Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Lenten Motivation

Ash Wednesday (Year A)
Isaiah 58.1-12; Psalm 103.8-14; 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10;
Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21

Wednesday, March 9, 2011 (10:00 am) –
Trinity, Redlands

The Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is a portion of the Sermon on the Mount that begins to get down to the nitty-gritty of what it means to worship God and to follow Christ. If I were to boil it down into one theme, it would have to be "motivation." What motivates us to do what we do when it comes to spiritual disciplines and practices?

I think this is an important consideration as we enter into Lent, a time when we customarily engage in some sort of extra discipline for the season, be it abstaining from something, such as a particular food, drink, or activity; or taking on something, such as additional study, prayer, or volunteer work. So many people chose to do such things as giving up chocolate. Don't get me wrong. Giving up chocolate is an extreme hardship. But when asked why, you often get answers like, “because I really like chocolate and it will be hard to live without for six weeks.” I don’t know if that is what is really behind the idea of Lenten discipline. As we consider what, if anything we will do or not do as a Lenten discipline, there should be some real meaning behind our decision. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus gives us an idea of what this means.

The traditional Lenten disciplines involve almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. And Jesus addresses all three. Look at the examples Jesus uses. When you give alms, don’t do it with a lot of fanfare, shouting from the rooftops what you are doing. Rather, give alms quietly, discreetly. It doesn’t matter that other people know or what they might think. What matters is that God sees in secret – God knows and takes notice.

When you pray, don’t do it in a public place or make a big display of it for all to see and hear. Rather, pray in private, directing your prayers to God alone. It doesn’t matter that other people know or what they might think. What matters is that God hears in secret – God knows and takes notice.

When you fast, do not make a dramatic display of how much you are suffering for your faith by giving up food. Rather make no display, appearing as if all is normal. It doesn’t matter that other people know or what they might think. What matters is that God sees in secret – God knows and takes notice.

What is the common theme? That we are not to make displays so that others see how righteous and pious we are in our devotions and disciplines. Our disciplines are not for the benefit of those who might be looking on, nor are they intended to be about us. We need to remember that the theological foundation of our faith is communion with God and that we are to glorify God. Any worship or practices that cause us to think more of ourselves and how we appear to others detracts from the primary purpose of our faith – to know and be known by God.

That is the real purpose of our Lenten disciplines – to facilitate the process of knowing and being known by God. The purpose of such disciplines as fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, is to remove the focus from ourselves and to direct it instead toward God. That is what should be the motivation for our Lenten discipline – that it be something that brings us closer to God, to allow us to know God more deeply and to be known by God more deeply.

In fasting, we abstain from physical nourishment to focus on the God who ultimately nourishes us. In almsgiving, we turn our attention to those in need, focusing on those who are of special concern to God – the poor and marginalized. In prayer, we focus our time and intention on communication with God. All these things are intended to shift the focus away from us and onto God and our relationship with God.

So often, we choose a Lenten discipline, but in our hearts we can’t wait for Lent to be over so we can get back to normal life, so we can start eating chocolate again, or no longer have to do that extra charity work. When we do this, we miss the point of Lent. If this happens, we are in danger of going through the motions without learning how to live Lent.

In so doing, we contain Lent within a six week period, as opposed to allowing our Lenten practices to become a way of life. Lent is not about feeling holy or pious for six weeks out of the year, but is really about a lifelong commitment that will help us to know God more deeply, to be better followers of Jesus Christ. Lent is not about enduring some discipline for six weeks, but is instead about trying on and discovering those disciplines and practices that will support and sustain us over the long haul – that will support and sustain us in our spiritual lives, our relationship with God.

So this Lenten season, I challenge all of us to consider the motivation behind our Lenten disciplines. Is it something to be endured? Or is it something that will sustain and nourish us through this season; something that may become part of our regular spiritual practices; something that will sustain us as we continue on our life-long spiritual journeys? For the reward granted by our Father who sees in secret will be deepened and enriched relationship with him. After all, that’s what really matters.

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