We begin another Lenten journey this week. Recently, I have had the opportunity to listen to several of you talk of your preparation for this journey, about Ash Wednesday Worship, the imposition of ashes, and Lenten studies as well as sermon series. In each conversation, whether directly discussed or implied, you have talked about a spiritual preparation to reflect upon God’s redemptive work in the world.
Your Relationship with Jesus
As I have thought about those conversations, I have been reminded of a fundamental aspect of the Lenten experience, the focus upon who we are in relationship to Jesus, the church, and the community. It is a focus upon the inner reality and depth of God’s love in our lives and upon how God’s love is lived out in and through us in real everyday and ordinary relationships. As I have reflected upon this, I have begun to ask myself the question, “For whom am I living my life?”
Our fundamental focus, our journey, begins with these words of Jesus, “Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding. When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure, ‘play actors’ I call them, treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get.
When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.
“And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for fifteen minutes of fame! Do you think God sits in a box seat? Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace” Matthew 6:1-6 (The Message).
Holiness and Righteousness
I like Jesus’ direction in Matthew’s story. In the bigger picture, Matthew is concerned about holiness and righteousness. Our Lenten journey begins with being holy or righteous before God. Now, if I understand Matthew’s point of view, holiness means “set aside” or “different.” You live your life as “set aside” and as “different” from others. In fact, if you look at his writings closely, being set aside or different means being recognized as daughters and sons of God. You will find that in the beatitudes.
Being righteous means being in right relationship with God and with your neighbor, the people around you. Again, if you look closely at Matthew’s writings, he focuses upon relationships more than anything else. For example, “when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember your sister or brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” In other words, relationships are as important if not more important than your piety.
Loving Neighbors and Enemies
And it not just your primary relationships, Matthew records Jesus as saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your father in heaven…” Being righteous means living as daughters and sons of God, reflecting God’s image of love, even for your enemies. In fact, Jesus says, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Said another way, “You are God’s children, so live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
This Lenten experience can be interesting when taken seriously, especially when it comes to loving one another as God in Christ has loved you. If you take Jesus seriously from Matthew’s perspective, the total substance of your faith, your relationship to God, is lived out in loving your neighbor.
For Whom am I Living my Life?
I like Kierkegaard’s understanding of neighbor. He wrote that neighbor was a category that included everyone, from one’s enemy to one’s spouse. It was the whole spectrum of human relationships from the least love-worthy to the most love-worthy. So, as you begin your Lenten reflections, focusing upon God’s love for you and your love for others, ask yourself the question, “For whom am I living my life?”
Your Lenten Reflection
May I ask you to include this in your Lenten reflections this year? As you reflect upon for whom you are living your life, include the thought and actions of loving the persons who might not ever return your love as well as the persons who love you. It is easy to love those who return your love, but to love those who do not love you or are not worthy of your love takes God’s grace deep within your being. Practice the means of grace so that you can and will reflect more on the God who loves you and sends people to you to love.
Why do I ask you to include this? We are living in a time of conflicting values. There is a conflict between individual responsibility of loving friends and family and social responsibility of loving the neighborhood, the stranger, and even our enemy.
It seems that most of us believe that we have done our part, as Jesus followers, when we smile, are nice, and are kind to one another. We love our neighbors, especially those who are friends, who agree with who we are, what we believe, and how we respond to the needs of the world. It also seems that most of us reduce our social responsibility to the level of humanitarian care. It is good that you care, but too often our efforts are reduced to caring for those who are worthy of our care. What happens if your neighbor ceases to be worthy of your love?
When Jesus says, “Love your neighbor,” there are no conditions. There is nothing that terminates it. We are bound to our neighbor, whether friend or foe, through the love of God. We love because that is who we are as children of God.
Respond as a Follower of Jesus
There is a story of St. Francis of Assisi being attacked by a thief who had leprosy. Francis was beaten, stripped of his clothes, and robbed of his money. Before the thief could get away, St. Francis embraced his feet and kissed them. Now, I am not recommending that exact response, but I am trying to explain the behavior of St. Francis. Here it is. He responded out of who he was as a follower of Christ. St. Francis loved his neighbor because he had been told to love his neighbor. He loved for no other reason than being who God had created him to be. This kind of love is not easy. It is not based upon what you think or how it feels. It is based on who you are in relationship to God. Who you are is how you love your neighbor.
Love is Who You Are
Fred Rogers, in his book The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember, wrote “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”
Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, described it this way, “Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”
In other words, love is not something you do but is who you are as followers of Jesus, as daughters and sons of God.
Your Next Step
So, this brings us back to our Lenten journey. It seems to me there are three actions you can take regarding your experience this Lenten season.
- You can ignore the development of your inner life of love and do what “playactors” do. That is another word for hypocrites. You can treat personal piety as a private matter and use prayer and study like a stage, saying the right things and acting compassionately as long as someone is watching. Does loving your neighbor mean loving only when it benefits you?
- You can go overboard with your spirituality and try to prove that you are worthy of God’s love by becoming a martyr. There is a need for people to go down in defense of high ideals. There is a need for advocacy, for someone to stand up for those you cannot stand up for themselves. Is being a martyr for your cause what God created you to do? Take time this Lenten season to reflect upon who you are and why God has gifted you. You can only be a martyr once.
- You can love your neighbor and your neighborhood. This could include advocacy with a different focus. You can focus upon God’s love for you as a beloved child of God and upon God’s love for the people around as beloved children of God, and upon God’s love for the people who are not worthy of your love as beloved children who God loves as much as God loves you.
Works of Love
What could happen if you began to express your faith in works of love in your neighborhood? That you not only loved the people entrusted to your care, but you loved the strangers around you as well. That you would love all people with the same love that God in Jesus has loved you? Here is what Jesus says, “Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.”
Alone with God
It will be in those moments, alone with God, that you will begin again to experience why you are a follower of Jesus and why God has gifted you to be a hope-filled leader. With God and God alone as your audience, begin your Lenten journey focused upon the life and love God has given you. It is my prayer that you will become the love you have experienced in and through Jesus. The hope you offer will grow out of the love you have received and offered in Jesus’ name.
Seeing Me Play
Lou Little was the head football coach at Columbia University for 26 years. One of those years he had a boy who loved to play football but was not a very good player. The coach liked him not only because he played hard but because he had a strong character. He would see the boy occasionally walking arm in arm with his father across campus.
One day the boy’s mother called the coach and said that the boy’s father had died. She asked, “Would you tell him? You are close to him, and he respects you.” So, the coach found the boy, told him of his father’s death, and stayed with him until his mother arrived to pick him up and take him home.
After the funeral, there was a big game. The boy came to the locker room, suited up, sought out the coach, and asked, “Coach, may I start today?”
The coach, feeling especially caring for the boy under the circumstances, said, “Yes, you may start, but remember, this is a big and important game. You might only play a few minutes. I’ll have to take you out. But you can start today.”
The boy started and played the entire game. After the game, the coach came into the locker room, sought out the boy and asked, “Great game, son. Tell me, why did you have to play today?”
The boy answered, “Well coach, it is like this. Today was the first chance my father ever had to see me play. He was blind you know.”
Love One Another
You and I will only begin to love each other, our neighbors, and our neighborhoods, when we develop a more acute sense of the unseen eyes upon us, the eyes of God.
So, for whom are you living your life? May your Lenten experience bring you into the presence of God so real that you live only and wholly for God.
Remember, who you are is how you lead…and how you love.