February 10, 2016 – Ash Wednesday
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Do you know what it’s like to sit down at a piano lesson and play through the piece that you have been working on for weeks and have your teacher look at you and say, “You didn’t practice that a single time this week, did you?” Although I enjoyed playing the piano, I hated practicing, and my instructor knew it. Thus, he knew that there was no future in piano for me. It’s funny how, even though a week passes by, you don’t get any better unless you practice.
Not everyone likes practicing. In fact, hardly anyone does. Unless you’re doing something you really love, practicing isn’t a lot of fun. Only when you’ve found your heart’s true passion does practice seem less like a chore and more like a gift. Even Foster, who comes to church six days a week to practice the organ and surely would have given it up a long time ago if he didn’t really love it, has moments when he doesn’t want to practice. We all do. You might remember Allen Iverson, the former NBA phenom, who, when asked about his practice habits at a press conference after the 76’ers were eliminated from the playoffs, replied over and over (22 times, in fact), “We’re talking about practice, man. Not the game—practice.” It turned out that he was inebriated during that interview, but he still got an understanding chuckle from the press: we’re talking about practice, man. If it’s hard to get an NBA all-star to enjoy hours of reps on the practice court, imagine, then, how hard it is to get people in a busy and demanding world to set aside time to practice their faith.
“Practice,” Jesus says. Actually, he says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others,” but, when I hear those words on Ash Wednesday, I am reminded that so much of what we do as Christians depends upon practice. Think about all that Jesus says in this gospel lesson: “Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you…But…do not [even] let your right hand know what your left hand is doing…Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites…[but] go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret…And whenever you fast, do not look dismal…But…put oil on your head and wash your face…” All of that takes practice.
How do we get good at those things? More importantly, how do we learn to enjoy them? How do we get past the mundane repetition of showing up and saying our prayers and dropping a check in the offering plate? How can the practice of our faith become life-giving—something we’re passionate about? I think that Lent is the perfect time to discover how practicing our piety with a new objective in mind can transform it from obligatory drudgery to a joyful endeavor.
Yes, yes—I said “joyful.” I know this is Lent, and I know that all of us think that this is supposed to be a season of unbearable depression. (Just ask Foster.) It’s all about “lamenting our wickedness” and saying that we’re sorry for our sins. But repentance takes practice. And practice makes perfect. And perfect repentance is actually a very joyful thing, indeed. Here’s what I mean.
If this is the first time that you’ve come to church in a while, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that today is terrible. In this service, we spend most of the time on our knees, telling God that we’re sorry for what we’ve done (and even for what we haven’t done). No one would fault you for thinking that, whoever that God fellow is, he’s the kind of entity that insists that we, his wicked subjects, wallow in our own misery and shame (or at that least pretend to for an hour or so). That’s no surprise because that’s what most religious types tell us. It’s what the secular world tells us, too. So-called Christians around the world tell us that we are bad, and, if we want God to love us, we’d better say we’re sorry and sound like we mean it. Society teaches us that people who do bad things should be punished, and people who stay on the straight and narrow should be rewarded and emulated. And the result is a terrible and inescapable trap that says that God will only love you if you’re good and that, if you’re bad, you’d better make up for it or else you’ll go to hell. But guess what? You can’t ever make up for it. You can’t stay on the right path. You’ll always screw up again. And then what—more misery? No, thank you.
As we prayed in the opening collect, God hates nothing that he has made. I believe that with all of my heart. I believe that each and every one of us is totally and completely and limitlessly loved by God in ways we cannot even imagine. We are beloved. That’s what Jesus is all about. Jesus came to say that even the worst sinners among us are chosen by God to be his children—his sons and daughters. He shows the world that, no matter how terrible you have been and no matter how terrible you will be, God still loves you exactly the same. There is no sin, no wickedness, no mistake that you could ever make that could change that. God’s love is unbreakable. But that’s where today gets tricky.
If God loves us the same no matter what, why do we bother falling on our knees and confessing to him that we keep screwing it all up? Why do we fast? Why do we pray? Why do we bother to come to church—on today, of all days? If God loves us whether we’re sorry or not, why be sorry at all? Why? Because we need repentance. God doesn’t need us to be sorry. (God doesn’t need anything.) But, if we are going to appreciate the reality of his unconditional love, we cannot take it for granted. We must, instead, plumb the depths of our moral failure so that we can see just how bottomless God’s love really is. Repentance isn’t for God; it’s for us. And discovering that truth takes practice.
The word repentance doesn’t mean saying that you’re sorry. It means turning around. It means adopting a new life. It means changing direction. And that takes practice. We do those things—almsgiving, prayer, and fasting—not to make God love us but so that we will know God’s love. Those things? Those habits? That’s repentance. Learning to do them the way Jesus taught us—not for show but so that our hearts might conform to the unchangeable truth of God’s unbreakable love—that takes practice. You can’t learn all of that in one day. It takes time. It takes time for a life of faith to take hold in our hearts. It takes practice to learn that we do all of this not to achieve God’s love but to celebrate the love that he already has for us. Perfect repentance takes practice, but the joy that come with it is totally worth it.