Ash Wednesday reflection February 18, 2015
Text: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Sunday evening a few of us gathered here for our monthly Faith and Film night to watch Gravity. There are really only two characters in the film, veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, played by George Clooney, and Dr. Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock. It is Kowalski’s last space flight and you can tell by his back and forth conversations with Mission Control that he has been at this a long time. With every story he tries to tell, they let him know that they have heard that one before. “We know the Corvette story, Matt.”
I sometimes find myself meeting with multiple groups in a brief period of time. I sometimes find myself saying, ‘Have I told you about…” just to make sure I am not repeating myself to much. I suppose it might have something to do with age, too.
So I know I used The Great Gatsby in Sunday’s sermon. The bulletin cover had an image from the book, a billboard with a large pair of eyes and eyeglasses: “Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, Occulist.” I did not comment on that on Sunday, however. Fitzgerald writes very descriptively about this sign in The Great Gatsby. About half way between West Egg and New York the motor-road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes. (27) How appropriate on Ash Wednesday. But above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic – their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. (27)
This sign in the valley of ashes comes to play a role much later in the book. After Myrtle Wilson is killed in a car accident, her husband George is talking to an acquaintance. George had discovered that his wife was having an affair. “I spoke to her…. I told her she might fool me but she couldn’t fool God. I took her to the window… and I said ‘God knows what you’ve been doing, everything you’ve been doing. You may fool me but you can’t fool God.’” Standing behind him Michaelis saw with a shock that he was looking at the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg which had emerged pale and enormous from the dissolving night. “God sees everything,” repeated Wilson. “That’s an advertisement,” Michaelis assured him. (167)
Over and over again in chapter six of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus utters these words. “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” He says it about giving alms. He says it about prayer. He says it about fasting. “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
There is something a little haunting about those words. They seem to evoke the image of gigantic eyes, peering out at us through the haze, looking out from no face. God sees everything. God is constantly peering at us, inside and out. There is never an action we undertake that God does not know. There is never a thought we think about which God is unaware. This is a little uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable because we don’t always like what we see in our own lives.
In Gravity we find out that Dr. Ryan Stone lost a daughter at age four, and she carries guilt inside of her. It was not anything she did, but she still feels guilty, and a little empty. She would just as soon nobody know. Most of us carry some guilt in our lives. Guilt isn’t all bad. Sometimes we do things for which guilt is an appropriate response. But guilt is better as a momentary response to some action, it is not meant to be an emotional default. Many of us carry surplus guilt. We don’t really want the big eyes of God peering at us.
Most of us carry shame. Brene Brown writes that we all have shame. Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience. The only people who don’t experience shame lack the capacity for empathy and human connection. (The Gifts of Imperfection, 38). If Dr. Brown is right, then all of us here tonight know shame. Brown defines shame this way: Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. (39) And we all experience it. Here’s the kicker, though. We’re all afraid to talk about shame. The less we talk about shame, the more it has control over our lives. (38)
God sees everything, sees in secret, Jesus says. That is disquieting because we carry guilt and shame, guilt and shame beyond what may be needed as ordinary human responses. We can’t forgive. We don’t talk about shame and we let it control us. Jesus intends his words for healing, though. Don’t worry so much about what others think about you. So much of our guilt and shame is tied to what others think. Jesus wants to free us from that.
But then the words of Matthew come back to bite us, too. Don’t let anyone know that you are giving generously. Is enjoying being thanked for your generosity practicing your piety before others? Don’t let anyone see you pray. That’s kind of a hard one for me. I also remember a few years ago when I let everyone know that I was giving up red meat for Lent. It changed Wednesday night meals for six weeks. And God sees it all.
What we often leave out of these words of Jesus is the underlying message of his life. God’s love. Yes, God sees all, and God still loves. I appreciate the way Eugene Peterson renders some of these verses in his version of the Bible, The Message. Giving: 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. Prayer: 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. Fasting: God doesn’t require attention-getting devices. He won’t overlook what you’re doing.
God sees all, even the secret places, and God continues to love. We are mortal, and we don’t manage that well. Ashes are one reminder of our mortality. God loves us still. We carry shame, and we don’t want to talk about it. God loves us still. We have surplus guilt, and we struggle to forgive. God forgives and loves us still. We have not been as creative and courageous as we could be. I think of that well-known Marianne Williamson quote: Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? (A Return to Love). We fear our own power and potential and creativity. God loves us still.
God sees it all and God loves. God looks at us, looks at our lives, even the secret places, God looks through the eyes of love. It is not just a Melissa Manchester song, it is the way God is. God looks at us through the eyes of love. We are invited to do the same. Amen.