A homily for Ash Wednesday

Lenten Disciplines


Lections: Joel 2:1-2,12-17Psalm 103:8-142 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, and Matthew 6:1-6,16-21.


So, why would you deliberately put yourself in temptation’s way? Why would you choose to give something up knowing full well that giving it up was going to bother you? Over the years I have heard from people who have given something up for Lent and I have heard how the mighty have fallen. (Beware of chocolate.)

The Lenten disciplines are very old, and they come to us like a treasure from our ancestors

  • a way of bringing the spirit and soul to its rightful vigor
  • just as a good workout in the gym strengthens the muscles and clears the mind and
  • gives you a pretty good sense of how fit you are, or unfit you are.
  • A Lenten discipline gives us a glimpse in a spiritual mirror.

Most of us – unfortunately – have a distorted sense of our own willpower and a distorted sense of our sinful nature.

I know we avoid the word “sin” because it sounds so heinous, but the truth is

We make mistakes, or, we believe we’re doing the right thing but our circumstances make things not so clear, so if not an intentional mistake, then at least, an excusable thing, or, if not an excusable thing, then an understandable thing

  • that little bit of dishonesty on the tax return
  • that slightly indulged relationship with that person at work
  • that moment of ire with the children in the kitchen that feels so good for 30 seconds until we see that we’ve really nicked him with our words….. but we didn’t mean it, and – well, weren’t we right?
  • the way we stand in our own righteousness

The disciplines of Lent don’t really address these directly but they put up a peripheral mirror on the side, like that cascade of mirrors on the escalator between floors of department stores. By the time you get to the 2nd floor, you know you need something: a new dress, new make-up, a new jacket. It’s born of that sidelong glance. It’s that glance that delivers the message.

So it is, strangely enough, that the taking on of a Lenten discipline gives us a sidelong glance (putting aside the glass of wine, or the chocolate, or that extra douse of salt). This puts us, oddly enough, ever so much closer to our true nature.

You know, in the history of the church’s teaching on morality when we talk about the discipline of the body, we’ve focused so much on sex, as if that sex were the only thing that got us into trouble, leaving behind greed, gluttony, the anxiety to have, the anxiety to control, our lack of confidence that God will take care of us, our worrying ability to try and grasp everything into our own hands.

And, isn’t it funny that even those of us who are trying to be good – and let’s face it, you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t just such a person – so often we work so hard at polishing the wrong side of the glass.

We say, “this year, I’m going to work on X” Meanwhile, our wife, our husband, our friend is thinking, “gee, I wish she’d work on Y”. What about THAT?

When spiritual disciplines are carried out over 40 days with some faithfulness with some understanding that we’re likely to fail a little bit in order to draw our attention from the things we THINK are wrong with us more into the arena of what we’re actually doing: that is hurtful to ourselves, that is hurtful to the people we love, that is damaging or undermining to the communities in which we live.

Somehow, that little bit of extra strength we develop from these disciplines gives us the courage to look at what we’re really doing.

So, our prayer in Lent… I know it all sounds like, “I’m a mess. I’m sorry” but the prayer internally which precedes it – and it’s the internal prayer that is always so much more important – that prayer says: I need help, I will accept help, I’m sorry.

When we repent. When we TURN. It’s our way of saying, “Yes, I will accept help.” It’s not saying, “Yes, I can.” It’s saying, “Yes, I’m ready for some assistance. I know I can’t do this by myself.

And then…. let go. Let God act. Let the conversation begin. Having done that…. having taken up that little irritant of giving up the chocolate or the salt or the wine or the gossip or the worry (the mental habits are a good one to target) these things given up will become a little something to stub your toe on every day so that you remember the work that you’re really about this Lent: turning to God and letting God work.

“I said on Ash Wednesday I was going to take my relationship with God very seriously and very personally. And because today I’m dying for a Snickers Bar, I remember.”

We can be forgetful. That’s the problem. But a Lenten discipline is not as St. Matthew fears a matter of showing off our piety to others, but a way to remind ourselves. They work quietly in us, in whatever small way you choose:

  • like a token
  • there it is
  • that’s what I said I would do
  • And if I fail in it, I will admit that that has happened, understanding that God will forgive me.

God comes into this situation like the loving disciplinarian.  Not this teacher with a ruler but maybe more like my piano teacher, who, occasionally, I’d catch wincing at my mistakes, so someone who was WITH me in the process. God is with us in this process as a loving, forgiving, healing teacher and friend.

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