UPDATE: This sermon can be heard over on the Christ Church website.
One of the outreach ministries that I was most proud of during my time in Foley was the role Saint Paul’s played in Family Promise of Baldwin County. Family Promise is a part of the Interfaith Hospitality Network, a national network that began in New York and seeks to help homeless families get back on the path to stable living conditions. In Baldwin County, we were one of fourteen churches that opened our doors four weeks out of the year to host homeless families over night while their children attended school and parents worked or found jobs and learned how to make a budget, plan for the future, and save up enough for the deposits required to restart the housing search. For two weeks at a time, we would provide safe and private sleeping quarters, a hot dinner, and the makings for breakfast and lunch to as many as twenty people spread across four families. They would arrive on campus at about 5pm and leave often before the sun came up so that their kids could get to school on time.
Somewhere during the many years I made announcements to drum up volunteers and let people know that we had guests on campus, I realized a problem with my language. I would stand up on the Sunday Family Promise was scheduled to arrive and say something like, “when you see our guests on campus, please be sure to make them feel welcomed.” I realized at some point that making them feel welcomed really wasn’t what I was hoping for. No, what I really meant to say was “make sure you welcome them.” Notice the difference? Making someone feel welcomed is easily done superficially. A smile and a “hello” is enough to make someone “feel welcomed,” but to actually welcome a stranger takes a lot more work. It requires a change within ourselves. In order to welcome someone else into my space and my life means that I have to make room for them, for all of them, the good and the bad, and the many ways in which welcoming them will change me. More than making them simply feel welcomed, I hoped that they were welcomed fully into the life and ministry of Saint Paul’s.
I think that difference is what Jesus is trying to make clear in this difficult passage appointed for Ash Wednesday. As we prepare to put on an outward symbol of our piety, we hear Jesus clearly asking us to check our motivations. Do we put on the cross of ashes in order to feel like we have done the work of repentance? Do we keep these ashes on when we leave this holy place so that we can look like we are holy? Or, do the ashes mean something more? Jesus didn’t have Ash Wednesday to use as an example, but in his age, as in ours, there were plenty of religious practices that people could bend to their own devices.
“When you give alms,” Jesus says, “don’t give alms so that others can see how much you give and how generous you are. Don’t give alms so you can feel holy or seem compassionate. Give alms because God wants to bless the poor through your generosity. If you are giving in order to feel good about yourself, that’s all the reward you’ll get, but if you are giving in order to make a difference in the world, your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
“When you pray,” Jesus says, “don’t make it look like you are praying by standing in the marketplace wearing long, fancy robes and saying beautiful and flowery words, but pray as if your life depended on it. If you pray in order to feel good about yourself, that’s all the reward you’ll get, but if you pray in order to make a difference in the world, your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
“When you fast,” Jesus says, “don’t just make it look like you are fasting so that you can gain the respect of the crowd. Don’t fast so you can feel like you’ve done what you are supposed to do. Instead, actually fast, so that you can gain a deeper relationship with God. If you fast in order to feel good about yourself, that’s all the reward you’ll get, but if you fast in order to make a difference in the world, your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
“When you attend an Ash Wednesday service,” we might add, “don’t wear your ashes so others can see that you went to church and are therefore that much holier than they are. Wear your ashes as a reminder of your mortality, your sinfulness, and your total dependence on God. If you wear your ashes in order to feel good about yourself, that’s all the reward you’ll get, but if you wear these ashes in order to make a difference in yourself and a difference in the world; If you wear these ashes as a reminder that this Lent, and every day of your life, is a chance to join with God in the up-building of the Kingdom, then your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
It is too easy to make someone feel welcome or to make yourself feel holy. The harder work comes when we risk change by actually welcoming the stranger and engaging in the hard work of discipleship. As we begin this Lenten season of intentionality, don’t just look like you are fasting, but really fast, don’t just look penitential, but really repent, don’t just look like you are praying or reading the Bible, but really do it. It’s risky, scary even, to really take on these discipleship practices. They will change you. They will change how you see the world, but in taking that risk, you will find yourself closer to God, and I can assure you, there is no greater reward than that. This Lent, don’t settle for feeling holy, but rather, be holy. Amen.
 Nurya Love Parish, “Sunday’s Coming” Christian Century weekly email, 2/27/2017.