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The secret of living in God’s presence: Bishop Haller's Ash Wednesday message

By: Bishop Laurie Haller, interim bishop




Download a copy of this message | Lenten Study 2021 week one study guide | Bulletin insert PDF | Bulletin insert Word document | direct link to the video | 2021 Lenten study videos and resources


Grace and peace in the name of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. As we enter the season of Lent let me share this scripture with you.

“Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may get praise from people. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that you may give to the poor in secret. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.

16 And when you fast, don’t put on a sad face like the hypocrites. They distort their faces so people will know they are fasting. I assure you that they have their reward. 17 When you fast, brush your hair and wash your face. 18 Then you won’t look like you are fasting to people, but only to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

19 Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them. 20 Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. 21 Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:1-4: 16-21 (CEB)

I will never forget the morning in 1993, my husband Gary and I, were appointed to be co-pastor of First United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After 12 years of pastoring separately, in different churches, Gary and I were going to be serving together. I have to admit that I was a little apprehensive about being big, steeple-city church, after serving much smaller churches.

On our first Sunday in July, our three children, who were entering sixth, fourth, and first grade, sat alone in the front pew of this large gothic sanctuary. After all, we did not know anyone yet, and that way we could keep an eye out on the kids. That was our first mistake. 

When the time came for the children to be introduced, they marched up the stairs to the chancel area, where upon our middle child Garth, started waving his hand to the congregation just like a politician. I could feel my face turning red with embarrassment. That was nothing compared to Garth making a paper airplane, from the bulletin, and flying it from the front pew during the sermon.

What does it mean to practice our religion in front of others? In our human quest to be acknowledged and recognized, how do we act? What is fame? What is success?

What does it mean to be honored? Does it mean that our name is splattered all over the tabloids? Does it mean that every action we take is scrutinized by an enduring public? 

Where should the reward for living a good life come from? From an enduring public? From our colleagues? From the church?

What about Lent? The six weeks before Easter is often seen as a time of not only giving up something for Lent; but more often adding something. Some people give up people give up candy, or chocolate, or coffee, or desserts. Others fast on a certain day during Lent. The idea is that when we give up something that is meaningful to us, we learn about spiritual disciplines.

On the other hand, some people add things to their lives during Lent. Perhaps it is joining a short-term study group, reading through the Gospels, visiting someone in a nursing home once a week, or giving extra money to a mission cause.

In Jesus’s day there were three great works to the religious life, alms giving or giving to the poor, prayer, and fasting.

To the Jews, alms giving was the most sacred of all religious duties. Jesus does not dispute here that giving to the poor is important.  What troubled Jesus was the motive of many of the Jews, who made a big show of giving money in the synagogues, so that others could see how much God had blessed them.

In the same way, it was tempting for the Jews to flaunt their prayer life. Prayer was the second work of a religious life. Some liked to parade their life publicly by praying on street corners. This is how it was known that they were carrying out exactly what God wanted them to do.

Then there was fasting. The Jews fasted as a sign of mourning, in order to atone for sin, as an outward expression of an inward sorrow, and as a symbol of national penitence. Or they would fast in preparation of a revelation from God.

Could it be that Jesus wants us to learn from this scripture that we shouldn’t practice our religion in front of others in order to be recognized?  What do you do in secret? Are you do anything in secret? Are you pleasing God at all?

Henri Nouwen, who was one of the most preceptive spiritual writers of his time and was a professor of mine at Yale Divinity School, wrote a book titled, Letters to Mark about Jesus. It was addressed to his 19-year-old nephew in Holland. Here is what Nouwan wrote to Marc:

“I don’t think you will ever be able penetrate the mystery of God’s revelation in Jesus, until it strikes you that the major part of Jesus’s life was hidden. Even the public years remain invisible as far as most people were concerned. Whereas the way of the world is to insist on publicity, celebrity, popularity, and getting maximum exposure, God prefers to work in secret. In God’s sight the things that really matter rarely take place in public.”

The book that the cabinet is recommending for us to read as a conference this Lent, is called Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People, by Michael Frost. Frost’s claim is that,

“We are all called to be evangelists, sharing Christ’s love with others, and encouraging them to live of faith in action.” 

In particular, he calls you and me to live the kind of life that invites questions from others who are searching for meaning, hope, and peace. It is also the kind of spiritual life that will form a new set of mindful and missional habits that take us outside our churches to embrace our world. I hope that you and your church will participate in this study.

As we enter the holy season of Lent on this Ash Wednesday, how is God calling you to practice your faith? What spiritual disciplines might you embrace to help others proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and seek treasures in heaven?

 Let us pray.

O God grant that we would discover the secret of living in your presence. Give us the wisdom and courage to yield to your intentions and purpose for our lives. Grant us insight, to discern what is pleasing to you, and give us strength to do it. Help us not to live glib and superficial lives but cleanse us by our confessions and make us worthy disciples. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

May God grant each one of you a holy Lent.


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