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Ash Wednesday 2017 Sermon
Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21

March 1, 2017

 

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In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; Amen.

What are you doing for Lent this year? It is a question that I have been asked many times. It is a question that I have asked others many times. What are you doing for Lent this year? The question comes from the traditional disciplines of the Christian Church for Lent which are based on our Gospel lesson. Couched in this excerpt from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which promotes humility and secret devotion, we hear of the three activities which we are called to engage in all the time as followers of Christ, and especially in an intensified way during the seven weeks of Lent.

The first is fasting, or self-denial. We have all “given up something” for Lent, and when we ask each other what we are doing for Lent this year, we usually mean, “what are you giving up for Lent this year?” In the past, I have denied myself a lot in the way of various foods and drinks to the point of losing up to 30 pounds between Ash Wednesday and Easter! For the sake of my health I have given up sweets, chips, beer, pop and a whole host of other unhealthy ingestible items. This year I enter Lent as healthy as I have been in a long time, so I have not spent as much time pondering this question as in the past. There have been years where eliminating or limiting time at the television or on social media have been attempted as well. Denial and fasting doesn’t necessarily have to be food or drink items. It can involve other activities which we make into important parts of our daily lives to the point that we cannot see ourselves doing without them. I would say that fasting is the most practiced Lenten discipline among Christians who observe Lent today.
Prayer is the second discipline of Lent that Jesus talks about in his warning against trying to get noticed by others. By adding these mid-week services, we hope to encourage you folks to pray more. At our church, we have made available devotional booklets which include an excerpt from Luther’s Small Catechism, a reflection on it, and suggestions for prayer. I also know of folks who make an extra effort to come to worship on Sunday mornings every week during Lent as well. All of these things are opportunities for increased prayer disciplines in Lent for those people who think about increasing prayer time when they are asked what they are doing for Lent.

Then there is the alms-giving, or the increased donations of one’s own blessings. When we come together in the middle of the week to pray and worship, we collect an offering to share with our outreach ministry partners. At Clinton Heights, we are collecting in-kind items during Lent, like cleaning supplies for flood buckets, baby care items and hygiene items. Maybe you will save the money that you would have spent on whatever you are denying yourself and are going to give it to a local charity. There are all sorts of ways that we are able to give our money or purchase items for those who are in need without bringing special attention to ourselves or for our own generosity. We do it in secret, so that only our heavenly father will know.

I trust that you have prayerfully considered your own Lenten disciplines this year as you consider the question, “What are you doing for Lent.” You’ve probably even struggled with the call to do them quietly, not intending to receive notice or praise from others, but just because it is a sign of integrity in life. Have you considered how those things fall under the definition of, “piety?” Practicing piety happens when we engage in activities of prayer, fasting and alms-giving quietly and sincerely, and Jesus seems to say that even though we do it in secret, we should still be practicing our piety as disciples. But do you know the definition of the Greek word, “dikaiosyne,” which is translated here as, “piety”? Dikaiosyne actually means, “justice or righteousness.” “Be careful of practicing your justice before others in order to be seen by them …” Have you ever thought of giving up chocolate for Lent as a practice of justice? Or bringing in sponges or bleach to clean up after floods? Or reading a devotional book by yourself or with your family?

My sense is that you have not, and the reason is because Lenten disciplines are usually considered individual activities, for a person’s own spiritual well-being. We have individualized piety to the point that our motivation in taking on these Lenten disciplines is rather selfish. Justice has more to do with the community, living out a healthy relationship with God and with our neighbors so that all people can experience joy and peace now as we look forward to perfect joy and peace in the future. Jesus seems to be encouraging a quiet yet faithful living out of sacrifice, generosity and spirituality which do not end with the individual, but extends to the community as well. It begins with our relationships with our church families, and it extends to how we treat our families, neighbors and strangers around us. Lent is a communal time, and the disciplines of Lent are meant to be lived out in the context of our church family. Instead of me asking what are you doing for Lent, it would probably be more appropriate for me to use the correct plural pronoun adopted from the American south, “What are y’all doing for Lent.” After all, it is in the context of community that we live in the reality that we are all dust, and to dust we shall return.
The Lenten disciplines are not merely activities that benefit our own spiritual lives individually. They are acts of justice which shape us and the community as we consider the sacrifice and love that Jesus showed us on the cross. To be sure, Jesus was concerned about his own spiritual health and well-being, but he was more concerned about promoting justice for God’s people in his place and time. Recently I heard Bishop Robert Rimbo of the Metropolitan New York Synod of the ELCA say this: “What we do must make a difference beyond just staying alive.” That is a simple but profound statement. How many of us fast, pray, or give in order to catch God’s eye or even the attention of the people around us? How many of us feel that we are doing something to preserve our own lives by engaging in these disciplines? How much of what we do as congregations is aimed at preserving our own institution? So much of what we do is geared toward self-preservation, and Lent is a time to tithe the calendar year by making a difference outside of ourselves.

Jesus calls people who fast, pray and give alms for their own self-preservation, “hypocrites.” That word is from the Greek theater and it refers to an actor who wears a mask to play a role that is different than who they really are. As followers of Jesus, we Christians are called to live with integrity in all of our disciplines, worrying just as much about the physical and spiritual well-being of our neighbors as we are about our own. As we seek to avoid the hypocrisy of an existence focused only on self-preservation, it is important for us to examine how our Lenten disciplines help us to live into an appreciation of the self-giving love that Jesus showed us on the cross and live out of a model of justice for all people in our world. We are called not only to practice a personal life of spiritual wellness, but a communal life of justice, mercy and peace. Maybe the best way to sum it all up is this – In Lent we are given an opportunity to fast from the things that clutter up our lives and become more important than they really are, return in prayer to the source of true joy in life, and give of our whole selves without fear, complacency or indifference so that others may also experience the one who is the source of true joy in life. Maybe that is what we can boil down the call to practice justice down to, and Jesus’ reminder to do it without wanting recognition means that our motivation is connected with God’s will and not our own.

What are y’all doing for Lent? I hope that you all will join me in fasting, praying and giving not only for our own sakes, but in order to make a difference beyond ourselves and our churches. May it be so, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; Amen.