A Lenten Sacrifice (Ash Wednesday Homily)

“A Lenten Sacrifice”

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Ash Wednesday


“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, 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. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 

“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. But 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. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so 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; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.(NRSV)

          Lent. A time during which we focus on practices of personal and corporate devotion. When we reflect on our human frailties, on our brokenness. And we connect them to the events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.

One way to commit to a Lenten discipline is to offer it as a sacrifice that re-enacts the sacrifice of Jesus. And his sacrifice was not, as Richard Rohr likes to say, to change God’s mind about us so God could love us again. Any god who is so human as to be “unable” to love, is a god created in human image. The word for that kind of god is an idol.

The sacrifice of Jesus was about changing our minds about God, about confronting the fullness of God’s overwhelming grace and mercy. Jesus’ sacrifice began long before his arrest in Gethsemane. It began with his surrender to a life of such intimate and authentic union with God that he and God were truly one. Belonging so perfectly to God, Jesus never belonged to temple or governmental authorities. And in a world littered with so many temptations to and excuses for living wastefully, fearfully, violently, or in any other way selfishly, it is an exquisitely rare occurrence to encounter someone willing, on behalf of others, to lay all else aside in order to live as one through whom the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of the universe is immediately present.

Jesus makes even aspiring to that kind of union difficult when he says that piety—including almsgiving, prayer, fasting, humility—is most effectively practiced under the radar. The reason that makes things difficult is that his teaching can allow some of us to hear him implying that one’s faith is a completely private matter. All one has to do, however, is read the gospels to know that Jesus’ own life and living reveals the very visible, communal, and even political nature of the Christian faith.

         And that’s the point of union, of relationship, with God. It is, at the same time, an interior discipline of and an outward witness to love. The trick is practicing one’s faith in such a way that it directs attention to God rather than calling attention to oneself. That, I think, is what Jesus is talking about.

Lent, then, is not a time of confessing all our shortcomings so much as it is a time of deliberate cooperation with the Spirit’s ongoing restoration our inner and outer selves. So, to repent doesn’t mean shamefully confessing our sins. It means gratefully turning ourselves toward God, toward neighbor, and toward all of Creation.

         In Matthew 6, Jesus is reminding his listeners that discretion is crucial to a healthy spiritual practice, because to “do religion” in a way that draws more attention to self than to God almost inevitably turns us into competitors.

Who gives more?

Who fasts more?

Who prays more?

Who loves God more?

         Wouldn’t a competitive and judgmental spirit be a proper thing to sacrifice for Lent?

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