Dancing with God
Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21
The Reverend Anne Benefield
Geneva Presbyterian Church, Ash Wednesday
February 25, 2009
Introduction: The passage we will read tonight is the traditional reading for Ash Wednesday. It focuses our attention on the three disciplines of Lent: Praying, Fasting, and Giving. You will hear each one described.
Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21
Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the churches, synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the churches, synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you…
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Prayer: Lord God, We have so much to learn and so many spiritual practices to renew. We bow our heads humbly before you. As we begin our Lenten journey, guide us to a deeper understanding of what it means to follow you. May your Word take hold of our souls in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
One of my very favorite stories is told by Gertrud Mueller Nelson in To Dance with God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration. It’s the first thing she says at the beginning of Chapter 1:
Some years ago, I spent an afternoon caught up in a piece of sewing I was doing. The waste basket near my sewing machine was filled with scraps of fabric cut away from my project. This basket of discards was a fascination to my daughter Annika, who, at the time, was not yet four years old. She rooted through the scraps searching out the long bright strips, collected them to herself, and went off. When I took a moment to check on her, I tracked her whereabouts to the back garden where I found her sitting in the grass with a long pole. She was affixing the scraps to the top of the pole with great sticky wads of tape. “I’m making a banner for a procession,” she said. “I need a procession so that God will come down and dance with us.” With that she solemnly lifted her banner to flutter in the wind and slowly she began to dance. [Gertrud Mueller Nelson, To Dance with God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration, (Paulist Press: New York, 1986), 3]
I think we all want to dance with God. I think that is why we’re here. We long to experience God’s presence moving and flowing and dancing in our lives. The difficulty is that when we dance with God, we want to choose the music, the dance step, and we want to lead. That’s one of the reasons why Lent is sometimes such a hard sell for pastors. We’re all glad to dance to the music of the angels at the birth of the baby Jesus. We like to skip down the streets of Bethlehem with the shepherds. We love to rock the baby to sleep with a lullaby. But dancing with God for Lent is a different thing. In her book entitled Kneeling in Jerusalem, Ann Weems captures some of our feeling in a poem called “Looking Toward Jerusalem.”
The journey to Bethlehem
was much more to my liking.
I am content kneeling here,
where there’s an aura of angels.
And the ever-present procession
of shepherds and of kings
Who’ve come to kneel to the Newborn
in whom we are newborn.
I want to linger here in Bethlehem
in job and celebration,
knowing once I set my feet
the Child will grow,
and I will be asked to follow.
The time of Light and Angels
is drawing to a close.
Just when I’ve settled contentedly
into the quiet wonder of Star and Child,
He bids me leave
How can I be expected to go back
After sitting mangerside,
bathed in such Light?
It’s hard to get away
this time of year;
I don’t know how I’ll manage.
It’s not just the time…
the conversation along the way
turns from Birth to Death.
I’m not sure I can stand
the stress and pain;
I have enough of those already.
Beside, I’ve found the lighting
on the road to Jerusalem
is very poor.
This time around, there is no Star…
The shepherds have left:
they’ve returned to hillside
and to sheep.
The Magi, too, have gone,
having been warned in a dream,
As was Joseph,
who packed up his family and fled.
If I stay in Bethlehem,
I stay alone.
God has gone on
The thing is that we don’t choose God’s Lenten music. Lent is a time to listen and follow. If we listen really carefully, we will hear the music of our souls for God has recorded within us extraordinary music, which is in harmony with all of God’s good creation.
The scripture that we read a few minutes ago records some of Jesus’ words of advice found following the beatitudes in the sermon on the mount. In this part of the sermon, Jesus encourages three spiritual disciplines:
Those are the spiritual disciplines of Lent. We have gotten pretty far away from those practices. I have my theories about why that has happened. Last year I preached about that in a sermon titled, “The Word We Hate Most” which is the word “no.” Tonight I’m going to train you in the disciplines.
