Sermon :: Ash Wednesday – March 1, 2017
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“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.
2“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
16“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
We are entering a new time in the church year. We are entering on a new journey together. We are encountering new and unsure waters.
I say this knowing, of course, that many of you have taken this journey together before. You’ve heard the familiar words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.” You’ve prayed the prayer of Jesus dozens, hundreds, thousands of times. You’ve traveled this road from Ash Wednesday to Resurrection Sunday before. This, it seems, could be an old feeling thing.
In a way, the old can comfort us, warm us, help us to feel relaxed and certain. Especially in times like ours, a little familiarity is a welcomed thing. But let’s not pretend that every year is the same old thing. Specifically, let’s not treat this year like it’s the same as the last year. Much has happened in the last year. We, as individuals and as a community, have changed this year. We are studying the Lord’s Prayer this year and, while the speakers and subjects will change each week, one thing should remain constant; we will experience this season of Lent and this prayer of Jesus differently in this year because we are different this year.
As a way to externalize this thing, I propose that we do something a little different during this season of Lent. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, I invite us to take on the orans position of prayer. This position is a very open position and can capture a lot of emotions – the awe of a mountain top, the agony of grief, the dependence of a child, and the joy of a moment. This is a position of prayer as ancient as the Bible itself. Paintings in the very first Christian churches and Hebrew synagogues depict people praying in this position – arms raised, head held high, open to receive the Spirit of God. It will feel weird to us, I’m sure; it won’t feel normal, but this is no normal prayer we pray every week.
So let’s start at the very beginning (it’s a very good place to start), and let’s take a look at what we are saying. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name.” A more modern reading might be to say, “Our Father in heaven, your name is holy.” Or even, “make your name holy.” First, we claim God as not just some unknown deity, but as one who knows us as a parent knows a child. But we have to be careful about the “name it and claim it” action here. God is our father because God makes it so, because God calls us, attracts us, draws us in, not because we have earned it by any means of our own. My kids are not my kids because they have earned their way into my heart – they could have been born to anybody – but they are my kids because I claim them.
Secondly, establishing that God is our Father in heaven, we ask that God’s name be holy. But I want us to understand something; just as God is our Father without our work, God’s name is holy without our work. God is holy. Period. And what does holy mean? It means set apart, different, and good. What we ask then, is not that God’s name be made holy, but that we would recognize it in our lives.
And this is a difficult task, isn’t it? It’s one thing to come to church and see God as holy, as loving, as a Father, but it’s another thing all together to see God like this in the midst of our daily lives. What does it mean to see God as holy in the midst of our daily struggles – grief, anger, loneliness, abuse, divorce, sickness, poverty – and what would it look like? This is much more complex and dynamic that how we see it here or when we are happy, joyful, laughing, or content. How it looks will be different for all of us depending on who you are, where you are, and what is happening around you.
Today, for example, on Ash Wednesday, we are taking time to recognize God’s holiness and our brokenness. The ashes we’ll be imposing in a short while are an external sign of our inward struggle – our struggle to live holy lives, our struggle with our own brokenness, our own mortality, our own inability to recognize God’s holiness and kingdom in the world around us.
But here’s something important to recognize right now. While we ask God’s name to be holy (or maybe better said, we ask that we would recognize God’s holiness), we are also united with God. We are, at the same time, separated by God’s holiness and our inability to match it and claimed as daughters and sons. We are broken and chosen. We are sick and cared for. We are imperfect but loved by a perfect God. When all else fails, when all our supports have washed away and we sit in ashes and dust, God the Father, God the Mother, God the Creator still draws us in.
So, we are drawn together on this journey of Lent. A journey of repentance, of changing our minds and changing our way, and of seeking God’s holiness – not because our holiness gets us closer to God, because God is calling us and sending us. We journey together because we believe that God has come to you, just as you are, and is making you and all things new. We journey with Christ to the cross and, while doing so, we will raise our hands and pray the prayer that he taught us, and follow God through the valleys of Lent to the mountain top of the Resurrection. Amen.