Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But 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.
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But 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.
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But 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.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
For a significant period of time in grade school I lived with my grandma (I called her Nana). She would get 2-3 newspapers a day. I’m sure she looked through the whole things but the page she spent the most time on was with me, and that page was the crossword. I loved doing crossword puzzles with her, especially if they’re not too hard. I wasn’t very good, and don’t really do them to this day, but she humored me and we worked on it.
But when we spent that time together every now and then in one flash of brilliance the dam is lifted, and a tidal wave of right answers comes pouring out. Whole sections of the puzzle that were once blocked quickly came alive. Eventually though, I hit another block.
I seldom finish the whole thing. It seems like there is always some intersection of an obscure town in India and the first name of an actress from the thirties that I didn’t have a clue, that’s where Nana came in. I tried as hard as I could, but inevitably, I have to seek help. But first I have to declare to myself, “I give up.” More about giving up a little later. Let’s look at our texts for tonight, I promise it’ll all come together.
The lectionary scriptures for Ash Wednesday call in different ways for Christians to undertake some practice that will lead to a deeper relationship with the divine. The contrast and complement of the verses from Matthew and the passage from Joel are especially striking; one contains Jesus’s instruction for solitary prayer and the other describes a faith community fasting together.
Many people, perhaps younger people especially, express fear and pessimism about the future. They are concerned that changes the planet is undergoing have been set in motion and are already unstoppable and that, in short, the earth is doomed to ecological tragedy. The Joel passage expresses a kindred fear, but it also expresses hope that the dark future portrayed in the passage that surrounds the lectionary excerpt might yet be averted, if the people turn back to God. What is called for is a fast; Joel calls out to gather everyone—from the elders to the infants to the young adults—to start a committed life together and to fast as a way of praying for the impending disaster to be averted.
The Matthew passage carries Jesus’s instruction about how to pray and how not to pray. We are cautioned by Jesus not to pray like hypocrites. The word hypocrite comes from the Greek word hypokrites, meaning actor. In Greece’s classical era, actors performed in festivals that honored the gods. These actors held masks up in front of their faces; some masks were comic and were shaped to mimic the extremes of human emotion; other masks were tragic and portrayed images of Greek heroes and gods. Actors could play many roles in a single play, transforming themselves into different characters using the masks.
One way we can respond to Jesus’s admonition is to reflect on the truth that prayer is not a performance for others’ benefit or to impress God. When we pray, we should not portray someone other than who we are. Instead, we are invited to open ourselves up. This act, which allows the Holy Spirit to search and know our most private selves, can be done in a room full of worshipers or in solitude. The essence of the act is the transformation that can occur when we drop the masks, for in letting God look, know, judge, and love us, we can both know more about what and who we are and begin to become more fully what God intends us to be.
Traditional Ash Wednesday liturgies focus on the brevity of life and remind worshippers that they came from dust and will soon enough return back to the earth, dust once more. For our parents in the faith, Lent was a morose season in which they gave up something in order to prepare themselves for eternal life. The salvation promised and hoped for required turning our backs on the joys of embodiment and the beauties of the earth. Faithful Christians trained their eyes on heaven, forsaking time for eternity. Yes, life is serious and risky business, and no one gets out alive. But, is salvation just an escape from this world of perpetual perishing or is it seeing everlasting beauty in each passing moment?
Life is fragile, and we hope for spiritual wholeness, perhaps, everlasting life evolving in companionship with God and our loved ones. For years, I struggled with Ash Wednesday Services precisely because of their other-worldliness and sadness. My self-denial in Lent was typically half-hearted and short-lived.
These days, I am reconsidering the meaning of Ash Wednesday. The brevity and uncertainty of life now invites me to praise, wonder, and beauty, and to seize the moment—for this is the day God has made and I will rejoice in it! All that I love and care for is mortal and transitory, but mortality is the inspiration to celebration and love. Plato once described time as the moving image of eternity. We are constantly dying, but we are also constantly living as we reflect God’s vision in the world of the flesh. This day, this moment, is a “thin place” for God is with us, revealed in flesh, blood, and healing touch.
