Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Sermon; Ash Wednesday; Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

What are you doing for Lent this year?  What are you giving up?  What are you taking on?  In this somber season, what discipline are you embracing?

With all due respect to those asking the question, “It's none of your business.”

Our readings from Joel and Matthew both address issues regarding sacrifice and penitence.  The prophet Joel is calling God's people back into right relationships, especially a right relationship with God.  Rend your hearts and not your clothing, because our act of penitence has nothing to do with outward appearances.  It does us no good to don sackcloth and ashes today if we behave the same tomorrow.  Rend your hearts, not your clothing.

Jesus also addresses this issue, but much more directly.  It can seem as if people are in a competition to show how holy they are.  Everything from bumper stickers to jewelry to t-shirts to pithy Facebook posts to announcements of only watching “proper” movies arise because there is an irrational need to prove how pious we are.  I can't tell you why that is, but I can tell you it's been going on for a long time, and I can tell you Jesus warns those around him to knock it off.

Like Jesus' story of the two men praying in the temple, and like his observation of the widow at the treasury surrounded by people putting in lots of money, Jesus is reminding us that our relationship with God is like our relationship with our spouse – there are some parts that need to remain private.  Praying is a private conversation between you and God.  Fasting is a covenant you make with God.  Giving alms involves your personal budget and does not need to be scrutinized by others.  And, hopefully, it will be in and through those acts in which your heart is changed.

There are, of course, exceptions.  You can't always pray in your closet when you are part of a faith community.  We ask for pledge cards; and while private, they aren't always secret.  Sometimes fasting is best done when you have someone else to lean on.  And, of course, there is today.

Today is a day for alms giving.  Today is a day of prayer.  Today is a day of fasting.  Today is a day of remembering that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  In that remembering, your forehead is marked with the sign of the cross.  This is a remembrance of our mortality.  This is an acknowledgment that we belong to Christ.  This is an outward and visible sign of the anointing we received at our baptism.  This is a sign clearly visible to others when we walk out those doors and practice our piety before them.

And this is always our dilemma – the practice of our piety up against the showing off of our piety.  How do we practice our piety in a way that honors our Father who sees in secret without being overly worried whether or not we are doing it for show?

May I suggest changing the question?

“What are you doing this Lent?”
“What are you giving up?”
“What discipline are you embracing?”

These all have to do with the mechanics of Lent.  When we focus on the mechanics it can become impersonal.  It can not only become impersonal, but it can become competitive.  You're giving up chocolate – good for you; I’m giving up all forms of sugar.  You're going to start walking a mile a day – good for you; I’m going to get up at 5:30, meditate for 30 minutes, walk to church for Morning Prayer every day, quit watching TV and read the Bible.

Okay then.

Change the question.

“Why are you giving up … X?”
“Why are you taking on a particular discipline?”
“Why do you have ashes on your forehead?”

Changing from, “What are you ...” to, “Why are you ...” moves the answer from the purely mechanical to the deeply personal.

I’m fasting because I want to take the money spent on food and donate it to a feeding program.
I’m giving up computer games because I want to spend more time in prayer.

The “Why” question may or may not be answered when asked by others – it is, after all, personal.  But the “Why” question most certainly needs to be answered by you when it is asked by either you or God.  If the answer to the “Why” question is, “Because I want others to know how religious I am,” you're doing it wrong.

Remember, Jesus never said, “Don't practice your piety before others.”  He said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others.”

Lent isn't about what you are doing – it's about why you are doing it.  Maybe an appropriate Lenten discipline is to ask, “Why?” more often.



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