We’ll start with prayer. Prayer is a hard thing to do. Among other things, we can get hung up about whether we are doing it right. Here’s some good news: the only way you can pray wrong is to not pray. We are surrounded by grace. The Holy Spirit takes our feeble, sometimes silly, sometimes selfish prayers and turns them into prayers worthy of God. If you don’t believe me just look in your Bible in Romans 8:26 which says, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” So remember you can’t go wrong by praying. Just set a time and pray.
Another thing that bothers most people is that when we pray, we seem to get distracted. That is especially true when we are trying to listen for God’s word. There is an old story about St. Bernard, who once had a friend who told him her never had any distractions. Bernard confessed to having trouble with them. The two were out horseback riding when St. Bernard said, “I will give you this horse, if you can say the Lord’s Prayer without being distracted. Now get off your horse and let me hear you begin.”
His friend dismounted and got as far as the words, “Give us this day our daily bread,” when he looked at Bernard and asked, “Can I have the saddle, too?” [Glendon E. Harris, Pulpit Resource, (Logos Productions, Inc: Grove Heights), July 12, 1992]
We’re all like that. We get distracted. It’s not a new problem. Here’s what I suggest you do: When you find yourself distracted, recognize the distraction and then turn it into a line of type at the bottom of your mental picture, just the way they do with weather reports on the television set. It works! Another idea: Sometimes when I’m afraid I will forget a thought that I think is important, I keep a piece of paper close by and I pause to write a note to myself, then I return to my prayers.
In the Ash Wednesday reading Jesus also talks about fasting. Fasting is getting more attention these days. In a special issue of Time Magazine on “How Faith Can Heal” Jeffrey Kluger writes:
Faith and health overlap in other ways too. Take fasting. One of the staples of both traditional wellness protocols and traditional religious rituals is the cleansing fast, which is said to purge toxins in the first case and purge sins or serve other pious ends in the second. There are secular water fasts, tea fasts and grapefruit fasts, to say nothing of the lemon, maple-syrup and cayenne pepper fast. Jews fast on Yom Kippur; Muslims observe Ramadan, Catholics [and Protestants] have Lent; Hindus give up food on 18 major holidays. Done right, these fasts may lead to a state of clarity and even euphoria. This in turn, can give practitioners the blissful sense that whether the goal of the food restriction is health or spiritual insight, it’s being achieved. [Jeffrey Kluger, “The Biology of Belief,” Time Magazine, February 23, 2009, 63]
Sometimes pastors suggest that rather than fast or take something away, you can just add a new good habit. That sounds nice, but I think it misses the point. We are all so crazy busy that adding one more thing might break our backs!
I’ve decided to give up chocolate. Since I go to Hershey to visit my mother regularly, giving up chocolate will be a real challenge.
The third spiritual discipline of Lent is giving. Often the discipline of fasting is connected with giving. For example, sometimes people give up one meal a week and give the money they would have spent to buy food for the hungry. Sometimes, Lent is a time to think about the charities that you have considered helping. All of the food kitchens are struggling with more hungry people and few financial gifts.
Every year, we at Geneva give to the One Great Hour of Sharing, a multi-faith collection that reaches out to help people across all borders. The idea of the offering is captured in the phrase “Sharing Resources, Changing Lives.”
Since 1949, Presbyterians have joined with millions of other Christians through One Great Hour of Sharing to share God’s love with people in need. Our gifts support ministries of disaster response, refugee assistance and resettlement, and community development that help people find safe refuge, start new lives, and work together to strengthen their families and communities.
Recognizing that the hope we have in Christ is lived out in our hope for one another, we respond with gifts that help our sisters and brothers around the world find the hope for a brighter future.
The Presbyterian Hunger Program receives 36 percent of undesignated One Great Hour of Sharing gifts, while the Self-Development of People and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance each receives 32 percent.
This Lenten season, I challenge you to pray more regularly, fast more carefully, and give more generously. In these spiritual disciples, you will find renewed faith. Amen.