February 26, 2020 – Ash Wednesday
© 2020 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon will be available later. Video of the service can be seen here.
Jesus tells us to beware of practicing our piety before others in order to be seen by them—that we’re supposed to go into our room and pray in secret and wipe our faces clean before we walk out of church. But, if we’re hiding our piety from other people, how in the world are we going to impress them? What good is a Lenten discipline if I don’t get to tell everyone about it? Why bother coming to church on Ash Wednesday if I don’t get to enjoy the smug satisfaction of seeing people give me funny looks when they notice the smear of “dirt” on my forehead? Right as we begin our Lenten practices, Jesus tells us that we’re supposed to carry them out in secret, where only God can see what we’re doing, in order that, by foregoing any earthly reward, we might obtain in its place a heavenly treasure. Heaven forgive me for disagreeing with Jesus, but I think someone should tell him that it’s a lot harder to impress God than other people.
God hears everyone’s prayers. God knows when we’re focused and when we’re rambling. God recognizes when we really mean it and when we’re just going through the motions. God sees when we start our morning with the Daily Office and when we prefer to piddle around on Facebook. Do we really think that our spiritual disciplines, when stacked up against those of every religious person from across the globe, are supposed to earn us a reward in heaven? When we give up chocolate or meat for Lent, do we think that makes a difference to God? When we give money to charity, do we think that the same God who sees how much money we spend on Amazon is all that impressed when we give $50 to help those in need?
Lent isn’t supposed to be a season to renew our relationship with God by impressing God or one another. It’s a season to renew that relationship by being honest with ourselves and with God. Something happens when we go into our room and shut the door and sit alone—just us and our Creator. A new possibility for spiritual growth and renewal unfolds when we push away all of the distractions and all strip off all of the pretense and sit down with the one who knows us better than we know ourselves. Lent isn’t a time to put on a good show. It’s a time for spiritual deconstruction—a chance to be stripped down to the bare bones of our faith and remember who we really are so that, come Easter, God might put us back together again.
We fast to remember that we are mortal and yet sustained by the giver of all good things. We give alms to remember that we, too, survive only on the bountiful goodness of our maker. We pray not to fill the space between us and God with our own utterances but to make space and silence for God’s Spirit to speak in us and through us and thus beckon our hearts back into the heart of God. In every way, Lent is about giving up—the surrender, the yielding, the mortification of ourselves before God so that we might reconnect with the one who loves not the person we pretend to be but the person we really are.
Lent, therefore, is a season to live with dangerous honesty. It is a time to stop pretending and seek our true selves and to let that true self sit exposed before God. For our whole lives, we have been putting on layer after layer of pretense—so much so that we have forgotten that it is possible for God to love the real self inside of us. And so, this Lent, we go on the terrifying yet liberating journey back inside ourselves, into our room, behind shut doors, in order to encounter the one who comes and meets us in that scary and vulnerable silence—the one who sees us and knows us and loves us anyway.
These forty days are a chance for you to practice the spiritual art of allowing the inside of your life to shape the outside instead of trying to do it the other way around. You can’t make God love you any more no matter how beautiful and impressive your spiritual practices might be. And you can’t make God love you any less no matter how empty and pretentious they are. God already knows who you really are, and God loves you just the same anyway. No matter what, at your very core, you are a beloved child of God—the God who hates absolutely nothing that God has made. How will your Lenten journey be a return to that fundamental truth? What shape will your Lenten disciplines take if your spiritual practices aren’t an attempt to convince anyone that you are worthy of love but a reflection of your faith in the one who already loves the real you?