Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
One of my favorite preachers of our tradition, the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, says that Ash Wednesday is the day when Christians get to attend their own funerals.
I think she’s right.
She translates it into the language of our popular culture, but what she says, I think, truly captures the spirit of Ash Wednesday: it is a day of reckoning; a day of judgment. And that’s a lot of what we’re acting out in the funerals we offer for our loved ones. In recounting their lives of service, devotion, and love, we are asking God to look on them with mercy as they stand before the great judgment seat of Christ.
On Ash Wednesday we put ourselves before the great judgment seat of Christ. We lay our lives open before God, and there is no response more appropriate in the face of such honesty than to beg for mercy.
We can fool each other, but we can’t fool God.
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”
There’s a degree to which we can be tempted into performing our piety for it to be celebrated by others because we fear it is insufficient to be celebrated by God. We, more than any other, know our own inadequacies, so we try to wish them away. We wish our inadequacies away through our performance. But performance, on its own, always fails. It will always leave us empty. Only true repentance – the turning of our hearts – will fill us.
There is a lust in our culture for easy answers. But our faith is not easy. We see that in the text for today.
There’s something that seems almost sinister in the faith we are called to practice as it is expressed in the Gospel lesson for today. We learn that even righteous acts can be stumbling blocks to righteousness.
We are certainly called to give alms, and to pray, and to fast. But almsgiving, prayer, and fasting aren’t enough in and of themselves. Righteousness, in the sight of God, cannot be reduced to a series of check boxes – a “to-do list”. They must be done with a willing heart that seeks not its own reward.
There is a difference between acts of righteousness and righteousness itself.
In Lent we are invited into a season of self-examination. Disciplines of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting may well be tools to aid us in that self-examination, but they should not be confused for the fruits of self-examination. They may serve for us as paths to righteousness to the degree that they aid us in practicing true repentance – in turning our hearts ever more toward God – but they are not necessarily signs of righteousness in themselves.
This is what it means to keep “a holy Lent”.
As it now stretches before us, it may seem to be a pretty long road. But it ends with new life – just as our disciplines of repentance always do. Amen.