This post is being written partway through the season of the Lent in 2016. For many people, Lent, the liturgical season before Holy and Week and Easter is a time for establishing a personal discipline. Following the ancient tradition of fasting, it is common to give something up for the season. Chocolate, soda and other types of junk food are common. I once had a friend who gave up money for Lent. She was a college student on a university food plan and living in a dorm room so food and shelter were not an issue. She took out $100 from the ATM at the beginning of the season in case of emergency but then attempted to go through the 40 days without buying anything extra, though mooching off others was not out of the question in her discipline.
There is no issue with trying to be more disciplined. I admit being impressed by those who seem to have better self-control, running the marathon, doing the crunches, eating unprocessed, low sugar foods, foods that offer a culinary joy that seems akin to reading the privacy information policy that the bank keeps sending. As I have said to my congregation, it is not that I want another donut, I just keep finding myself in situations where I happen to have another donut. I have often tried, failed and tried again to establish some personal disciplines.
My question is, does Jesus care? Does Jesus care if I give up chocolate for 40 days? Does Jesus care if I eat only tofu in his name? Does Jesus care if I eat the last cookie in the box? Some people may feel very strongly that Jesus does care because, after all, these disciplines are being carried out as a sign of respect and honor.
I just wonder if we are honoring Jesus with gifts that he didn’t ask for, the religious equivalent of sending an ill-fitting sweater to your cousin in Florida, a gift that will be examined quizzically and lost in a deep closet. Jesus asks for love, kindness and compassion and we offer touchdowns, chocolate and the last cookie. And it is not that Jesus won’t accept these gifts. He will receive them with a smile and a nod and the hope that next time we will pay more attention to the registry.
This is a nagging feeling that also follows me to worship. As a pastor, I think about the time and effort we give to the Sunday morning hour, an event that is often at the heart of religious experience, that frequently defines the pastoral role, and yet is something that Jesus does not ask for. There is tension about worship in the scriptures. The faithful are called on to praise God and worship. Paul assumes that the early church will be singing hymns and sharing the Lord’s Supper. At the same time the prophets critique that worship. Amos speaks for God saying, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” It might be said that because we proclaim Jesus as divine and fully God, the calls to worship that come out of Hebrew scripture also apply to Jesus; we worship Jesus as God. My point is that Jesus himself never asks to be worshiped. He never asks for buildings or organs or praise bands, ecstatic hand-clapping or stolid liturgy. He asks to be followed. “Take up your cross and follow me,” he says.
I suspect if our focus on proper worship or dedicated touchdowns or the last cookie are really distractions from the hard work of following, of learning to welcome and love the stranger, of standing with those in need, or struggling to love the enemy. I’m sure Jesus smiles and nods at much of our worship, accepts our Lenten fasts, even accepts our gift of the last cookie in the box, but perhaps we should intentionally seek to offer that for which Jesus asks, our love, our kindness, our compassion, the very gifts that he has first given to us.