I believe it was Woody Allen who said, “I don’t mind dying; I just don’t want to be around when it happens.”
Most of us would agree…and in fact most of us do mind dying. Our culture has taught us to fight death as ferociously as we can, even though we know intellectually that death is part of life, and like taxes, it’s a sure thing. So why are we so afraid?
To pretend we won’t die is to pretend that we are like God. Prolonging a good life by caring for our health is one thing; but refusing to let go is another. That is trying to play God: and not letting God be God is one of our greatest sins in this life.
If Ash Wednesday is about anything, it is about death – the certainty of our mortality: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It’s a fitting reminder as we begin Lent, a period of self-examination. We look at ourselves, our frailties and failings, our jealousies and greed, our unhealthy desires and addictions, and yes, our sins. Wanting to play God is a Class-A sin. It’s in the big ten: “I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before me.”
Matthew’s Gospel today gives us the early text of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s a succinct model for all our prayer, a Jewish prayer to its core. (Let us not forget, in these days of renewed attacks on Jews, that our Lord Jesus was a Jew his whole life, and never left that faith! As our bishop states, when one faith community is attacked, we are all attacked.)
This pithy prayer gets to the heart of the matter: we are not to try to play God! Try to put aside your long, habitual associations with the Lord’s Prayer, and hear the words anew. Jesus said, “Pray then in this way:”
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. We address our God as Father, and this is in fact an innovation by Jesus – I’m not aware of earlier Jewish texts addressing God thus. Jesus brings an new intimacy to our relationship with God – sharing his own sonship with us.
“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Now Jesus is getting edgier. He is proclaiming God’s kingdom, right here on earth. And if God is king, then guess who can’t be? As someone put it, “When God’s kingdom comes, all our little kingdoms have to go!” We can’t pray this prayer, and still hold back the areas of our lives that we want to control for ourselves. But that’s our natural tendency.
“Give us this day our daily bread.” With this humble request, we acknowledge that we are needy; we are not self-sufficient. We need daily bread, both food to sustain our bodies, and food to sustain our spirits. We need God. Everybody has these same needs, and God wants everybody to have enough. When we enjoy food or other things that feed us, we should stop and think if our lifestyles allow others to have enough as well. If we have more than enough, then we need to be generous in giving.
So, as we take these ashes upon our foreheads, as signs of our mortal nature, let’s really ask ourselves if we are prepared to let God be God. Can we surrender our (rather foolish) quest to be in control of everything, even to the point of defying death itself?
Jesus lived this same human life that we are given. The unique thing about him is that he let God be God; he was content with humanity, even unto death. And by joining us in our death, he invites us to join him in his resurrection – a resurrection that was God’s gift of transformation. And that gift is still on offer – it’s available to us who follow Jesus’ way.
Come, let us begin anew our Lenten observance. AMEN.