February 14, 2018 Ash Wednesday


Joel 2:1–2, 12–17, Psalm 103:8–14, 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10, Matthew 6:1–6, 16–21

The Rev’d Dr. Jeffrey S. F. Nelson+

In the name of Jesus, the Lamb of God. Amen.

Ours is a public faith, meant to be lived in the light for all to see. Just as Jesus shined the light of God’s love into the shadows of the world, so we, as followers of Jesus are called to shine with the love of God in the world. Every part of our lives from the very public to the very private are to be infused with the light of God. Repentance, then, to which we are called during Lent particularly, but in our faith journey generally, is about moving out from the shadows of our lives in order to live fully in the light. Everything, from our speech, to our relationships, to our work, to our political views must be subject to the light, to the way of God in the world.

Now, some might say that Jesus calls us instead not to make a show of our faith. After all, did Jesus not say in the Gospel reading for today, “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”? “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you,” Jesus tells us. Rather, “when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” He goes on, “[W]henever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret,” and, “when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face so that your fasting may be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret.” Don’t these passages of scripture suggest that our faith should be private so as to not make a spectacle of ourselves?

If this is true then it follows that most of what we do here is wrong-headed. In a couple of minutes, we will file up and receive ashes on our foreheads, a very public display of piety. If our faith is a secret, why would we do that? In fact, why gather for public worship at all as we do multiple times a week here? Why gather for prayer? Why gather for study? Why reach out to the poor and marginalized in the name of Jesus as we do every Wednesday in this place? Why fight for justice and peace in our world as Martin Luther King, Jr. did for the civil rights of African Americans in the 1960s, or as people of faith are doing now on behalf of LBGT persons in our land? Shouldn’t we do what we do in the privacy of our homes and hearts? Otherwise it’s all just a show, right?

In this passage, Jesus is not telling us to keep our faith a secret, but to check our motivations for doing what we do. Why do we give alms? Why do we pray? Why do we fast? Let’s add to the list. Why do we publicly put ashes on our foreheads? Why do we worship? Why do we study? Why do we serve others? Why do we strive for peace and justice? Is it to show what pious people we are, or is it to help us love more deeply in this world and extend love more deeply into the world? Isn’t that finally what our faith is to be about—to love as Jesus loved in order to make love more palpable in this world, and all without seeking thanks or kudos or recognition? Aren’t we to give our praise to God and pray for the world; aren’t we to learn more deeply the ways of God in order to live them more deeply in the world; aren’t we to give ourselves away for the sake of others, to speak truth to power, to speak the truth in love to a wayward friend; aren’t we to receive the truth when we are at fault or in error; aren’t we to seek repentance and put our trust completely in God? The content of the light of Christ is the love that infuses every part of our beings, and this love is what we are called to shine with and reflect into the world.

Now love is not something we can do in the privacy of our homes. Love is about relationship, with God and with our neighbor. Love finds its fulfillment only in relationship, and this means that our faith cannot be a private, secret affair, but must be very public. And so we are back where we began. Today we begin holy Lent and I implore you to examine your lives in light of the call to love. Where in your lives are you still living in the shadows and thus not loving as you are called to do? Are your political views hidden behind the ideology of one or the other political party regardless of whether or not they reflect the light of Christ? Come out from the shadows. Are your relationships with spouses, family, friends, or lovers lived openly so that the world can see the way of God in them, or are you hiding them away for fear or shame, or because they reflect other than the light of Christ? Come out from the shadows. Is our speech loving and supportive and life-giving; is our way of communicating honest and open and forthright? Or do we speak and act in subversive ways that do not build up but tear down? Come out from the shadows. Do we see justice in our land, our state, our community and seek to stand with those unjustly treated? Or do we hold our peace for fear of backlash or conflict? Come out from the shadows. In this Lent, make it your discipline to submit everything in your lives, from the very public to the very private, to the light of Christ. If any part of your life repels that Light and retreats further into the shadows, this may be a good indication of something that needs your time and attention; this may be a place where, in secret between you and God, you ask serious questions about your motivations. Do you do what you do for love, or for your own fulfillment, or happiness, or self-seeking, or self-service?

Jesus’ warning about public displays of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting were not calls to private faith, but to honest reflection concerning our motivations. Jesus is calling us to love more deeply. Amen.

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