The themes of death and repentance and their linkage are powerful forces in the collective Christian psyche. They have been for a long time. Imagine the many centuries in which our spiritual ancestors took it for granted that heaven and hell (and perhaps purgatory) were real. That at death we would go to heaven or be condemned to punishment, eternal or time-limited (purgatory). Imagine what death and the imperative to repent would have meant. They were ominous, threatening, fearful. It’s important to be right with God when we die – for we risk divine and maybe eternal punishment.
Yet I also affirm that the themes of death and repentance are central to Ash Wednesday, Lent, Holy Week, and Christianity. But they are not about where we will spend eternity but about our lives here and now. And if some want to say, “Why is that an either-or? How about a both-and?” I am willing to say, “Fine – so long as we don’t ignore the here and now.”
Ash Wednesday, Lent. Holy Week and Christianity itself are about following Jesus on the path that leads through death to resurrection. They are about dying and rising with Christ. We are to follow him to Jerusalem, the place of death and resurrection. That is what the journey of Lent is about.
This Ash Wednesday, I’m letting go of everything that keeps me from rejoicing in the passing beauty of the earth. Yes, we are dust, but we are earthly dust. We are frail, but we are also part of a holy adventure reflecting God’s love.
So this Ash Wednesday, I give up. “I give up” are three powerful words. On Ash Wednesday, Christians of many stripes feel compelled to give something up. Most people give up some vice or bad habit. The practice of self-denial is an ancient spiritual discipline. Others, and myself in the past, have poo-poohed the idea giving up of things for Lent.
Many writers have warned against the dangers of going through the motions during Lent, or giving up something superficial that won’t really get to the heart of the matter.
While I agree that the sacrifice that the Lord requires is not superficial, I’m giving up judging others’ discipline. If you want to give up chocolate, who I am to tell you that you shouldn’t do that? I know what the Lord requires of me. Nowhere in mercy, justice, and walking humbly with God does it include commenting on someone’s spiritual discipline.
I haven’t decided if I am going to fast for Lent. In the past I’ve given up chocolate. I’ve also done daylight food fasts. For a couple years in a row I got up at sunrise to pray, hoping that would turn into a habit of mine (it didn’t.) Every year I contemplate doing that again, but haven’t attempted it for a few years. This year I feel ready to give up. Giving up is an easy thing to do sometimes.
I feel weary, and I don’t think I’m alone.
- I feel weary of a world torn by violence in our country and around the world.
- I feel weary of the wars we are still in domestically and around the world.
- I feel weary of divisive politics.
- I feel weary of debating.
- I feel weary of a long winter.
- I feel weary of social media, being bombarded every day by this post, this article, this meme.
- I feel weary of my to-do list, which seems to be growing faster than I can check things off.
- I feel weary of the laundry pile in my basement, the paper pile on my desk, and the snow piles on the street.
Pile after pile seem to come in wave after wave.
And now Lent comes and I’m supposed to give something up, and I can’t pick just one thing. So I give up.Pass me the ashes, I give up. I remember that out of dust I was formed. To dust I will return.
I give up. I confess my failures. I examine my shortcomings. I reflect on the ways that I cannot do it all. I resign myself to God’s will, not my own. I remember that I will die, and pain and suffering will remain, but I will have lived. I will live without the need to be right every time. I will live without the need to follow my plan, without the need to check every box, without the need to fix everything. Out of dust I was formed, and to dust I will return, but in between…I am going live.
I am going to live. I fall on my knees and cry out to God, “I give up.” And when I do God will smile, embrace me and say, “Finally. Now, allow me…”
And like periods of the crossword puzzle suddenly the dam is lifted, and a tidal wave of grace comes pouring out. The fast I choose is justice, mercy, and kindness. Not because my actions will solve the world’s problems, but simply because God is. God is justice. God is mercy. God is kindness. God is love. This same God took a pile of dust and breathed life into me, so how else can I live?
I can’t solve the world’s problems. I can barely finish my laundry.
- These ashes are a reminder of my own mortality.
- These ashes are a reminder of my own shortcomings.
- These ashes are a reminder that God took ashes and formed something that I could never form.
God provides answers I could never know. God provides paths I could never find.
I give up. I get up to God, and I feel fine.