Meditation on Matthew 6:1–6, 16–21
Pastor Karen Crawford
The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, OH
Ash Wednesday, March 2, 2022
Link to livestreamed video of our Ash Wednesday service: https://youtu.be/_2qcnavvrss
After hearing our gospel lesson, you might wonder how Jesus would feel about our smudging our foreheads with ash on Ash Wednesday. Is it a public practice of our piety to show off our holiness, like the hypocrites Jesus talks about? The answer is no, not if you understand the symbolism. With this smudge of ash, we are “proclaiming to the world a radical truth: we know that we are dust. Holy and beloved, but dust all the same. That’s where we are all headed together: back to dust.” (Jennifer Moland-Kovash, Christian Century) When we trace the shape of a cross in the ash on our foreheads, it is a humble confession by the children of the dust of our need for God and the salvation he offers through his Son, Jesus Christ.
Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite services of the church year—for its intimacy and honesty. We are encouraged to come, truly, just as we are and received God’s grace. It’s when we take a pause from our ridiculously busy lives to spend time with God and one another, simply and quietly. We come to worship and remember to whom we belong—in life and in death—that we are always safe in the palm of the Master’s hand. In worship, “we confess and remember that this, too, shall pass: this day, this season of our lives, this struggle, this joy, this heartache. All of this will end, and we will return to the dust from which we were made.” (Jennifer Moland-Kovash, Christian Century).
This year, in our gospel lesson in Matthew that we read every Ash Wednesday, the repeated phrase “your Father who sees in secret will reward you” jumps off the page at me. God is MY Father. God see ME in secret. God wants to reward ME for what I do with and for God alone. We have a personal God! What is the Father seeing us do? Two things, especially important to remember in the Lenten season. Giving alms—money—to people in need. And prayer, alone in your room, with the door shut.
With Jesus talking about both of these things in the same passage, we see that they are connected and indeed, one leads to the other, and they feed one another. When you give to the poor and serve people in need, you often experience God’s presence. I believe this is part of the reward the Lord is talking about—spiritual benefits, such as love, joy, peace, faith, patience, hope, etc. The spiritual benefits come with prayer in the secret place, as well. And when we pray, we receive the compassion of God and often feel stirred to serve and care for people through acts of kindness and compassion.
I have been thinking about prayer lately and how I might encourage adults to feel more comfortable with prayer and enjoy prayer more. Have you ever noticed that children are much better at prayer or at least more comfortable with prayer than adults? Probably because they never worry about whether they are doing it right. You ever worry you might be doing it wrong? Children instinctively know that God will receive their simple prayers with love and grace. Jesuit spiritual director James Martin writes in his book, Learning to Pray, a Guide for Everyone, that he has been praying since he was a little boy and not a particularly religious child. He called upon the name of the Lord as he walked to elementary school each day. It felt completely natural. While he explains more than a dozen ways to pray and listen for God in his guide, the first kind of prayer he prayed as a child was to ask for things. We all know that kind of prayer! He desperately wanted a dog and prayed hard for that dog, and that desire was almost satisfied. “I got as close as identifying a litter of puppies and even naming one,” he says, “but the plan was ultimately scotched because of my sister’s allergies.” He asked for other things, too. He told God what a great safety patrol he would be. “I wanted to convince God to choose me, so that I could be marked for greatness. Wanting to be special and coveting a cool badge are not the most exemplary motivations,” he says, “But it brought me into this second kind of prayer: conversation with God. I tried hard to convince God that I would make a good safety. It was something of a one-sided conversation, however.”
God did answer that prayer—he got to be a safety patrol. But then he wanted to be a captain or lieutenant. He writes, “They wore even cooler medals etched with special colors.” He adds, “If you are motivated by pride, once you reach your goal, there will always be another goal to tempt you.”
Martin experienced a third kind of prayer as a child, a mystical prayer without words when he experienced the presence of God in the wonder of creation. He was riding his bike through a meadow one day on the way to school and suddenly, without warning, he was caught up “in the sweet smell of flowers and grass hanging in the air, with the sun’s morning rays slanting over the field and casting long shadows from the flowers. Bees buzzed around the snapdragons, black-eyed Susans, daisies and Queen Anne’s lace.” (33) He heard the metallic sound of crickets and the snap of grasshoppers moving on blades of grass. He felt compelled to stop his bike and look all around to see so much “life—the sights, the sounds, the smells—and suddenly I had a visceral urge,” he says, “not only to be a part of it, but also to know it…I felt loved, held, understood.”
Martin points out that we can learn from children’s prayer as they often relate to God in any way they please. This allows them to be more open to God than adults. One Christmas Eve, Martin brought his 6-year-old nephew Matthew to see the Christmas crib—Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus in the manger in front of the altar of his parish church. Martin asked his nephew if he’d like to say something to Jesus. “I expected him to pray silently or maybe ask for another toy. Instead, he said aloud, ‘Make me a good boy, Jesus.’”
One helpful way to think of prayer is beginning a friendship with God. Friendship flourishes when you spend time with friends, as it does with God. It flourishes when you learn more about your friends, as it does with God—and that learning may come from worship, reading Scripture, prayer, and through Christian fellowship, sharing your faith and testimony with other people who are friends with God.
But friendship with the Lord grows best when we allow ourselves to be completely honest with God. This is the God whom the psalmist says in 139, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.” “If you are saying what you think you should say to God,” Martin says, “rather than what you want to say, then your relationship will grow cold, distant and formal.”
“Honesty with God means sharing everything with God, not simply gratitude and praise and not just things you think are appropriate for prayer.” People often “pray about everything except for the one burning issue in their lives—the one thing they don’t want to look at.” (104)
We never have to hold back with God. He already knows what’s in our hearts and minds, anyway. So why not talk about it—and allow God to help you work through your feelings of anger, frustration, hurt, sorrow, disappointment, fear? These are all feelings that may be difficult to share with the Lord. But they are all things that God wants us to share with him!
So then, we begin this journey together, my friends, with ashes smudged on our foreheads, not to boast of our holiness but to humble us and remind us of our mortality and need for the God to whom we belong, in life and in death.
May we all grow in friendship and trust with God this season, through spending time with him in a secret place or places, wherever they may be. May we grow in spiritual friendship with one another on these Wednesday nights, sharing simple meals, and through our Lenten study. May our prayers stir us to quiet acts of kindness and compassion for people in need, those with whom Jesus identified.
I pray that each of us will, in the seeking of God everywhere, come to know him and ourselves a little bit more. May we be blessed by an experience of the sweet embrace of God’s everlasting presence with us. May we feel loved, held, and understood.
Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, thank you for your love for us, even when we were dust, and your breathing life into us so that we may live with you forever. We praise you that we don’t have to be afraid of anything in this world, for we know that in life and in death, we belong to you. Lead us to a secret place with you, and help us to pause from our busy-ness, more and more, in this holy season. Stir us to acts of compassion and love as spiritual fruit, building our treasure in heaven. May we open our hearts, like a little child, and experience the sweet embrace of your everlasting presence. May we feel loved, held and understood. Amen.