Ash Wednesday sermon by the Reverend Mary Mackin
Today, we begin the season of Lent, a time when we are called to reflection and repentance in order to prepare ourselves to walk with Jesus during the events of Holy Week and Easter. We spend time in self-examination, study and various spiritual practices that will bring us closer to Jesus and to the way of the cross.
Our gospel for today is a section of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus focuses on some of the spiritual practices and disciplines that were common in his time, practices that can also help us prepare for Jesus’ death and resurrection. Specifically, he focuses on charitable giving, praying and fasting. These actions were all part of Jewish religious observance and Jesus assumes that his disciples and followers will continue these acts of piety. But Jesus’ concern about the carrying out of these disciplines is not that his followers continue them — he assumes they will; his concern is the motivation with which they will undertake them. Are they giving, praying and fasting so that they themselves are noticed and honored, or are they giving, praying and fasting in order to honor and glorify God?
As I said, Jesus assumes his followers will continue to give alms, pray, and fast — he says, “whenever you give alms, whenever you pray, whenever you fast.” These actions are to be part of the life of a disciple. Jesus follows that assumption each time with a caution of how not to undertake these practices — don’t hire a trumpeter to walk before you as you hand out money to the homeless; don’t stand up and make loud prayers; don’t tell everyone what you’re giving up for Lent. Now, some of these cautions are hyperbole — it’s impossible for one hand not to know what the other hand is doing, but nonetheless, Jesus’ point is that undertaking a spiritual discipline is not intended to glorify you but your Father in heaven — look to your motivation when you give, pray or fast. And, Jesus says, do your giving, praying and fasting modestly, humbly, without drawing attention to yourself — do it with your heart and soul with no thought to what people around you might think.
The writer Maryetta Anschutz tells a story of her childhood, about a time when she toured the cathedrals of England with her parents. As a child, she was fascinated with the alms boxes built into the narthex walls. One of her delights in visiting a cathedral was dropping a coin into the alms box. The coin, she says, “would drop, ring, and echo throughout the cavernous cathedral, and people would look back to see what the noise was about.” One day, she watched an older woman, who seemed to be on her daily visit to the church, “stuff a paper bill into the box.” The bill, she says, “had far more value than my coin, but when dropped in the box, there was no great noise. It was a feather falling from the sky, and no one turned around. No one recognized the gift. Only God could hear it I supposed.”
In much the same way, Jesus cautions us to practice our spiritual disciplines in private. Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing; go into your closet and pray in secret; wash your face when you fast. And yet we are here today to take part in a very public act of piety — we will kneel with others, confess our sins and be reminded of our sinfulness, humanity, mortality. Together, as the body of Christ, we will acknowledge to God and to each other that we have sinned and are in need of forgiveness, that we are on this earth for a short time, that we are all but dust and to dust we shall return.
And so we begin our Lenten journey, recognizing that both our private acts of piety — our giving, praying, fasting — and this public act of repentance with our sisters and brother in Christ are to be undertaken with pure motives, motives to honor God and not ourselves. As we move into Lent, this time of self-examination and reflection, this time of repentance and reconciliation, we kneel before our God, the one who made us, loved us and redeemed us, and we ask for forgiveness of our sins, for a deeper understanding of God’s love for us and all creation, and for the grace to walk with Christ during the events of Holy Week and Easter morning.