Wednesday, February 10, 2016

10 February 2016 -- Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday   — 10 February 2016
Trinity, Iowa City – 12:15 & 7:00 pm

Joel 2:1-2,12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12  |  Psalm 103 or 103:8-14  | 
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10  |  Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self‑examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self‑denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

We hear the reading from the sixth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel every year on Ash Wednesday.  It has to do with what the Church would later refer to as the major spiritual disciples for Lent:  Almsgiving, Prayer, and Fasting.  

In this Gospel reading Jesus addresses these disciplines, which were common in Jewish spirituality; and we note that Jesus does not say “if” you do these things, but “when” you do them!  

And the point Jesus is making here, as seems pretty obvious, is “when you do these things, do not be like the hypocrites!”  I suspect we’ve always pretty much assumed that the folks Jesus was talking about were the Pharisees, and perhaps he was, at least some of them, but it’s a mistake to think that the objects of Jesus’ criticism are necessarily “them.”  “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…”  As Pogo might say, “We have seen the hypocrites and they is us.”  Out of the depths of our nation’s political life we are hearing folks who talk about how religious they are and in the next breath advocate carpet-bombing of villages, deportation of immigrants, and cutting back assistance for the poor, many of whom are, in the recurring Biblical phrase, “orphans and widows.”  I’m not sure just what Bible these folks are getting their “Biblical Values” from.  You can attach any names you want to this stuff.  There are plenty to go around.

So how do we respond to our Lord’s admonitions?  In our charitable giving, do we really need not to let our left hand know what our right hand is doing?  I don’t think so.  (We may need to let the IRS know what our right hand is doing!)  I think we know the difference between “Look at me!  See how pious I am!” and being listed among several hundred other people in a charitable organization’s annual newsletter, by which we may simply be saying, “We think this organization’s work is valuable and we encourage you to join us in supporting them.”

Do we really need to pray only shut up in our rooms?  No, I don’t think so.  But I think we know the difference between “Look at me!  See how devout I am!” and offering prayer and praise to God together with other people, sometimes even in public, though not ostentatiously.  I have mixed feelings about praying on a loudspeaker over NASCAR races, though quietly and fervently is probably appropriate.

Fasting, by its very nature, is not usually too public, unless we consciously make a big deal of it.  Here, of course, the issue comes up about this thing we do with the ashes today.  Context is all!  The imposition of ashes goes back only to the ninth century or so, at which time presumably everyone in the village was wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday and so it was not a big deal.  In that context, not to wear ashes and to strut around saying “Jesus said wash your face Matthew 6:17 nyah nyah nyah!” probably puts you on the wrong side of Jesus’ admonition.  I don’t know how the recent custom of “Ashes to Go” on the city streets is doing this year.  Some people find this meaningful, although it’s not always clear what that meaning is.  As I said, context is all.
A couple of days ago there was an article in the Washington Post by Elizabeth King, a writer in Chicago, entitled “I’m an atheist.  So why can’t I shake God?”  An interesting article, which mostly has to do with the opinion that evolution has neurologically wired us in favor of religion.  But I don’t want to go there just now.  I was simply struck by her opening remarks in which she told how she was raised a “born again” Christian but as a teenager began to have questions which her church leaders could not or would not answer.  They smugly told her that her questions were her own problem and she just needed to “have faith.”  To the surprise of very few of us, including God, she decided, “Well, nuts to that.”

And I suspect that this kind of thing – all too common in the churches, yes, including our own – is what is really behind the admonitions that Jesus gives us in this Gospel for Ash Wednesday.  We need to understand that our spiritual lives – including the disciplines of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting – are not about us!  Their point is not so we can pull out our thumb and say “What a good boy am I!”  (And also “what a less-than-good boy or girl are you!”)  And yet all too often that’s what we are like, or at least are perceived as being like.  This is not the Kingdom of God.

Lent is preparation for Easter.  And Easter is the foretaste of our own eternal destiny as God’s children.  It is newness of life.  It is not about piety.  It is not about how devout we are.  It is about how we love one another.  It is about doing justice for one another.  

And so I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent.

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