Ash Wednesday is marked with a remembrance of our mortality. It is sobering, reflective, and can feel quite heavy. The gravity of this act of remembering our finitude and the surety of death is especially daunting as we continue to find ourselves in some ways still marked by those ashes from last year. We are, in the midst of all else that is happening in us and around us, still finding our way through a world pandemic that began in Lent 2020.
I remember a friend who was walking through a devastating loss as she approached Lent saying: “I have enough lent right now I don’t think I need to add any more. I get the sentiment but I would like to think of the invitation into lent as an opportunity to actually get lighter not heavier. We have an opportunity to let go of some things we have been practicing or carrying that do not make way for the freedom Christ offers all who follow. Ash Wednesday’s Gospel reading is a doorway into lent, an opportunity to commit to a time for hearing God in ways that are deeper, wider and broader.
In this first verse of Matthew 6: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…” In some ways this throws a bit of a hiccup in the typical public actions of this day. There is some dissonance to the call to receive ashes publicly while reading this passage of private or “secret” practices to know the “reward” of life with God. The dissonance is somewhat resolved when you move from the public versus private language and hear the overarching language of examining the why of our practices and especially the temptation for our intent to impress or compete. The Spiritual disciplines of fasting, praying, almsgiving are not about, earning God’s love or rising in some unknown Christian status but are in fact practices which help us listen to God and live a life in response to God.
In “Running on Empty” Fil Anderson shares a conversation where he talks to a one who is stressing over his life with God. I resonated with his agitated mentee. The ways I engage with God can always “improve” with longer more disciplined prayer, fasting in meaningful and regular ways, giving out of truer generosity, striving after the kingdom with more of my heart, mind and body. In that self-recrimination I miss the deeper truer invitation which is for us to simply come and be, and then go and live out of that encounter.
What if I could let God be in charge of the intimacy and know that my task is to show up. What if I was more willing to be vulnerable and let others know my deep yearnings, disappointments and doubts. What if I took myself and whatever reputation I might want to protect less seriously and lived a little more with an abandon. Coming to God more often like a child running to the waves on a beach, settling into a couch by a fire, expressing delight when joining friends for play. I pray that I am lighter by the end of this Lent. Fil Anderson said, “I’d be wise to learn from the angels who, I am told, can fly, not because they have wings, but because they have clearly seen God and thus take themselves lightly.”
And yet we are always and, in all times, called to “Seek First the Kingdom of God” or as the NRSV version says: 3 “…. strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”. The language of striving can sometimes mean its back on my shoulders to make it happen. But again, it seems as I keep reading over this passage there is an invitation to let go. To review and confess when other things have taken precedence; my own sense of success, the admiration of others, the emptiness of living for the praise of others.
To seek first the kingdom of God is instead a place to lay down all the other competing loves and focus on one thing. Asking God to help me quiet the competing voices and listen deeply to the God’s life-giving call. Which means for me – as I read the whole of Matthew – that whatever understanding of finances (serving money is one focus in this passage) or what might be grabbing our attention this week this life I have is to be marked, formed, set apart and recognizable as one who is seeking first or striving first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness ( which is to be seeking right relation with God, with others and ourselves)
This kingdom citizenship is first marked by the call to be a person and a people who confess with their lips and believe in their hearts that “Jesus Christ is Lord”. To join in this confession of faith of saying “Jesus Christ is Lord”, if said with the depth and breadth it demands, is a bigger, more formative statement about your future and mine than any other allegiance or differences of thought that might arise among us. “Jesus is Lord” is both a statement I am speaking as a prayer to God and an assuring promise I am receiving from God.
This call to be people of God’s kingdom seems to be the very crux of our passage today. The word in Greek is kurios, often translated “lord.” The lord is the one who demands and deserves your loyalty, allegiance, and worship. This raises a potentially piercing question for us to ask ourselves: What is demanding our first loyalty, allegiance and therefore worship??
Once we believe that money or an election outcome, or a job with status can satisfy our deepest needs, then we suddenly discover that our heart, focus, relationships, are all formed by the vision of a good life that can only be had by insuring we get that outcome. This then makes us a rather frantic people and a people who no longer reflect the kingdom of God (“…righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit”( Romans17:16))
As members of the Kingdom of God we trust God for our every good. When you live in this kind of relationship of love and trust, you’ve entered into the realm of abundance, the world of possibility, the world of contentment. A world that Jesus calls the “kingdom of God” . A world where we can live with open hands because “Jesus is Lord”.
There was a season in my church where I often would serve communion and when I would offer the bread and cup saying “this is the body of Christ; this is the blood of Christ” a member would consistently pause and respond; “Yes, it is.” When I hear the words or say “Jesus Christ is Lord”, I breath deep in the midst of all the chaos that marks these days and say “Yes you are”. In all the voices that are demanding my allegiance, whose messaging reaches some core fear and raises up anxiety and worry within me I pray for the vision again of God’s Kingdom and for wisdom to know how to be a faithful follower formed by praying “Thy Kingdom Come” as Christ taught us.
We have to ask ourselves if our words and actions are saying that “Jesus Christ is Lord”. Are we seeking to realize God’s kingdom in ways that cause our lives to give witness that God is the one who has our first loyalty, our allegiance, and our worship? This is not done perfectly. We have all stumbled along the way in conversations around pandemics, elections and kings and kingdoms but if we confess our worries, and our turning to other gods for our ultimate good, God does in his great mercies forgive us, empowering us to walk and talk as truly kingdom people. Over our anxious ways may we hear God’s call increase in its proclamation that “Jesus Christ is Lord” and breath deep in the midst of all the chaos that marks these days and say together “Yes you are”. Amen.
 Anderson, Fil Running on Empty: Contemplative Spirituality for Overachievers, Waterbrook Press Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2004
 Ibid, 190