Sermon preached at Marsh Chapel at Boston University
Ash Wednesday – February 21, 2007 – 6:30 p.m.
Texts: Ps. 51 (in Choir anthem), 2 Cor 5:20-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-20
Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Grace and peace to you on this solemn evening.
You might be thinking that this service is a real downer…a joy-kill, sad, depressing, call it what you will. There’s no escaping it…we’ve just spent the beginning of this evening’s service confessing every sort of shortcoming and failing we have as individuals and as a people, and, you might note, there has not yet been a moment when I or one of the other clergy have declared to you that we are forgiven for those shortcomings. The music is in a minor key, there is lots of silence, and in a moment, we are all going to leave here bearing an ancient symbol of grief and penitence on our foreheads.
No, there is nothing about this service that one could call joyous. And so it sticks out, sticks in our minds, doesn’t it? Further, we seem to be doing exactly the thing that the Gospel writer warned us against…our penitence and grief over our shortcomings before God is, for a few moments, quite publicly seen.
It is, as I said in the introduction to our Confession this evening, the opportunity we as Christians take to prepare for the annual celebration of the Resurrection of Christ. For the joyous truth of the matter is that we are forgiven, we are a people born anew, born from above, who, through baptism have been brought by adoption out of the darkness and into the light, through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. More about that in six weeks.
Meanwhile, I hope that you are actually sitting there enjoying the music, and the introspective nature of this service. Rather than seeing it as a scolding thing to remind you of what bad children you’ve been, I hope that you are relishing the opportunity for challenge. Yes, challenge. For the next six weeks, Christians are given the opportunity, the challenge to reflect on the meaning of faith, the state of your spiritual well being. Some are preparing to be Baptised or Confirmed, or to join the church and we hope as do all Christians that those so engaged will have a productive and rewarding experience.
Six weeks is a long time. In a culture where the length of sermons is determined by our listener’s attention span (conditioned to blocks of eight minutes, the length of time between commercials on television…) eight minutes is long, sixteen is even longer, and, as we are accustomed to on Sunday mornings here at Marsh Chapel, twenty-four minutes can seem like a virtual eternity. How could we ever hope to focus on a Lenten discipline for six whole weeks? The task seems impossible, and for many, not worth even trying.
I’ve overheard or been part of discussions with several people over the past week or so regarding what each person is going to ‘give up’ for Lent. An admirable practice, but I’m always fascinated by the answers I get when I ask ‘why?’ Most respond that it was their tradition growing up, and they’ve never really thought much about it. For some, it was a religious obligation required by their various faith traditions. For others, it is something they have taken on as adults, but with little reason except that it seems to be something that Christians ‘do’ during Lent. (That is true, it IS something that some Christians do during Lent…but is that a sufficient enough reason?)
This idea of giving up chocolate or coffee or alcohol or cigarettes during Lent does no good if it is not tied to the idea that this period of time, this Lent, is the time for real spiritual discernment, reflection and growth. If the action of giving up some perceived vice is not tied to prayer, reflection, discernment, spiritual self examination, and (as a result of all of that internal work) a real substantive growth, then it is to no avail. You will go right back to eating too much chocolate or drinking too much coffee or alcohol or even back to smoking on Easter Sunday afternoon.
Now, that might have sounded a bit stern. Please do NOT hear my sermon as an instruction to not even try because you certainly are going to fail. No attempts at self-improvement and spiritual discernment are ever wasted. What I am saying to you is that this is indeed can be a special time in your life…take it seriously!
The Gospel lesson for tonight provides for us a way to have a ‘holy’ lent.
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.
Give something up for Lent, if you must. Or, refrain from eating certain things, but only after you’ve prayed about it and for God’s sake, don’t complain five weeks into Lent about it!
Finally, in gratitude for Christ’s redemption, do works of Love.
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.
Now, these things; prayer, fasting, charity seem to me to be the very things that we are called to do EVERY DAY as Christians, are we not? Remember the bit at the beginning of my sermon where I spoke about the bright and glorious resurrection of Jesus that we will celebrate in six weeks? We can do nothing but rejoice in that. For Christians, the fact of the empty tomb compels us daily prayer, to refrain from those things that are harmful for us, and to be loving. Simple, isn’t it? So, perhaps this service and this season is no so much of a drag after all…just the opportunity to remember how we, as Christians, should live every day. Maybe, just maybe, a Holy Lent will become a holy life.
Thanks be to God.