you, I do, but you’re kind of stuck out here. You can ski down, or you can take off your skis and walk, but that’s going to be a lot harder. So…we’re going to go start skiing and having fun, if you want to come with us, then get to work.” And sure enough, my entire family–step dad, two aunts, even my GRANDFATHER–started skiing down the most terrifying slope I’ve ever seen, having a great time.
I started doing my wedge, slowly going back and forth across the face of the mountain, “This is so stupid,” I screamed out loud. After a long time of going back and forth, very slowly across the mountain, I figured I had to be half way down…but then I looked behind me and could still see the chair lift. And I knew I was in trouble. I was going so slow that a ski patrol guy came up beside me and said, “You ok, son?”
“Yes, I’m fine.”
“You know what you’re doing? You feeling ok?”
“Yes, I’m doing the wedge. Just taking it slow.”
“OK, sounds good.” And he goes skiing away.
That’s when I got fed up. My legs were already exhausted, I knew if I didn’t ease up a little I would never make it down the mountain. So I thought, “Ok, just open the wedge a little bit, you’re in control of this, just a little…” and ZOOOOM! I shot down the mountain like a bullet. Have you seen the cartoons where Goofy goes sailing off a ski jump high into the air, do you remember the noise he makes? I made that noise as I went sailing down the mountain, past the ski patrol guy, past my entire family, past everyone. I was racing down the mountain, completely out of control, no way to stop, and I had no idea what I was supposed to do. It took me probably 1/16th of a second too long to remember that if you’re out of control on the slope, you need to fall down. “OK,” I thought, “I’ll just fall down. OK. Do it. Fall. Fall down.” Eventually, my body finally did what my brain told it to do, but it was too late, I was already going so fast that my body skipped down the side of the mountain like a flat stone on a lake. I went sailing toward a roped off area, and I thought, “I’ll grab that rope to stop myself!” But I wasn’t fast enough, didn’t time it right, and the rope went right over my head. Finally, I hit something and my body was flung 180 degrees–from my back to my front–coming to a stop on a big dead tree. The air was immediately forced from my body, and I was unable to breathe. I opened my eyes, unable to breathe, and right in front of my face I saw a big rock…and I couldn’t tell if I had smashed my head into it or not. I tried to make my lungs work…and they did not. And I figured I must be dead. This must be what death is like.
Well, eventually a familiar voice in an orange ski jacket came up to me, “Whoa, are you ok son?”
“Are you kidding?” I gasped.
Long story short, they got me to the hospital, propped me up in a bed so I could see my leg…the tree had torn into it all the way down to the bone. My leg just looked like a bunch of raw hamburger. It would require several layers of stitches, but other than that I was fine. My mom came running into the emergency room, tears streaming down her face, and as she ran up to me, because I’m a jerk, I looked at her and I said, “I told you so.”
I learned two lessons that day, the first immediately sunk in: I never complained about a family vacation ever again. Because life is precious. The second lesson, the one that has taken longer to learn is this: Human beings are terrified and fragile creatures. We know how precious life is, we know how easily it is taken away from us, and this terrifies us. And in our fear we would rather do whatever we can to control the situation, rather than risk falling at all. But friends, often, we meet God in the falling. I don’t know why that’s true, but seems to be. We hate falling, we hate being vulnerable, we cannot stand being so fragile and so scared…so most often we would rather look like we know exactly what we are doing than learn how to fall. And I wish I could tell you that falling was easy. And I wish I could spare each and every one of you the pain of falling, or at least assure you that you will only have to fall a certain number of times….but this is Ash Wednesday friends…and I have no promises I can make…I can’t do it for you….all I have to offer you are ashes.
Jesus does not make many promises either…but there is one that he makes over and over again: If we follow him, we will discover God present among us…now. Today. Not later when we leave this earth…but now. How does that work? It’s a mystery that Jesus himself can only hint at, “you show me your treasure, and I’ll show you where your heart is.” If you desire to find something that can never be taken from you, can never be ruined, can never be defeated…something that won’t go away, no matter how many times you fall…then you will find God everywhere around you. And within you. If that is the treasure you seek, it is already yours to have. The only question that remains is how will you fall? Will it be while standing for love and justice? Will it be in the service of making life more amazing for others? Will it be while demanding love and respect for yourself? Will it be while saying NO to the ridiculous demands of a world that would try to own you? Will it be while defending those who can’t defend themselves, which includes our helpless planet that experiences overuse and degradation every single day because of our desire to be comfortable? Because there is only one guarantee in this life of ours: it will end at some point. The fall is all we have in the end. And when the fall is all there is…how we fall matters very much.
Today is the beginning of Lent, and the season of Lent is above all else the season when we learn, together, how to fall. We take on spiritual practices, not so we look so good, not so we can brag about our will power, not even so we can be more healthy…we take on spiritual practices during this time because we need to practice falling and getting back up. If you are choosing to fast, don’t let it be so you can get bragging rights over your friends, let it be so that you can find out what you are TRULY HUNGRY FOR. Our God calls us to deeper relationship with our Creator and the rest of Creation…but when times get tough or too complicated, we are quick to give up those deeper relationships for quick fixes, for things that make us feel better fast. We get tired of falling pretty easily, and just like on the ski slopes, if you’re tired of falling then your only choices are to stay down or get off the slopes entirely. Listen to me: I don’t know how many times in life you will fall, but I do know that you are loved wholly and completely by the God of Abundant Love and Creative Justice and ALL of you are too precious to not get up after you fall. All of you are too special and powerful and essential to give up on us. If you need something to give up for Lent, how about we give up giving up? How about we take responsibility for our decisions and we start actively choosing to make this a better world for everyone who lives in it? How about we start holding each other in love and accountability so that we can teach one another how to fall well…and how to get back up…and how to do better?
Friends, what I have I give to you. I have ashes. Some people can go their entire lives, having ashes put on their forehead once a year…without ever truly knowing their power. When you encounter these ashes, you are encountering death, yes that’s true, but you are also encountering our God who reaches beyond death. By choosing to come forward and encounter death, you participate in a tradition started by Jesus Christ himself who said, “I will not simply fall down, I will not let the Romans just end my life…I will show you how to turn death into victory. Through bread and wine I will describe to you how our God operates. I will show you how to fall.” There are so many things in this world we cannot control, so many things that will happen that we can do nothing about. But even when the tidal wave of chaos floods our lives and makes us feel like we can’t possibly continue on, EVEN THEN we have a choice to make: Will we wrestle with the chaos, knowing that somehow, some way, the God of Abundant Love and Creative Justice has our back….or will we get swallowed up and overwhelmed by complexity and fear? Sink or swim? I wish I could make that choice for you. I wish I could do the whole thing for you. But all I have to offer you are ashes. And I thank God for that.