A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 14, 2018 (Ash Wednesday)
Well, this is romantic. Spending Valentine’s Day together; talking about death. The last time Ash Wednesday fell on February 14 was 1945. A year when the destruction of World War II was still fresh even as the euphoria of victory celebrations would soon spill into the streets. And here we are 73 years later again gathered on a day stereotypically set aside to both receive chocolate and to give up chocolate.
But, regardless of the date upon which it falls, Ash Wednesday has always been a day of paradox. We hear Jesus warn us about practicing our piety before others, and then we put ashes on our foreheads and practice our piety before others. We proclaim our own mortality by being reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return, and then we proclaim our share in Christ’s immortality through the Resurrection. We confess our sinfulness and the utter depravity of the human condition, and then we are assured of divine forgiveness.
This is a day of paradox, a day that points to a paradoxical faith. A faith where out of despair there is hope, out of grief there is joy, out of death there is life. A faith where we can be, as Paul writes, sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything; as dying and yet alive.
And we desperately need this paradoxical message of hope as we hear news coming out of Florida about yet another school shooting this afternoon. 17 dead was the last I heard, with images of a mother with a cross of ashes on her forehead crying out in agony being beamed all over the world. On a day we repent of our propensity for violence, our indifference to suffering, our blindness to injustice and cruelty.
Today we begin our journey into the depths of this paradox as we enter the wilderness of Lent. A journey that will take us to the cross, and the depths of despair; a journey that will culminate in the empty tomb, and the heights of exultation.
And into this paradox we hear Jesus speak about the interplay between exterior actions and interior motivations. This is the passage we hear every year on Ash Wednesday and it helps frame our own entrance into the season of Lent, this time of introspection and repentance.
Jesus holds up three pillars of the spiritual life — alms giving, prayer, and fasting. In Jesus’ day, these were the primary external ways you could tell someone was religious. They gave money to the poor, they prayed regularly, and they fasted at the appointed times. These are all things you could do quietly and without notice, but they are also things that can be done with a bit of fanfare. You could prove your great religiosity and bring honor upon yourself if you approached the alms basin when you knew people were looking; you could pray in public places where people would see you and comment upon your great piety; you could try to look as miserable as possible when you fasted so everyone knew just how devoted you were to your spiritual disciplines. Public alms giving, praying, and fasting were the ancient version of keeping up with the Joneses.
Now I know this seems a little out-of-synch with our own context. Most of us aren’t going to stand up in the middle of Legal Seafood and make a great show of saying grace before dinner to impress family, friend, and stranger. But maybe we like having a fancy car and pulling up in front of the restaurant. Maybe we like whipping out our platinum card when the bill comes, making a great gesture of our generosity. We make shows of ourselves in different ways but the principle is the same.
And just as on Valentine’s Day, it all gets back to the heart. For Jesus, it’s not about the heart-shaped box of chocolates but the interior work of the heart. It’s about the motivations that drive us. Do our actions honor God or do they draw attention to ourselves? Are they humble manifestations of service or are they intended to puff us up?
When there is integration between our actions and our motivations, our faith is in harmony. When there is a disconnect between what we do and what we feel, well, Jesus has a word for that: hypocrisy.
Now, we’re all hypocrites to some degree. To be human is to have mixed motives. When you put money into the tip jar at Starbucks, do you wait until the barista is looking so you “get credit” for your generosity? It’s only human to seek affirmation for a kind gesture, even if you insist that you don’t want any. There’s a reason alumni magazines and symphony programs list all their donors and there’s a reason we search for our names.
Jesus is warning us against the temptation of seeking validation from others. Of measuring our self-worth by what others think. None of that matters when we are being true to God. And Lent is a time to examine our motivations and the motives of our hearts. It is an opportunity to recalibrate and rethink and retool our inner most heart’s desires. It is a chance to open our hearts and renew our faith. It is a season to bring our actions and motivations into greater harmony.
And this is where Lent’s invitation to self-examination and repentance can bring our lives into greater harmony and bring us even closer in our relationship with God. You don’t need to prove your self-worth to God. You already have God’s approval. You are already affirmed and validated and deemed worthy. God sees your hypocrisy and still loves you. God sees your strivings and still encourages you. Lent is a season to allow God into your heart and in turn, give your heart over to God.
The ashes you will soon receive are not outward marks of piety but inward signs of your own mortality. They are a reminder of what matters. That life is short and that our primary calling is to love God and love neighbor with all our heart and mind and soul. That God has marked you for both death and eternal life. That you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever and also that you are dust and to dust you shall return. This is a day of paradox; but ultimately, whether or not it falls on Valentine’s Day, this is a day of love.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck