And here goes Jesus hamstringing us before we even get started. How, O Gentle Savior, are we to grow and expand our influence if we cannot practice our piety before others? How will they see us? How will they know us? This is the challenge of the 21st-century church in America: the desire to be seen by the communities in which we live. Yet here is Jesus…“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…” but I get ahead of myself.

It was spring of 1995 and I was one of the musicians at another Episcopal parish, the Church of the Holy Comforter in Richmond, Virginia. It was the Easter Vigil and we, the choir, were standing in the choir loft behind the nave. From our vantage point we could see everyone gathered. At the other end of the nave were the altar and sanctuary. It was the middle of the Vigil, that turning point after the litany of the saints and as the lights were raised revealing flowers and garlands and brightly colored fabric. Faces shone as brightly as the decorations. Then we sang…

Bright morning stars are rising
Bright morning stars are rising
Bright morning stars are rising
Day is breaking in our souls.

Then. It was right then that I finally got it…in the midst of song and light and flowers and gathered humanity…in liturgy…I finally *got* it.

“Oh. Here is God. Here is resurrection. This is what it means.”

And I wept. I was done. Having been found I was done in by God.

I was (and in many ways still am) one of the Spiritual-But-Not-Religious. I had been working as a church musician for a few years. I even had a degree in religious studies (with anthropology and music wrapped up in there, too). And even though I had been baptized at St. James the Less Episcopal Church in Ashland, VA., church was never really our thing as a family. It was never really my thing. Spirituality…yes. Absolutely, but religion? Specifically church? Oh no.

I could never see God in it. And these insane stories about the resurrection? You must be kidding me. There were better more sensible options out there.

But I had a musical skill set and it was Richmond in the early 1990’s and Christendom was still the place to be. So there I was deep in it and still…I had no clue what any of us were talking about. I saw the people. I liked the people. I sang with the people. We even marched together to end gun violence in the city. But I could not find God in it.

I was looking…seeking as they called it back then, I was seeking God wherever God may be found. I was looking for the resurrection as we recite in the Nicene Creed every Sunday.

I saw everything else.
I saw piety…but not God.
I had other places to go for God.
Until…somehow the liturgy, the symbolic action of the people of God, that craft of the gathered many, pointed me beyond…to God.

I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know what was different that night. There is no formula for revelation. But revelation does happen and…we see.

We see that we have always been seen by God.

God holds us and beholds us even when it can be so hard for us to hold and behold God.

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…”

It seems we’re stuck in a bit of a quandary. We know this story. We know the questions of relevance and meaning and how the church has lost its social location. We know all this.

The quandary is this: how can we hear this word from the Gospel and take it seriously when we have been rendered strangely invisible in our present time and place?

This is a good question. It’s a necessary one. And yet we are challenged by this passage today to reconsider our desire to be seen. It’s as if the call that we have been given – to see the needs of others; to see them – has been usurped by our own need for others to see us.

We keep asking, “But don’t you see us?”

If we’re honest, the answer is yes. Of course people do. All the time. It’s a media and information storm.

They see us on television and on-line. They see us in the bookstores. There is a global spiritual marketplace and it’s enormous and they see us everywhere. We’re right there next to Ram Das and Scientology. They see all of us: Pope Francis, Shelby Spong, Rob Bell, Diana Butler Bass, Mother Teresa, Joel Osteen…we’re right there to be seen all the time…Our problem is not one of visibility.

The ethical ambiguity of the spiritual marketplace gives a provocative context to today’s readings…we blow our trumpets and call our solemn assemblies to announce the glorious coming of…who? The author? The popular? Ourselves?

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…”

The honest truth is that every time I tweet, blog, or update my Facebook status I am hoping others will see me. It’s a mess.

As Michael preached just a couple of weeks ago, our struggle is with that terrible notion “evangelism.” We keep trying to change the world around us into our own image when all along it is we who have been called to simply reflect God’s image.

We have been called to be a sacrament, an icon of the Most Holy fully present in the world.

Our work is the sacramental craft of showing people God and not ourselves. This is the heart of Jesus’ admonition. Jesus would rather us pray in a closet than offer one more self-referential rite.

So, preacher, where is the Good News?

Well, it’s this: “now is the acceptable time.” Now is the acceptable time. Now. Revelation is always and ever now. This is the day of the Lord, the always and not yet sounding of trumpet, our reason to call a solemn assembly.

We have been given this time and not some other.
We have been given this day and not some other.
We have been given this moment and it is an acceptable time to the Lord.

And what better time in history than this acceptable time to show people God through sign and symbol?

This is a time when people actually know how an icon works. They know how symbols function. They carry scores of them in their pockets – touch them (reverence them) and they show you something more. They point beyond themselves toward something…other.

Today’s quandary is not that the general public has forgotten how symbols work. Instead…and work with me here, it is perhaps we who have forgotten how symbols work.

In our anxiety around the present state of being church in America we have short-circuited our symbols, putting ourselves in the way somehow when it is God who people wish to see. Can it be that we keep redirecting the icons, the symbols, the sacraments back to ourselves? Somehow we must become invisible. Not absent but mysteriously transparent.

How does that start? Well, we, the Church, can say to the world, “We see you” rather than ask, “Do you see us?”

We see you. Like God sees you we see you.

We see you being sold across the globe.
We see you imprisoned. Detained. Sequestered. Segregated.
We see your bodies lying dead in North Carolina, Missouri, California, Libya. Lynched. Defiled. Your dignity stripped from you. Our hearts break as God’s heart breaks.
We see your bodies like we saw Jesus’ body those many years ago.
We see it all.

We see your uncertainty
your pain
your struggle
your fear
your gratitude
your joy
your success
your life
and we see your death for we share in it.

And that is not all. We know that’s not enough. No. We know that God sees you. God sees you. God loves you. God is here now in the middle of all that you endure and all you celebrate. God is here. God’s face is ever turned toward this world.

And we are doing all we can to be present as you too come to see that God holds and beholds you…

…for we see God through you.

And so we begin again this Ash Wednesday. We begin again with Lent. I know Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year, but this, for me, is always the beginning. Ashes. Bodies. God. Ash Wednesday reminds me that we are one with Creation and not separate from it.

If a Baptist preacher may be so bold, this rite is a sacramental reminder that God sees us, our bodies, our mortal lives, all of who we are. God’s imprint is already upon us body and soul, and these ashes with the hands that place them upon our foreheads, are a sign of that reality.

Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
gather the people.

Made in God’s image, we are dust and sacrament.

It is we who are the icons, the symbols.

And we point to God.