The Invitation of Lent

A sermon given on Ash Wednesday 2021 by the Rev. Teri Daily…

“Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites so in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others… 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… 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.”

Am I the only one who finds it ironic that we read this particular passage from Matthew on the one day of the year that we walk around with ashes smudged on our forehead? On the one day of the year that we’re physically branded as “religious” for the whole world to see? Are we doing what Jesus tells us not to do by disfiguring our faces on this fast day? And while we’re at it, what about charitable giving—can we ever really give with absolutely pure motives? Once we begin to give, it feels good, and all of our reasons for sharing become muddled. And praying—sure, it’s not a good idea to blast our prayers through a megaphone, but only in a room with the door shut?  Really? 

For those of us in liturgical traditions and in churches that thrive on outreach, this passage from Matthew might make us, understandably, a little uncomfortable. And maybe rightly so. But let’s go back to the very first sentence of the gospel reading:  “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” It’s not our faith practices that Jesus seems to have a problem with; in fact, we know that Jesus read in the synagogue, journeyed to the temple, debated with scribes and Pharisees, and healed people right out in the open. Jesus lived his life as a first-century Jew. So it’s not the faith practices that are the problem; it’s that inevitably our eye slips from God to the world. 

We start out with pure intentions, fixed on God; but our attention drifts back to us and to those around us:  What will people think?  How does this make me look? Compared to other people, how am I doing in my spiritual journey? Perhaps our religious practices lose the meaning they were intended to have and become, instead, a means of negotiation with God, much like what happened with Israel according to our passage from Isaiah. Israel cries out to God, “Why do we fast and you still don’t notice us?” Or maybe we become invested in our outward practices in the first place because we are too ashamed or too afraid to take a good look at what lies within us.

For whatever reason, it’s easy for our faith practices to become a performance instead of a way to draw near to the one who loves us most of all. It’s easy for our spiritual life to become a façade that hides our truest selves. It’s easy for our faith to become all tangled up with our pride.

I actually think that Ash Wednesday is the perfect day to read this passage from Matthew. Because one of the main problems with pride is that it keeps us from experiencing forgiveness — which is the very focus of this day. In fact, according to Frederick Buechner, pride keeps us from both forgiving others and from accepting forgiveness for ourselves. He writes:

To forgive somebody is to say one way or another, “You have done something unspeakable, and by all rights I should call it quits between us. Both my pride and my principles demand no less. However, although I make no guarantees that I will be able to forget what you’ve done, and though we may both carry the scars for life, I refuse to let it stand between us. I still want you as a friend.”

To accept forgiveness means to admit that you’ve done something unspeakable that needs to be forgiven, and thus both parties must swallow the same thing: their pride.[1]

To forgive and to experience forgiveness ourselves both require that we stop using pride as a façade behind which we can hide. Forgiveness requires vulnerability on our part.

And so on this Ash Wednesday, a day on which we come asking for forgiveness, we have to let our false pride go in order to taste the good news. As Richard Rohr writes, “Jesus has a lot of hope in sinners (which is good news for just about everybody, and why they call it so). Jesus only has problems with those who don’t think they are sinners. This turns all religious history upside down. The search for so-called purity is over. Now the only issue is honesty and humility. We call it by the hard word repentance.”[2]

Today we stand before God with no pretensions and no illusions of grandeur. We come as finite and imperfect creatures, trusting entirely in the grace, mercy, and goodness of God. 

Now this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do acts of piety during Lent. In fact, in just a few minutes we’ll be invited to observe a holy Lent through self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, self-denial, and meditating on scripture. The truth is that we can’t wait until our hearts are pure before we take part in the practices of our faith. As Episcopalians who believe that the liturgy shapes our lives and helps us become the people God intends for us to be, we know that right doing sometimes comes before right feeling. Just look at how this gospel reading ends: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be as well.” Our heart follows our treasure, our actions, our energy, and our intentions. That’s why acts of devotion, any activity with the intention of turning our minds and bodies to God, can indeed draw our hearts closer to God as well — if we allow ourselves to be open to transformation, to be vulnerable. 

And there’s the crux of it. This invitation to a holy Lent is really an invitation to vulnerability:  it’s an invitation to peel away the veneer of false pride, to shape our lives through intentional practices, and to open our hearts to transformation. It’s an invitation to new life.

[1] Frederick Buechner, “Forgiveness,” originally published in Wishful Thinking and now available online Forgiveness — Frederick Buechner

[2] Richard Rohr, Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety, Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001, page 74.

The Invitation of Lent
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