Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday Homily

Ash Wednesday – Year B (BCP)
Joel 2:1-2,12-17; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:1-; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
Wednesday, February 25, 2009 –
St. Alban’s Westwood

So, what are you giving up for Lent? I am always a little intrigued when Lent rolls around and people become focused on what they are going to give up for Lent. I rarely do it, but I’m always tempted to ask, “why do you give up something for Lent?” For me the question is not so much about “what” as about “why.” It is not so much the thing or activity that is being put aside for the season as why it is important or necessary to the person to do it in the first place.”

Some people give up something for Lent because that’s what you’re “supposed to do.” Really? Where does it say that in Scripture? Some people give up something for Lent because God wants us to. Again, I ask, really? Where does it say that in Scripture? Some people give up something for Lent because it is a way to become closer to God. Well, now we’re getting warmer. One commentator I read notes that some people even give up something for Lent because they feel such a discipline will entice God to be closer to us. While we don’t say it specifically, the intent is a form of bribery or manipulation. For some people, a Lenten discipline carries an implied “I’ll give up this if you come into my life.” Fortunately, I have never gotten even a hint that anyone I know feels that way, but I’m sure there are people out there who do. Regardless, the bottom line in this line of questioning is one of motivation. What motivates us to do such things for the six weeks in Lent?

At the heart of the season of Lent is the theme of transformation. Historically, it was a time of preparation for baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter. It was a time in which the candidates for baptism, those seeking to become part of the Christian faith, those seeking to become members of the Body of Christ, learned what it means to be a Christian. It was a time of instruction into the fundamentals of the faith. But more importantly, it was a time of transformation – a transformation of one’s life. It was a time of transformation of mind and heart, to be aligned with God.

But the transformation of Lent is not a once in a lifetime occurrence that happens prior to a person’s baptism. The annual commemoration of Lent is viewed by believers as a time of preparation for the commemoration of the Passion and death of Jesus during Holy Week, and of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ celebrated on Easter. This preparation has traditionally included participation in one or more spiritual disciplines: prayer, penitence, almsgiving, and self-denial. These spiritual disciplines are intended to facilitate the preparation process, to be a means of assisting in the personal transformation that occurs as we journey through Lent.

While these disciplines, which, today, many translate into the ever-popular “giving up” of something, may be beneficial, will they assure our personal transformation? Will they definitely prepare us for Holy Week and Easter? For some, it only serves to prepare them to resume whatever had been given up forty days previous. I don’t mean to dismiss the potential importance of giving up something for Lent. For some, it is incredibly helpful and significant. Some years, I find it very meaningful. Other years, not so much. All I wish to point out is that it is not so much the practice, but the motivation that is of supreme importance.

I believe the Old Testament lesson from Joel speaks to this. Joel is speaking to Israel at a time when the people were almost fanatical about demonstrating their piety outwardly, engaging in activities that showed their devotion to God. But Joel tells them that God does not require such outward signs to prove their love of and devotion to God. Joel provides a good corrective to this notion that we have to have some sort of outward sign of our personal piety, of our devotion to God, or of the sincerity of our penitence. He writes, “return to [God] with all your heart.” He then goes on to say “rend your hearts and not your clothing.” It’s not about the external, what others see, but about the internal, what God sees.

The Gospel lesson from Matthew further emphasizes this importance on the internal over the external. We hear the constant refrain, “and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” This is applied to our practices of all three major disciplines, almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” “When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

When Joel says “rend your hearts,” he is saying that we need to open our hearts and our souls so that God may enter. When Matthew talks about “your Father in secret,” he is talking about God acting in the secret, inmost parts of our being, our hearts and our souls. Both are saying the same thing – that we need to be open to transformation; to be open to God’s transforming love and grace, acting in our own lives.

To be honest, there are no simple, mechanical methods that can achieve or insure such transformation. Transformation only occurs by divine grace. It cannot be initiated by us. It can only be initiated by God. Does that mean we needn’t bother with spiritual disciplines. Of course not. Spiritual disciplines play an important role. For the practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving all share the quality or practice of detachment. They teach us what it means to be detached from the things in our lives that distract us from the awareness of God’s loving presence. They won’t make God come in and transform our lives. But they can provide a space for God to enter in. They can provide an opening in which God can come in and begin to work in our lives. As one commentator so eloquently notes, “Through these practices we seek to experience and listen to God as God, and to be transformed from our self-centered, instrumental, manipulative, idolatrous religious existence to a true life of faith and the genuine experience of the God who exists in freedom and comes to us in freedom as authentic Other” (Hunter, 24).

As we begin another Lenten season, I would challenge you not to think so much about what you are going to “give up” for Lent, but rather to contemplate what discipline, be it prayer, be it fasting, be it almsgiving, be it something else, that will provide the opening and the space in your heart and soul, that will allow God to enter in and to lovingly transform you into who you are called to be. Be creative. Think outside the box. You are unique. Your relationship with God is unique. Do something that will open up your heart and soul, that will nourish and enrich your unique relationship with God, and allow for the transformation that is meant for you and you alone.

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

Hunter, Rodney J. “Matthew 6:1-6,16-21, Pastoral Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, Volume 2, Lent Through Eastertide. Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

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