Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday
The Rev. Kate Ekrem

Today, Ash Wednesday, in one small way we have a tendency to do the exact opposite of what Jesus is telling us to do in the Gospel passage. Jesus says “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them.” And he also says, “When you fast, put oil on your head (which is how people got ready for a party in those days) and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father.”

And yet, most of us, myself included, will walk around the rest of today with a smudge on our forehead.
And that’s a good thing in many ways, we need to keep that reminder of our humanness, that we are dust, dust that God breathed life into, we want to keep that with us all day. Also it’s a good thing that we not be afraid to show that we are Christians, that we walk around with a cross on our foreheads, that shows who we are and what we believe to all the people we encounter today. So we don’t rub it off. But Jesus says to wash your face. Why does he say that? Why is that important, not to show what we’re doing

Today begins the season of Lent, when we do three things that Christians have always done during Lent, we pray, and fast, and give alms to the needy in order to prepare ourselves for renewal and rebirth at Easter. And in today’s gospel lesson Jesus talks about those three things.

It’s worth noting that Jesus doesn’t tell people to pray and fast and give alms. He doesn’t say, this is why you should really try praying or fasting or what have you. He assumes that those who are listening to him are already doing these acts of righteousness, as he calls them, already living out their relationship to God in these ways. He tells them how: When you pray, when you fast, when you give to the needy, do it this way. Jesus says, do this in such a way as to get God’s reward.

Why do we pray and fast and give during Lent? Jesus seems to be very concerned that people are doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Doing these things not to get God’s reward, but to get a human one. Maybe to be thought of by other people as a good person, a person who lives a good life. Maybe to convince ourselves that we are good people.  If I’m praying and giving to those in need, I must be a good person, I’m OK.  But Jesus goes on and on about this, he repeats himself four times, saying if you do this for other people instead of for God, you are missing out.

Jesus issues a real wake-up call here to those who care more about what they look like in the eyes of others than what they look like in the eyes of God. Jesus says, So other people think that you are a good person, a pious person. Fine, that’s your reward – their regard, their approval. You want it, you got it. But that’s all you get. If you get that reward, you don’t get God’s reward. And it’s easy for us to condemn those hypocrites Jesus talks about, too. But I don’t think anyone can afford to ignore this warning. Perhaps the warning is so strong because it’s just so easy to fall into habit of doing something for the approval of others. We hunger and thirst for approval, we just want other people to think that we’re decent people. Or we want to be able to check off the box that we’ve done the right thing. Is that so bad? Jesus is saying be careful, be careful of living your life for anyone but God.

And that’s what Lent is about – about making sure that God is the center and the focus of our lives. When we give to others, we do it not because we want to feel magnanimous or to reduce our guilt at having enough, the real reason we do it is because we know that  everything we have comes from God, and all people are our brothers and sisters. When we fast, we aren’t doing it to lose weight or to be more healthy, not that those are bad reasons, but during Lent the real reason is to say through our actions, I won’t be distracted away from God by eating or drinking, my appetites don’t rule me, God is the one who rules my life. And prayer is the most important thing to help us stay in touch with reality, to help us hear God in our lives. It’s hard to have a relationship with someone unless you talk with them regularly – and listen, too. Maybe there are different ways for you to focus on God this Lent – reading a book that is devotional for you, or listening to music that inspires you. But these are three ways that come recommended.

I wonder if sometimes we don’t seek a human reward for our righteous acts, the approval of others, because we’re not sure about God’s reward, not sure if it will really be there for us. Good deeds are supposed to be selfless, we’re not supposed to want anything in return for them. But Jesus here assures us that we do get something in return for them. 
Four times this passage stresses that those who pray with honesty, who give generously, who fast for no other reason than to prepare for God’s feast, _will_ get a reward, will encounter God, will be satisfied by God.

Lent is about putting God at the center of our lives, so that we can receive what God has to offer us. God has so much to give us, if we take the time to open our hands, if we look to God to our reward instead of to things that can only partially satisfy.

“Remember that you are but ashes” means remember that you are human, not God. Remember that we are human remember that we will all someday die, and that we all everyday fall into sin. Our attempts at righteousness will always fall short. But the ashes are in sign of cross – the sign that God has overcome both sin and death through facing them head on. It's Exact same gesture, same cross, as used in baptism. It reminds us we are only human. And it reminds us we are baptized people, people whose lives have been made new by Jesus. 

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