Wednesday 18 February 2015
The gospel reading this evening comes from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. It lays out the three spiritual practices that Christians associate with the season of Lent: giving to the poor, praying, and fasting.
The one we think of first is probably fasting. What are we going to give up for Lent? Some Christians will completely give up one category of food for the whole of Lent. I’m going to give up candy this Lent, or I’m going to give up coffee this Lent, or I’m going to give up alcohol, or I’m going to give up meat. Other Christians will set a particular time in each week for a complete fast. John Wesley was fond of a complete daytime fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, a practice he derived from early Christian writings. No food whatsoever until sundown on Wednesdays and Fridays. Other Christians will fast from something other than food, perhaps television or social media. What you decided to fast from is between you and God.
We need to remember, though, that fasting is not a form of dieting. Lenten discipline is not about getting in shape for swimsuit season. Fasting is a spiritual practice. It is meant to focus our thoughts on God. It is a reminder within our daily lives of all of God’s good gifts, and of the proper use those gifts.
The second spiritual discipline is prayer. Christians often commit themselves to a particular discipline of prayer during Lent. I’m going to read from a daily devotional every morning before I start the day. Or, I’m going to pray three psalms each night before I go to bed. Or, I’m to take thirty minutes each day at lunch time for silent meditation. Or, I’m going to take a walk each day and spend it giving thanks to God for all the good things I see. Again, which discipline of prayer you choose is between you and God.
But it is important to commit to something, usually something that you will do the same time each day. It’s a way of growing closer in our relationship with God, of cultivating mindfulness, thankfulness, and responsiveness to God.
The third spiritual discipline of Lent is giving, specifically giving to the poor. This might mean supporting the FISH Food Bank or the Hood River Warmer Shelter, not only with money but also with volunteer time. It might mean giving through the United Methodist Committee on Relief or Lutheran World Relief to fight hunger, poverty, injustice, and disease around the world. It might mean preparing yourself ahead of time so that you have something to offer the persons you encounter on the street or by the side of the road. Christians sometimes think of the practices of giving and prayer as taking something on for Lent.
Having this reading from Matthew on Ash Wednesday, though, has always struck me as a bit strange. On the one day of the year that we smear ashes on our foreheads, why would we choose the passage where Jesus says, “When you fast, don’t disfigure your faces like the hypocrites.” That is a very odd juxtaposition. And it is almost as if Jesus is discouraging fasting, prayer, and giving rather than encouraging them.
But that’s not quite right, either. Jesus does introduce all three practices with the word “whenever.” Whenever you give. Whenever you pray. Whenever you fast. Jesus takes for granted that his followers will be engaging these practices, that they won’t have to be convinced. What Jesus is doing here is warning us not to do them as practice in self-congratulation. Don’t show off that you are giving, or that you are praying, or that you are fasting. It’s not about showing off to everyone else how disciplined or righteous or holy you are. But even more than that, it’s not about showing up to yourself. “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” Jesus is saying that spiritual practice is not about convincing ourselves of how good we are. It’s not about achieving something or making ourselves better, it’s about turning toward God.
In a few minutes, we are going to confess our sins, and we are going to receive the sign of the cross in ashes on our foreheads. We do this together in community, not to prove to each other or the outside world that we are spiritual virtuosos. We are not marking our faces to make ourselves look emaciated so that people will be impressed by how much we have been fasting. We do it together, at the beginning of Lent, as a sign of our willingness to take a first step. We do it as a sign of our penitence and our mortality. We do it as a seal of our promise. If we’re doing it so that other people will praise us, Jesus says, then we shouldn’t expect any praise from God. Instead, we do it in order to turn toward God. We do it as a tactile expression of prayer. We do it to remind ourselves of who we are, and whose we are. Thanks be to God.