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The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams – Ash Wednesday 2017: Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-2

Many of you know that I was raised in the Episcopal Church. I grew up outside of Detroit, my family attended church just about every week and a significant part of my high school church experience involved participating in our parish youth group.  Now before we go too far I don’t want to paint a false picture, which can happen when you get used to seeing someone vested in white robes and know them to be constantly immersed in all things church.  To clarify, I didn’t necessarily hop in the car willingly every Sunday, all dressed up, having read through the lectionary texts on Saturday night so as to be prepared for worship and youth group the next morning.  My attendance was forced on many occasions.  It often took parental threats to simply get me in the car. But threaten they did, and in retrospect I am only grateful.  (So side note for those of you parents out there who wonder if it matters, if the struggles are worth it? – they are. I’m not going to travel down that road in this sermon, but am happy to at another time. Attendance wasn’t a practice I willingly adopted but being present in that Episcopal church community was integral to the faith and the at least semblance of spiritual grounding I have today.)

So part of what we did in youth group was sing.  Some good tunes.  Some pretty bad tunes with good intent behind them. Those of you who grew up in youth group circles know the scene. Now given that my context at the time was 1980’s high church Episcopalian, these songs were different than what we were experiencing on Sunday mornings. And one of the songs that found its way into our youth circles was the song “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” It’s probably familiar perhaps even still haunting to some of you.

The hymn was written by a man named Peter Scholtes while he was serving as a parish priest on the South Side of Chicago in the 1960’s.  “At the time, he was leading a youth choir which met in the parish basement. He was looking for an appropriately simple song for a series of ecumenical and interracial events and when he couldn’t find such a song, Scholtes wrote this now-famous hymn in a single day.  His experiences with that congregation and in the Chicago Civil Rights movement influenced him and his work for the rest of his life.”

Now I found the song itself a little sappy and even today I realize it’s not the most sophisticated of hymns, but it’s stuck with me.  And it speaks to what this season is all about.

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord

(in case you didn’t catch that the first time.)
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored.

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love;
They will know we are Christians by our love.

We will work with each other, we will work side by side.
We will work with each other, we will work side by side.

And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride.

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.
They will know we are Christians by our love.

We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand.
We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand.
And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land.

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
They will know we are Christians by our love.

By our love, by our love

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.
They will know we are Christians by our love.

So could it really be that simple?  I think it hits at the question of the season. As we work to be Lentenly attentive to our faith, as we are called to be very intentionally faithful this season, how will we and they know when we are the Christians we have been called to be?

In the gospel passage today, Jesus goes through a list of what people of faith typically hold up as signs of “what it means to be faithful” and he sort of tears them down. “Don’t sound a trumpet before you when you give,” he said. “Don’t look dismal when you fast so that others know you’re doing it. Don’t even pray in public just to be seen,” Jesus told them.  Because that’s not what being faithful looks like.  Not to mention that it’s not how witness works.  Pray and fast and give, but not as proof or show.  Do those things to strengthen, and renew, and relieve. God will see you and God will help you which is what matters.

Isaiah was on it too going right at similar patterns and traps.  “Why you we fast but you do not see?” the people were asking of God.  “Why humble ourselves but you, do not notice?” they wondered aloud.  In other words, “We’re doing everything we’re supposed to be doing as good religious folks, and God, you don’t seem to be responding to us.”

To which Isaiah responded: “The fast that God chooses is to loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, break every yoke, share bread, clothe the naked, and bring the homeless poor into our homes.”

And so, it is the love and care you offer your neighbor and the most hurting in this world that reveals faith – to others and to yourself too.  They’ll know we are Christians by acts of mercy and compassion and basic human care.

Now the good news is that this Lent, we aren’t lacking for opportunities to do those kinds of things. The world is as blatantly and obviously broken as it ever has been and the needs abound.  There is ample opportunity every day for us to grow in faith, and in so doing, to show the world something of Christ.

And so we gather in this room to pray – where as the gospel says, “God sees and listens and knows.”  We give and we fast in order to cleanse and in order to have more to share. We come together in order to set ourselves and others free.

“If you remove the yoke from among you,” Isaiah said, “then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. Your ruins [of which there are many] shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

The promise of this season as we walk with Christ through death and into resurrection is that unity will one day be restored. The kind of unity that is genuine reconciliation, wholeness, the peace that is Shalom. And we have a vital role to play in helping that happen.

And so for Lent let’s work with each other, let’s work side by side.

May we guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride.

Let’s walk with each other, walk hand in hand.

And together we’ll spread the news that God is in all lands?

And they’ll know – we’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.  They will know we are Christians by our love.