Lent begins the smudge of ashes right in the center of our foreheads. Ash on your forehead may garner weird looks. The ashes sometimes sprinkle down from our foreheads onto our nose, mask, or collar. Younger children may wonder if the ashes are hot? They are not! Once I forgot to quickly wash my hands after imposing the ashes and had to take my stole to the dry cleaner. Ashes are an outward visible reminder of our inner spiritual striving.
Lent’s scriptures begin with Jesus in the wilderness. We often focus on Jesus’ temptations: the mental test of not living for bread alone and seeking God’s Kindom instead of privilege, power, and position. Fasting is a physically embodied prayer matching an inward spiritual striving with a tangible physical sensation. Our bodies remind us of a deeper hunger. During Ramadan, our Muslim friends practice this fasting. Jesus spends 40 days fasting in order to be ready to begin proclaiming God’s Kin-dom. Before feeding hungry crowds, offering free healthcare, and preaching Good News, Jesus fasts. Jesus lays down food to take on focused prayer. Jesus’ self-denial foreshadows the cross.
Luke notes that “Jesus was starving”. Ponder that incarnational moment: God starving. The prayer for the harvest begins, My ancestors were starving. Is Jesus’ fasting a deep identification with the world’s suffering? Jesus, the Bread of Life; Jesus, whose first miracle was making wine for a wedding feast; Jesus, who fed crowds of hungry people; Jesus, whose critics labeled Christ as a drunkard and glutton for embracing party people cast out of their local congregations (Luke 7); Jesus begins with fasting.
So often we western Christians live up in our heads. We limit faith to what we believe. We define Christianity by a set of beliefs instead of a series of actions. We say Christians believe this or that, instead of Christians do this. Jesus tells us we will be known by what we do. “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and not do what I say?” Jesus asks. “The good person does good.” (adapted Luke 6) Indeed, Jesus tells us we will be judged by what we do. I was hungry and you fed me, a refugee and you gave me a coat, a stranger and you welcomed me like kin. (Matthew 25) Forgive and you will be forgiven. (Matthew 6) We, American Christians, love our beliefs, and we seem to judge harshly those who believe differently than us. I think that is true on the left and right. Could we find some unity if we stopped worrying as much about what others believe about the Bible or politics and started defining goodness by the actual doing of good deeds?
Before the printing press, Christians mostly read the Bible aloud together in church. The dissemination of the Bible in private homes and smartphones has allowed us to move away from experiencing the faith together. (The pandemic has added to this socially distancing spiritual isolating trend.) The internet has exacerbated this like-minded trend. Most people conceive of see Faith as an intellectual exercise instead of an embodied experience. We have taken “be still and know that I am God” too literally. (Psalm 46) There is a deeper knowing by doing.
Our Hebrew Bible passage is embodied worship. It begins with hands in the fertile ground. The harvest itself is worship as is the offering. Place your produce in a basket. Travel to church. Crowds often sang as they walked to church. Say aloud the familiar prayer. Hand your basket to the priest. The priest will place the basket before the altar. Solemnly retell the old story that begins, “My ancestors were starving….” Place your tithe on the altar. Bow down before God. Then celebrate by feasting, being sure to include the immigrants who live among you. All of this is worship, harvesting, gathering, packing, walking, bowing, placing, kneeling, giving, reciting, feeding, including, and feasting.
The psalmist shouts out: Praise God in the sanctuary…Praise God with trumpet sound, with lute and harp! with tambourine! Praise God with dancing! Praise God with strings and pipes, with clanging cymbals, loud clashing cymbals! (Psalm 150)
Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground. (Exodus 3)
I lift up my hands toward God’s holy sanctuary. (Psalm 28)
I bow down in awe. (Psalm 5)
Let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! (Psalm 95)
I lay out flat in mourning. (Psalm 38)
Clap your hands! Clap your hands, all you people. (I know a beloved Belmont pastor once told us that clapping is not worshipful) Clap your hands, all you people: Shout to God with loud songs of joy. (Psalm 47)
“Sing praises to the Lord.” (Psalm 30) Singing together, blending voices, adjusting in harmony- surely congregational singing is holy work.
“Jumping up, the healed person stood and began to walk, and entered the Temple with the disciples, walking and leaping and praising God.” (Acts 3) One Sunday morning after church a happy child turned cartwheels down the center ilse, while their parents lingered in conversation. The parent’s quickly expressed their astonished apologies. I assured them I loved that the child felt free enough to be so outwardly joyful in church.
O Lord; give heed to my sighing. (Psalm 26)
“Jesus was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved and began weeping.” (John 11) We may live in our heads the most at funerals. We strive for composure over authenticity: “trying to hold it all together.” Jesus models Christian funeral protocol with ugly crying. Jesus allowed himself to embody his feelings: being fully present is the heart of worship. How can we meet God if we are seeking to suppress ourselves? God longs to meet us where we are, authentic worship requires our spirit and truth. (John 8)
And a woman in the city, who was considered a sinner, brought an alabaster jar of fine oil. She stood behind Jesus at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe Jesus’ feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. (Luke 7)
Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. (John 13)
Paul shaved his head as part of a promise to God. (Acts 18)
I baptize you with water. (Luke 3)
Take eat, this is my body. (Mark 14)
Jesus came and embraced them saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” (Matthew 17)
Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes and immediately they could see. (Matthew 20)
You give them something to eat. (Luke 9)
My favorite portrait of embodied worship goes like this: But while the lost child was still far off, their mother and father saw them and, filled with compassion, they ran and threw their arms around their child and kissing them and shouting out, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one; put a ring on their finger and sandals on their feet. Call the caterers and a DJ and let us feast and celebrate; for our child who was once dead is alive again; they were lost and are now found!’ And they began to celebrate with music and dancing saying to each other we had to celebrate and rejoice! (adapted Luke 15)
Once upon a time, I was water skiing on a crystal-clear lake as the sun was setting, reflecting on water that was as smooth as glass outside of our wake. Cutting back and forth feeling the exhilaration of acceleration and seeing that perfect sky, I began to sing the doxology. It was as holy a moment as any I have had in church. My mother often punctuated happy moments with “praise the Lord” or “thank you, Jesus”. In hard moments, she vocalizes a deep, “Lord in your mercy” She said these things alone or in groups. She did not speak to evangelize, or make a point. She just embodied her faith. Her “soul could not be silent.” (Psalm 30)
Maybe we need to get out of our heads a little bit and stop worrying so much over what others believe. Maybe we might begin to define Christianity by the imitation of Jesus, not a series of beliefs about the Bible or politics. Maybe Christians are those who do the things that Jesus did? You know. Once a year, Christians walk around on a Wednesday with weird ash smudges on their foreheads. Christians read the scriptures together. Christians walk into church on Sundays. Christians sing, shout, and clap together! Christians fast. Christians bow their heads over their meals. Christians find quiet places to pray. Christians eat the Lord’s Supper together. Christians dip their fingers in the baptismal waters. Christians weep at funerals. Sometimes, Christians flip over unjust tables. Christians embrace the hurting. Christians forgive. Christian’s make peace. Christians turn the other cheek. Christians stand with the hurting. Christians give generously. Christians feed people. Christians feast with religious outcasts. Christians welcome strangers. Christians provide free healthcare. Christians go walking, leaping, and praising God. Christians act like Jesus. All during this Lent, let us think about acting like Jesus, not for guilt but for liberation, so that we might live into the deep calling of God: you are beloved, you are worthy, God is with us. When we are starving and when we are feasting God is with us. Amen.