In Philadelphia there is an unusual congregation called Welcome Church. Those who attend worship are homeless. They meet in Logan Square for worship. Claudio Carvalhaes, a professor of homiletics at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, and some of his students were visitors at Welcome Church last Ash Wednesday. He describes the service: There is a plastic folding table set up for an altar. They set up communion on the table, received ashes, offered them to passersby, heard a sermon and shared the Eucharist. Then one of the regulars, a man named Tyrone Well, recited a poem he wrote about being homeless.
In his poem Tyrone said, “Nobody really knows I am homeless.” He describes how he is just one more individual turned invisible in our society. He walks around and nobody pays attention to him, he walks around, gets on the train, and no one sees him. Tyrone is like walking ashes while alive. Carvalhaes observes that “In that worship service, it made no sense to put ashes on the forehead of the homeless people for they know, better than any of us, what it is to remember their mortality, day in and day out. Instead of putting ashes on our forehead we must walk with the homeless, hold their hands, pay attention to them and work to make them visible in society. In many ways, to pay attention to the homeless is to have ashes placed on our foreheads. They are the sign of our own death, the death of our systems of care and mutuality. They are the presence of our absence in acts of justice; they are the necessary absence of our society so we can feel we can exist.”
In our gospel lesson, Jesus talks about three important signs of our piety: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. In Jesus’ time, the hypocrisy of these gestures by some people was so obvious that Jesus had to point out that they were only offering external gestures that did not reflect any inward belief or conviction. It seems that certain prominent people were competing to show how pious they could be. Jesus called them hypocrites and demanded they demonstrate a different way of living out their faith. We emphasize those same disciplines today during Lent. We give our money, pray, and fast yet are still faced with people who live with heartbreaking despair – hunger, poverty, chronic or terminal illness, and those who are homeless. There are many reasons for becoming homeless – catastrophic medical bills, substance abuse, mental illness and teenage runaways. Our response as followers of Jesus should be to advocate and support policies and programs that will help them.
These disciplines of Lent should not be the manifestation of a desire to be pious, but rather a reflection of our innermost beliefs. They must come from our heart, not from a compulsion to obey practices of our faith, however admirable that may seem. Among contemporary Christians, at least among those who practice their faith, there is a tendency to “give up” something for Lent. Often it turns out to be a guilty pleasure, something we enjoy but that we will benefit from giving up. Perhaps we can create more meaning in what we give up – if we give up sweets, then purchase cake and brownie mixes and packages of cookies and donate them to our collection for the food pantries. If we wish to donate more money than we do during the rest of the year, we can choose a worthy cause that has some deep meaning for us.
Another way of looking at Lenten discipline is as an opportunity to do something we don’t ordinarily do. It can be helping with more chores, assisting a co-worker or neighbor or perhaps volunteering for something new. Whatever we choose, it should not be done in a way that invites praise for our efforts, but rather something that becomes an extension of who are. This Lent perhaps we can concentrate on being the person we truly want to be.
Our gospel closes with these words from Jesus: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” I can guarantee that if we asked ourselves that question right now, our treasure would not be the monetary and material possessions that we are privileged to have. Our treasure would be people and causes that are dear to our heart, and, as people of faith, our ultimate treasure is our faith and the grace we have been freely given by God. At the start of our journey through Lent, let’s concentrate on whose we are, who we are, who we want to be, and what is our true treasure. Amen.