This is a sermon for Ash Wednesday, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is Matthew 6:1-21.
I suspect that, in some ways, Lent used to be easier centuries ago. When there were clear rules about fasting – what you could and couldn’t eat on which days – and tithing and the obligation to be in church. While observing the rules might have been onerous, as long as you did so, you could be pretty comfortable that you were doing Lent “right.”
We have a more difficult path to navigate. We have no rules, but lots of options. Will you fast? Will you give extra to charity? Will you pray more? And if you do so, how will you decide how to structure that, and how much is enough? It’s not easy or straight forward.
The temptation for me is to see Lent as a kind of a time for self-improvement. So we fast in Lent? Ok… let me structure a good weight-loss diet, and follow that, and that way I can fast and lose weight all at the same time. Win-win!
But to do that would be to miss the point. Because – as the gospel reading reminds us – we don’t do these things for external rewards (not even the reward of dropping a dress size). This is supposed to be a time of re-focussing on our relationship with God. And all the other things are only worth doing, to the extent that they help us deepen that relationship.
What that looks like for each of us will be different. Which is why, when you look at the little leaflet outlining the things planned for Lent and Easter in our two parishes, the vicar and I have gone to a great deal of effort to put together a very diverse programme. We don’t for a second imagine that anyone will want to do everything; but we hope that whether it’s a quiet afternoon or a social justice walk or a study group, there will be something for everyone. So I do recommend having a careful and prayerful read of the leaflet and considering which of those things might be helpful to you.
And there are other things not in the booklet too. The gospel reading talked about prayer and fasting and giving money; all of those things can have their place. And let me say, too, that it’s perfectly okay if you sort of think you might quite like to try praying more, or fasting, but you don’t really know where to start or how to do it. We aren’t born knowing these things instinctively; but if you’d like help to think about them maybe talk to me, or some other wise and Godly person who can help you think through how to use those things, and what might be nurturing for you. And I might mention too, that while it’s never been compulsory for Anglicans, we do also have as part of our tradition the possibility of private confession; so if there’s some sense of sin that is bothering you, that’s also something about which we can have a conversation. Not that I expect it of anyone, but I think it’s worth knowing that like all of these other things, it’s an option that’s open to each of us.
So there’s a rich range of options for this time of focus on deepening relationship with God.
But having said all of that, I want to think for a few minutes about that relationship – between each of us and God – and how we approach it.
In a short while, we are going to begin our Lenten observances with the invitation to receive the sign of ashes; and in doing so we will each be told to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And I think this is helpful to us in framing that question of relationship with God.
Because it reminds us, right here at the beginning of Lent, that our relationship with God – although it is loving, and gracious and I hope generally a positive and nurturing one for each of us – our relationship with God is profoundly unequal. God is the sovereign of the universe; the creator of everything that is. Everything in existence depends on His sustaining will. And we are God’s creatures; the product of his imagination and will and we each exist only because it is God’s gift to us to do so.
I have a favourite reflection on this, very slightly adapted from one written by Hildegard of Bingen.
The reflection says:
Listen: there was once a king sitting on his throne.
Around Him stood great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory,
bearing the banners of the king with great honour.
Then it pleased the king to raise a small dust mote from the ground,
and he commanded it to fly.
The mote flew,
not because of anything in itself,
but because the air bore it along.
Thus am I, a mote on the breath of God.
I particularly like this reflection because I think it captures something of what it means to be a created being in the presence of the creator, but also does not humiliate us. We may be dust, but we are dust borne along on the breath of God; lifted up with purpose, and not without our own beauty.
So as we begin Lent, these are the questions I’m going to try to consider; as a human being, how do I respond to the mind and the heart of God, who made me who I am? How do I understand the purpose God has for me, and how can I live that out more faithfully? And how can I more deeply appreciate the beauty and wisdom of creation, and celebrate that in ways which reflect that to the world around me?
These aren’t small questions. They will take me a lifetime – and then some – to really work through. But I hope that they are questions which will help me – and maybe you – stay focussed, keep a holy Lent, and come to Easter with a deeper appreciation and love.