Lent: Why We Do What We Do

Sermon by The Reverend Jodi Baron, Co-Rector, Ash Wednesday, Year A, March 1, 2017, Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

“Whenever you give alms, whenever you pray, whenever you fast, do so in secret, so that your practices may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Happy Ash Wednesday???? That was the greeting someone from a business downtown said to me this morning. Doesn’t really fit, right? But what do we say today? Happy anything? Not really. Not quite. I’m still working on that one…

When I was reading today’s lessons my mind returned to last month, when Christian and I invited the Vestry to join us for a day-long retreat in Frankfort. The main goals of the retreat were to pray together and get to know one another. And that we did. This is a fine group of people you have elected to lead this parish! They are serious about their responsibility as stewards to God and to this parish. We talked about a lot of things and made big steps with what work we wanted to tend to in 2017.

All of that was very good.

But the part I walked away with, the part that stood out most to me, was the reflection that ensued during an exercise we did; reflecting on first, the mission and purpose of Jesus and secondly, the mission and purpose of the Church.

When we asked ourselves, What was Jesus’ life for? Here are some of the things we came up with:

  • To be an example for us in how to live
  • To show us how much God yearns for us and for the wholeness of creation
  • To stand up against the tyrannical power
  • To speak for the disenfranchised, the poor
  • To call out how dead the religion had become, how it had become death to the widow, the poor, etc., how it had become more about rules than compassion.
  • To show us what justice looks like

Then we explored what we thought CHURCH was for:

  • Coffee Hour
  • Friendship & Community
  • To be a place of Sanctuary (as in safety)
  • A place of renewal, giving & sharing
  • A place to receive the sacraments
  • A place of learning

The last part of the exercise was to take the answers we came up with for the purpose of Jesus’ life and apply them to the purpose of Church.

The CHURCH is for:

  • To be an example for us in how to live
  • Sacrifice
  • To show us how much God yearns for us and for the wholeness of creation
  • Guidance
  • To stand up against a tyrannical power
  • To speak for the disenfranchised, the poor.
  • To show us what justice looks like

There was more, to be sure, but those were some of the biggies. We then turned our focus to how we could become more a place like the above, being strengthened and encouraged because of the place we know St. Philip’s is. How can we take what we love and how this place makes us feel and turn it into a springboard for being that in the world.

Which is why I think today’s lessons reminded me of that exercise. It brought us into a space of contemplating how we can live out Jesus’ ministry with each other, yes, but more importantly with the world.

Maybe you noticed, maybe not, but we are STILL, in today’s gospel, within the Sermon on the Mount! You thought our sermons could get long…hokey peets!

But watch what happened here: In this section, in particular, Jesus is addressing particular religious practices of righteousness and justice the Israelites had designated and Christians adopted: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. The practices Lent invites us to return to.

And practices, note, are not commandments, but rather the modality by which the meaning of the commandments can deepen.

The means by which we attain the goal of a closer walk with God.

They aren’t demanded but are very much expected.

It’s not an “if you decide this is your ‘thing’, Jodi, you can try this or try that.” This is a “Jodi, this is a gift to you to know me more fully, why are you trying to find a loophole to avoid me?” At least that’s how I hear it.

This is a “Jodi, this is a gift to you to know me more fully, why are you trying to find a loophole to avoid me?” At least that’s how I hear it.

At least that’s how I hear it.

And where does Jesus get all these fancy ideas?

Jesus, in these few verses in Matthew, is quoting a whole lotta scripture. The Scripture that he, himself, read, marked and inwardly digested…

Scripture which would have been the Hebrew text, our Old Testament.

Matthew, it has been said, was “steeped” in scripture, not only lifting the direct quotes Jesus had of scripture, but the annotations embedded within the story, in the form of paraphrases, allusions, and imagery. Some scholars, if they cross reference strictly each of the nods toward specific texts, have counted nearly 300 references to passages in the Old Testament, from 14 traceable books; most of which were taken from the Psalms, Isaiah, and Deuteronomy.

The mind of Jesus, what I find, was steeped in God’s word to the Israelites.

To me, this is one of the deeper invitations of the season of Lent. We are invited, I think, to look deeper into what it means to be a Disciple of Jesus, to steep ourselves in God’s word.

To ask ourselves, what are the particular charisms of our tradition, of Christianity in general, and of our local church, that reveals who we could be if we dared to live a life patterned after the life and teachings of Jesus Christ our Lord?

To me, that is one of the main reasons why I look forward to the season of Lent.

In Lent, we slow down with the meaning of why we do what we do, how we do what we want to do, and what it’s all about.

The invitation the church offers in this season is deep but simple.

So simple.

Pray. Give Alms. Fast.

Just for 40 days.

This, I believe, is where we get the warrant to, liturgically, remember that we are dust and to dust, we shall return.

So make it count, right? Like we

Like we prayed earlier in the collect of the day: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness.

Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness.

In the economy of God’s kingdom, there is no distinction between what we do here on Sundays (or Wednesdays), together, and how we act personally, in regards to justice and love, with our neighbor. Justice in the ancient world was linked with Love. Always.

We have a deep calling to be love and justice to our world. Let us take that calling even deeper this season as we pray, give alms, and fast. Amen.