SERMON 2/22/12 Ash Wednesday
I found an interesting satirical comic strip the other day about two people casually discussing Lent. In it, one person (Jean) asked her friend, “What are you giving up for Lent?” The other person (Tara) said, “I don’t know.” Jean said, “C’mon, it’s Lent, you have to do something for God the next few weeks, it’s a tradition. I’m giving up watching Dr. Oz,” Tara replied, “That’s pretty lame, maybe I will just give up eating salads.” Jean responded, “You’re kidding right, you have to have some form of piety that challenges you.” Tara said, “OK, I have it, I know what I will do. I’ll give up empty traditions that have lost their purpose and bring us no closer to God.” Jean looks at her friend with disgust and says, “you’re impossible.”
These two seem to be struggling with their understanding of piety during Lent. At both extremes from Jean’s television abstinence to Tara’s rejection of traditions outright, both people seem to miss the point of piety. The practice of giving something up or taking something on during Lent, as well as such acts as crossing oneself, bowing, reading scripture, or even the practice of regular prayer are all acts of piety. Piety before God is not something we do to gain favor from God nor from the folks around us, piety is our external response to the internal grace, of which we become aware through our ongoing relationship with God.
Piety can be a beautiful, symbolic response to our spiritual condition. Like the gift of a single, red rose given to a loved one because of a shared love that overflows, our piety is a response, not an act intended to manipulate. Grace is a free gift from God and not something we earn or coerce. Our responses to God’s love, loving our neighbors, praying, reading scripture, or fasting is a RESPONSE to God’s love, not the means to gain it. God’s love that is always present.
Pious responses, a beautiful, symbolic outpouring of our spiritual condition, can depending on our heart’s intent, devolve into empty traditions that lose their purpose and bring us no closer to God. Jesus cautioned, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” If you recall the parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector praying in the temple, you understand Jesus’ warning on the avoidance of outward symbols of religious practice. It was not uncommon in early Palestine for religious leaders and even devout lay folk, to fast faithfully, pray incessantly, or give alms reluctantly. For some folks, their outward actions were not in response to the inward, spiritual grace they had experienced, but more of an opportunity to say to their friends, “look at how religious I am.”
Two seminarians were chatting one day in the hallway between classes. One said, “I read the daily office every day, I attend chapel six times a week, I devote two hours a day to personal study of scripture, and I see a spiritual director monthly.” The other seminarian smiled and said, “How wonderful.” The two parted ways, and the other seminarian quietly went about her normal day’s routine, which ended with a long walk along the trails on the mountain, where she basked in the love of her Lord.”
Lent is a season for us to become acutely aware of our need to grow closer to God, not an opportunity to practice piety in hopes we will gain God’s favor or the accolades of others. In the next few weeks, we can with intention, become acutely aware of God’s grace that is already present all around us. We know that grace abounds each time we take a breath. Life itself is a gift from God. Today, in the liturgy of the “Imposition of Ashes,” we are reminded of our mortality. We are reminded that grace is present in the mere fact that we live. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Sobering words they are, but we who are Jesus followers, know that ashes are not the end for we live in the hope that God’s love extends beyond our dustiness.
Our hope is in God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer who promises us that we will not be abandoned to the dust. God’s love for us extends beyond the grave and because of that love, our hearts must respond. Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” We are encouraged to be intentional the next few weeks and even beyond, to spend some time with God in some very meaningful ways. Let God’s Spirit reside with you daily in times of conversation and silence. Do something different this Lent that you have never done before; something that brings vividly to mind God’s gift of life (a daily stroll on the beach, a quiet moment in the sun, a cup of tea and focused breathing).
Let your piety this season be not a burden of self debasing, or an outward show for others to see. Merely, let this Lent be a time for prayer, introspection, contrition, study, and acknowledgement of the message of pardon and absolution we have in Christ. In other words, let your actions be a reflection of your heart, which is filled with a deep longing and love for Christ.