An Ash Wednesday sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on February 17, 2010
Ash Wednesday sermon
Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 4:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
What are you giving up for Lent?
It has become fashionable in recent years to speak not of “giving something up” for Lent, but rather of “taking something on.” Chocolate, after all, is really a good thing – why would you want to give it up?! Let’s do something good! Go to the gym more regularly! Join a study group! Perhaps even read the Bible daily, or set the alarm a little earlier to get up and pray!
Don’t focus on the negative – focus on the positive! Don’t give something up – take something on!
How very… well… American of us!
We have a habit in our culture, don’t we, of thinking that busier is better. Activity has an inherent value in itself. Staying busy absolves all sins. Busyness is self-justifying. We trot out our calendars to prove our worth. Saying how busy we are provides the automatic response to the question of whether life is going well or not.
We schedule our kids’ lives as rigorously as we schedule our own, because we’ve come to believe that the busier they are, the less trouble they’ll get into. And the busier they are the more other people will see how wonderful and how worthy they are.
Of all the sins one can name, sloth, perhaps is the one most despised in our culture. Doing less or having less are, in our minds, almost always negative. Why then would we want to give something up, when we could take something on?
The intent, of course, may be honorable. Instead of beating ourselves up about what wretched sinners we are, bewailing our manifold sins and wickedness, focusing on all the things we have done and things we have not done that have caused us to err and stray from God’s ways, why not DO something instead?! Pray, read, study, serve – these are all good things! Put them on the to-do list!
Doing these things can, of course, be good for the soul, and I certainly do not want to make light of them – unless they, too, become just another thing on the list of things to do. But I would like us to take another look at the whole idea of “giving something up” for Lent. And I’m not talking about… chocolate – unless chocolate is a particularly ugly sin in your life. I’m talking about giving up things that are much more difficult to give up than chocolate.
I’m talking about things like busyness itself, or privilege, or giving up our assumptions about people or things.
Let’s start with busyness. I know it is easier said than done, but Lent is a good time for us to examine how much of what we do is really important. I mean REALLY important. How many of the things that you put on your to-do list are, after all, truly life-giving? Some, of course, feel necessary – like paying the bills, or buying the groceries, or taking out the trash – even if they don’t always feel especially life-giving. And yes, that’s just part of life. But a whole lot of our “busyness” is more like a perpetual state of distraction. It’s a kind of restlessness – an inability to sit still and to focus. What most of us could really use is a nice vacation from ourselves!
Have you ever slowed down enough to realize that underneath all the activity is a persistent buzz that is always there, and the only way to keep from hearing it or feeling it is just to stay busy?!
Why not give up busyness for Lent this year? Turn the television off. Turn the computer off. Find a quiet time and place – and give yourself a vacation from yourself. Give yourself just thirty minutes to sit in God’s presence. Okay, 10 minutes! Take whatever time you can each day to step outside the rat race, suspend your normal compulsion to be busy, and simply rest in God’s presence. You don’t need to say a word. Yes, your mind may race a thousand miles an hour at first – but let yourself sink into the experience. Go down to a deep place within you where God is waiting to meet you.
I think this is what Jesus was talking about when he said, “…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.” Find a secret place with God this Lent. You just might find that you really like it, and won’t want to stop when Lent is over! It will help put all that other stuff you do in perspective.
What’s another thing we might want to give up for Lent? How about privilege? Why not try giving up some privilege you enjoy this Lent? Most of the time, we walk around not really realizing what privileged people we are. Part of what makes us privileged is that we don’t have to think about the things that people who do not enjoy a particular privilege do. We take things for granted. We are privileged in different ways, and very often a privilege we enjoy comes at someone else’s expense. So, looking at the ways in which we are privileged is a really important thing to do. We can talk about all the different ways our lives are privileged because of gender, or race, or class, or economics, or family background or a hundred other criteria. But we all find ourselves privileged in one way or another relative to someone. What is that for you? And what might you do to give up some of your privilege this Lent? It just might be an experience of learning to walk in another person’s shoes, and finding out something about yourself that you would never have known if you had not looked your own privilege squarely in the face.
This past Sunday I had lunch with two African men. I listened to them talk about what it had been like for them to grow up in Africa, in two different countries, one in a refugee camp. I listened to them talk about the scarcity of good food and clean water, of walking miles and miles to school with no shoes, or playing with a soccer ball made of rags tied together. They told stories and laughed and joked about things that for them growing up seemed normal because it’s all they knew. For me, it was a startling reminder of how privileged we are just to have food on our tables, and shoes on our feet.
Fasting is one of the ways that Christians have always used to confront the reality of hunger, physical, spiritual or otherwise. We who are used to eating whenever the first pangs of hunger begin – or just as likely before they even begin – can learn a lot about our privileged place in the world through fasting. I’ll admit to you that fasting has never been easy for me. I avoid it, because I love to eat. I feel entitled to eat. I can tell myself that eating three square meals a day is a healthy thing to do. I can convince myself that doing otherwise is unhealthy. And yet, I’m in little danger of doing any serious damage to myself by missing a meal – or two – or three. And what I feel when I do makes me so much more aware of what so many people in the world live with day in and day out – people just like us, except they don’t enjoy the same privileges.
Jesus said, “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… But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may not be seen by others, but by your father who is in heaven.” In other words, don’t act like giving up a little bit of food is going to kill you. It’s the way far too many people live every day. Joining them for a day or part of a day will make us more compassionate people.
Giving something up, whether it be something physical like alcohol or chocolate or some other vice, or something less tangible like our addictions to busyness or privilege, is a way of taking stock, looking ourselves in the eye, and let knowing and confessing the truth about ourselves set us free. That’s what Lent is really all about. It truly is the path to the resurrected life!