A sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018
Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey
But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret.
Some of you have probably noticed that in a couple of minutes after hearing this from Jesus, we are all going to have ashes spread on our faces. Then many of us will go out and people will see that we are Christians fasting on Ash Wednesday. Sometimes they notice Christians observing this fast by having elaborate meals at the best restaurants. Every once in a while someone asks me about this: “How can I be sure that I am doing this completely right? I want to be sure that I am doing what God wants me to.” The short answer to that is, you can’t, you aren’t, and you won’t. You can’t be sure that you are doing things completely right, you aren’t doing everything that God wants you to, and even when you convince yourself and those around you that you are doing everything you can possibly do, you will be fooling yourself.
Repentance is not about doing everything right: It is about living in God’s mercy. Our lives are a gift, and our ability to do good for others is the result of God’s generosity to us. As our psalm says, “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so is his mercy great upon those who fear him.”
In the gospel, Jesus calls our attention to the behavior of the religious hypocrites. You know that you’ve seen people like those Jesus is describing. Folks who cover up meanness and selfishness with a great show of piety. We know how such hypocrisy can hurt. It hurts us when others are mean and cover it up with sanctimoniousness. We can see how this hurts others, and we know perceptions about church people behaving this way – right or wrong – are among the reasons why people stay away from the church in increasing numbers. It’s not difficult to see faults like this in others – the question is whether we can see it in ourselves.
Notice that Jesus isn’t naming names here. Jesus is talking to those who might be his disciples; he’s talking to us. What is easy to see in others, is very difficult to see in ourselves. It is typical of the human condition be more generous toward ourselves than toward others. Unless, of course, we are more grandiose even in our hard feelings toward ourselves and judge ourselves as so much worse.
But that’s not the message of Ash Wednesday. The message is: We live in God’s mercy. We live in the joy of God’s generosity.
Thus we are called to reflection today on God’s goodness and how we might live more abundantly in that goodness. In this world, we know that people hurt one another and cause and allow suffering. But that’s often an occasion to reflect—is there some way in which my own behavior causes someone else to stumble? Or feel rejected? Or less than fully God’s precious creature? This kind of examination isn’t a way to feel bad about something. Quite the opposite. It is a time to see opportunities to be more welcoming, more affirming, more forgiving.
Sometimes the faults that we see in ourselves gives us a bit of a sense of humor about similar faults in others. Thirty years ago I was training in the Princeton University Library to enter and modify records into their computer system. I would be perturbed when I discovered errors. You could tell who had made them, because their initials were on the record. How could they be so careless? A few months in, I found mistakes and opened up the record, and behold, there were my initials! After a number of these, I adopted a more forgiving view. As we live life and go through many things, it’s possible to be more accepting of faults and missteps in others, recognizing that we have our own faults and make mistakes.
The God of mercy calls us to a life of mercy. The season of Lent is a season of God’s mercy, a season of seeing possibilities to be merciful and to be encouraging. The way of this world is so often to be competitive and to find ways to be “one up” on others, to pretend to be perfect or better than others, and without need of mercy or the need to be merciful. But we belong to Jesus, we are not of that world, or at least, we are not owned by that world. The great gift is God’s mercy—who would turn away from that, just to be right? Jesus says,
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
That treasure is the treasure of mercy. The merciful God giving us the opportunity to be merciful and compassionate people. If you think back a couple of weeks, when we gathered in the parish hall, the very things that emerged from your conversations, between twos and at your tables, that characterized why Calvary Church is important were that it is a place of welcome, acceptance, not judging, extending welcome to others, and joining together in the worship of God. These are characteristics of mercy, of being merciful people who have first known the merciful love of God. That is where our treasure is—our hearts are in God’s mercy and we see opportunities to live and grow in being merciful each day.