Mar. 6, 2019 – sermon

Posted by on Wed, Mar 6, 2019 in Lent, Sermons

Ash Wednesday

March 6, 2019

I can’t think of any holy days on which the gospel and the ritual appear to be so at odds with each other. We hear Jesus say, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” and urge them “not to disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting” —then we all come forward to have our faces marked with a cross of ashes! That tension invites us to stop to consider what we do and what this teaching is about, and to think it through so that we might truly enter into this Lent, renewing ourselves in repentance and faith, as our prayers this morning invite us to do.

Our ritual of ashes is not a re-enactment of anything Jesus did or following instructions from him. It is a response of spiritual practice on our part. Jesus is speaking to them about the attitude and intention with which they act, and now our attitudes and intentions. Acts like prayer, fasting and almsgiving are good and are called for, but doing them “in order to be seen” is the problem. That’s the wrong “reward”! These are the most important of all religious practices for them, and he assumes they will continue them, since he says “whenever you …”, but the key is doing them as practices of faith, not in order to be known for doing so or to be held in esteem for how piously one does so. Each line from Jesus details the practice and the temptation to show off, and then he tells what instead should be the intention and attitude we hold, and how our actions can be part of that faithfulness. He never decries the people for doing these acts, rather it is seeking approbation that defiles what would otherwise be a holy and faithful act. If one gives alms or prays or fasts with the goal of another’s approval or attention that that’s all you get out of it. There’s nothing spiritual about doing those things for that goal. They are to be an outflowing of our love of God which overflows our hearts, leading us to take care of those in need, pray lovingly, and undertake disciplines which bring us closer to God. It is this Jesus commends, for “your Father who sees in secret will reward you” and it is this which becomes our “treasure in heaven.”

About two years ago I took a homiletics course called “Preaching the Verbs” at Columbia Seminary. Anna Carter Florence urged us to read scripture aloud and then list all of the verbs and who they ‘belong to’, listening for patterns. It’s a wonderful exercise and I commend it. Today we find a repeating pattern of Jesus talking about seeing and looking, being seen and not being seen. In our world, being seen is often used synonymously with being heard or respected, having a rightful visible place in the proceedings or conversation.  Feeling invisible is to be physically present but discounted or disregarded. The Rev. David Lose writes, “to be seen is not simply to be noticed, but to matter, to count, to have one’s sense of self validated in the eyes of another.” The newsflash of this gospel is that wanting to be seen isn’t just in our own times, but in Jesus’ day too. Part of what he’s saying is to avoid the temptation of allowing others to determine our worth or value! I’d add that another temptation here is to be those who judge others this way, look at their public displays and setting how we esteem them only by appearances. When we inter into such a circus we become dependent on others to define our worth, to make up the measure of ourselves. We can lose sight of the fact that we are God’s children, beloved and treasured. Jesus redirects us to reflect on motivations for our actions and turn them towards God, practicing them above all in the context of that loving and life-giving relationship—God who knows even the secret parts of us, those parts we think are awful, ugly, or failures and then continues to love us unconditionally.

The last piece I want to say about this ‘seeing and being seen’ aspect is this; Jesus never says it’s wrong to want this in healthy ways. There’s nothing at all wrong with wanting to be visible where it counts, wanting to be known for ourselves – but it must not be confused with those spiritual practices directed to God. The Holy One isn’t impressed by shows of piety—God sees and knows those most hidden un-uttered secrets of our hearts, notices us, and invites us to come forth, come ever closer. We are to engage in our Lenten practices unstintingly, with our whole selves, not for anyone else’s approval, but because God has already given that to us. When we scrape away the ways others define us, we clear the way to taking up our own authority to decide for ourselves who and what we will be.     If we seek to know our true self, we have to penetrate the facade, get behind all of the judgments and labels and projected conflicts of others. Doing this opens us to wonderfully liberating contact with the creative power of God that transforms us.

There’s much in our service today about repentance, confession, and turning away from sin. None of those are very popular these days, yet there’s not one line of our confessing prayers that doesn’t name some part of my own failings. It felt like a relief to unburden my heart at the noon service today.     The cross of ashes reminds me that confessing such things and turning to God for a new and right beginning is like burning them into ash and leaving them as part of the mortality of this world. The ashes being signed on my face tells me I am resurrected through all of those earthly ashes into new life with Christ. Each time I see the ashy cross on your faces or on mine, I’m reminded of this and called back to honoring a right relationship with Christ.

Not all visible signs of faith are public displays for appearances sake, and I don’t think we need hide them. Certainly, almost anything we do can be turned into public display, and in the age of Instagram, snapchat, Facebook and twitter, heaven knows there’s little that isn’t on public display! In fact, I’m always pleased when people post things about St. Michael’s and how their faith impacts them or what they are looking forward to here. That’s this generation’s evangelism!  It’s how our world communicates in part, but that’s the thing; it’s in our world, our transitory world. Don’t mistake it for the eternal life promised us in Baptism, don’t mistake it for that sacred and intimate relationship between us and our Creator. The ashes we wear and the Lenten disciplines we undertake are about nourishing and deepening that connection, turning and re-turning to Christ, and acknowledging our mortality and our trust in God.    They remind us that this (very public) world is not the whole of it, not the end. That cross traced on our faces was never meant to be a sign of piety, rather a powerful reminder of our human mortality, and a sign of our trusting reliance on God’s love and grace, and of life eternal in Christ Jesus. Amen.

© 2019 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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