Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday Homily

Ash Wednesday
Isaiah 58.1-12; Psalm 103.8-14; 2 Corinthians 5.20b—6.10; Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21
Wednesday, February 10, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

It’s relatively easy to talk about being a good Christian. Truly living as a good Christian is quite another. The fact of the matter is that it is downright difficult to be a Christian. And even more so to live it out in the world. All of our readings for today highlight this fundamental fact, this fundamental struggle of the life of faith.

Our lesson Old Testament reading from Isaiah, dating from around the eighth century before Christ, highlights that this struggle is nothing new. Nor is it limited to us Christians. The Jews of Isaiah’s time had the same issues. And that is what he addresses in the passage we heard today. The message from God that Isaiah delivers condemns the people for professing righteousness while their actions were to the contrary. Acts of piety, meant to demonstrate that righteousness, were not for being done out of a sense of religious piety, but rather were done out of self-interest. They wanted to appear to be pious, but instead, acted in ways that were contrary to God’s laws. In short, God, speaking through Isaiah, condemns the alleged religious actions of the people as being insincere. Therefore, as being meaningless.

Instead, God commands that the actions of the people not be signs of fasting done for show, but be those that are truly consistent with God’s laws, with God’s concerns.

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them” (Is 52.6-7)

Only when these things are done, genuinely done, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn” (Is 52.8). And God, through Isaiah, goes on to say that as the people care for the needs of others, only then will the people truly be in right relationship with God.

Our Epistle reading from 2 Corinthians places this in more general terms. Paul tells the church in Corinth “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled with God” (2 Cor 5.20b). That, in Christ, “we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5.21). In other words, that our reconciliation with God comes about by following in Christ’s footsteps. By living out the Gospel in our everyday lives. Paul goes on to use himself as an example, citing how he has attempted to live the Gospel in his own life. Even when it has meant hardship. Especially when it has been difficult. For this is the true test of one’s right relationship with God – that even when things are tough, we hold fast to God’s laws, to Christ’s teachings. And not just believing it in word, but living it in action.

And then in our Gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus talks about the various outward religious acts that the faithful engage in as signs of their own piety and to demonstrate that they are in right relationship with God. Acts that not only demonstrate this, but which are meant to strengthen that relationship – giving alms, praying, and fasting. These are the actions that are traditionally associated with the season of Lent. For it is during this season that begins today that we intentionally focus on our relationship with God, of seeking to live in accord with God’s laws, seeking reconciliation with God in those areas where we may have fallen short.

But throughout, Jesus cautions that we are not to do these things so as to be seen by others, to be outward displays of our piety. Not done for the purpose of showing what good Christians we are. For it is not about what others think of us, that they view us as being pious and righteous. Rather, it is about what God sees in us. It is about the authenticity of those actions that truly demonstrate that we are seeking to be in right relationship with him.

As I read look at the picture painted by these three readings, I am reminded of a woman I once know. Madeline was a member of the church I grew up in. She was a very devout woman. When her husband died unexpectedly, her students – she was an elementary school teacher – all wrote messages to her expressing their condolences. Many of the notes talked about how they knew that her faith in God and in Christ would help her during this difficult time. Madeline was amazed at what her students wrote. She was amazed because Madeline never said one word about being a Christian. She never said anything about her faith. But her students knew nonetheless, because of how she lived. Because of the love and kindness she showed them. Because of how she treated them. There was just something about her and her life that let them know that she was a Christian. Her life genuinely reflected her beliefs. Her life reflected that she was truly in right relationship with God.

This is what Lent is about. It is a time in which we intentionally attempt to live our faith. When we intentionally work on living our faith in a truly authentic way. Not for others to see, but for God alone to see. Through alms, or what we might more broadly call “good works” – sharing of our bounty with those who are in need, and by engaging in works of charity and kindness. Through prayer – being in regular communications with God, who strengthens us on our faith journey. Through fasting, or what we might more broadly call sacrifice – focusing not on the material, but on the spiritual, by foregoing that which gets in the way of us being in right relationship with God. All of this in an attempt to live more fully as God desires us to live. Not just for the 40 days of Lent, but for the remainder of our lives. Giving us an opportunity to seek to reconcile our beliefs with our actions, with how we actually live our lives. Giving us an opportunity to seek to reconcile with others and with God. Preparing us, bringing us one step closer to the definitive reconciliation that is ultimately achieved through Jesus’ death on Good Friday, through his resurrection on Easter.

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