Ash Wednesday Homily

You can listen to today’s homily on the Saint Paul’s Website or read it here.

“Take heed!  Watch out!  Beware! Give some extra thought about practicing your piety before others.”  These words from Jesus that we hear every Ash Wednesday took on real meaning for Cassie and me back in 2006.  Ash Wednesday fell on the First of March that year, our third wedding anniversary.  I was in Seminary, serving at a parish in Potomac, MD and we planned to have dinner on our way home after the 6pm Ash Wednesday Liturgy – at an Indian restaurant.  You might not know this, but in Indian culture, many women wear a Bindi on their foreheads. The Bindi is a red dot worn to represent the third eye, one that sees spiritual things that are beyond ordinary sight.  We had a long conversation in the car on the way to dinner.  Should we keep the black smudge on our foreheads or not?  Jesus told us to beware about practicing our piety before others.  Would our dinner hosts think we were poking fun at their culture?  Would they even notice or care?  Ultimately, we decided to rub the black smudges off our foreheads, knowing that the true work of repentance in Lent happens on the inside.

In just a few minutes, Father Keith will invite us all, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent.  Over the next forty plus six days, we’ll take on the challenge of sanctification, the work of becoming more in line with the will of God for our lives and for the world God created.  This work is not to be done in showy ways.  If you’re giving up Facebook for Lent, maybe just disappear, don’t change your profile picture to say, “I’m off Facebook for Lent because I’m holier than you are.”  If you’re going to fast on Fridays, don’t spend the day complaining about how hungry you are because you’re fasting, unlike the rest of us wretched sinners who insist on eating delicious food.  If you are taking on reading the Bible or praying  the Daily Office, you can probably do it without interspersing, “While I was reading Leviticus this morning” or “During Morning Prayer, which I read every day, you know…”  The work of a holy Lent is intended to strengthen our relationship with God, not make us the annoyance of our fellow human beings.

In the Episcopal tradition, we are invited to take part in a holy Lent in three ways: self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.  The first thing you’ll notice is that these are strung together by the word “and” not by an “or.”  These three observances, when combined, offer the full expression of the work of a holy Lent.  First comes self-examination and repentance.  I think they are listed first because it is the part we are least likely to do.  While most of us are our own toughest critics, it usually has to do with our weight or our work or our pocketbooks.  Rarely do we take the time to take honest stock of whether or not our lives are being lived in accordance with the will of God.  The questions we need to be asking this Lent are more like: How am I doing at loving my neighbor?  What about loving God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength?  What areas of my life need to be purged or cleansed – what do I need to change – in order to follow God’s will?

Second on the list is prayer, fasting, and self-denial.  This is probably the most popular Lenten observance: giving something up for Lent is still a strong cultural phenomenon.  You’ll note that in our Prayer Book, it isn’t just about giving something up for the sake of giving something up, but rather prayer is tied in with the other two.  The goal of our fasting is to make us better able to focus on our relationship with God.  If chocolate or wine take away from your prayer time, then by all means give them up, but I think the intent of this practice in our hyper-connected-an-iPhone-in-every-hand-and-a-television-in-every-waiting-room culture is less about losing weight or quitting smoking and more about turning our attention toward the Father.  Maybe instead of reading that Young Adult Vampire novel for an hour every night, you can spend 15 minutes in prayer.  Or log off Facebook and use the time you’d spend getting angry at political posts offering God thanks for the day that you’ve been given.  Or put your cell phone away when you get home from work and focus your attention on being thankful for the gifts that are right in front of you: family, friends, pets, Pat Sajak, you name it.

Finally, we have the invitation to read and meditate on God’s holy Word.  Daily Bible study is key to the observance of a Holy Lent.  You don’t have to read the whole Bible in the next 46 days.  The call is not just to read, but also to meditate.  Take small chunks and read them slowly, prayerfully listening for what God is saying through the scriptures.  The Gospel of Mark has something like 675 verses.  If you read and mediate on 15 verses a day, you’ll read the whole book by Easter.  Romans, the Mount Everest of the Bible, has only 433 verses: 10 a day will take you through the best theological text book you’ll ever read.  Living a holy Lent doesn’t have to be all consuming.  You don’t have to be like the ancient Celtic Christians who went neck deep in the North Sea and recited all 150 Psalms from memory.  You don’t need to lament and bewail your manifold sins every waking moment.  What you do have to do is be intentional about it.  Make the choice right now to accept the invitation of the observance of a holy Lent.  Set aside three 10 minute blocks each day.  Confess your sins from the day before each morning and ask God for forgiveness.  Give up watching the news over lunch and pray for your coworkers and family instead.  Read a few verses of Scripture and ask God to open your heart to his will for you before you go to bed each night.  Small actions, not big showy displays, are what the Lord desires.  He wants to be in a relationship with you, one that will change your life forever.  As with all relationships, it’ll start small, but with some effort, it’ll bloom into something beautiful, and it all begins by accepting an invitation to a Holy Lent.  Amen.

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