Thursday, February 7, 2008

Sermon for Ash Wednesday: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Disciplines for Growth

It’s often said that if you aim for nothing you will usually hit it! In other words, it’s a good thing to think about the direction you want to go in before you decide how you’re going to get there. Some people, I know, just enjoy driving aimlessly through the countryside, seeing new sights, but most of us prefer to have some sort of plan. We decide on a destination, and then we pick the best route.

I think it’s good for us to remember this as we begin this season of Lent. We have a tradition of giving up things for Lent, and so most of us have perhaps thought about what we want to give up this year. But a few years ago, I heard about a teenager who asked the dreaded question, ‘Why?’ Her Dad, who is a single father, had suggested that he and his two teenage kids might like to give up chocolate for Lent, but his daughter asked, “Dad, why do we give up things for Lent?” He was completely at a loss to answer her question, and he emailed me and said, “You’re a man of the cloth – what’s the answer?”

Lent is a time of repentance. In a few minutes, as we begin the liturgy of the ashes, I will say, “We begin this holy season by remembering our need for repentance, and for the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ”. The word repentance doesn’t mean feeling miserable about our sins. Some Christians think it does; they think that we should practice mournful worship during Lent and banish the word ‘alleluia’ and so on, as if it would be an offence to almighty God if anyone should be cheerful at this time of year! But there’s no particular virtue in misery, and repentance isn’t about mourning except in so far as it leads to real change. To repent is to realise that you’re going in the wrong direction, and to turn around and start heading in the right direction. It means turning away from ways of living that are sinful and turning toward God and the way of life he is teaching us.

What is that way of life? Well, Jesus summed it up for us, didn’t he? He said, “The first (commandment) is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31). In other words, the Christian way of life has to do with our relationship to God, to our neighbour, and to ourselves.

These three relationships also appear in our Gospel reading for this evening, from the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus deals with the three disciplines that were common spiritual practices for Jewish people in his day: giving to the poor, prayer, and fasting. Everyone would understand in the time of Jesus that if you wanted to live a godly life, these three disciplines were essential; no one would even think about trying to live in God’s way without including them. So when Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, he didn’t have to spend a lot of time telling his disciples that these three disciplines were important; everyone knew that already. Instead, he had to persuade them to do them in the right spirit – to please God, not to be praised by others.

But I suspect that this is not true today. I don’t think we automatically assume today that if we want to be followers of Jesus we will give to the poor, pray, and fast. So as we begin Lent, it’s a good idea for us to revisit these disciplines and see how they fit into the great commandments that Jesus gave us.

So let’s start with giving to the poor, or ‘almsgiving’, to use the older word that the NRSV uses. In verse 2 Jesus introduces the subject: “So whenever you give alms…”. Giving to the poor, you see, is about my relationship with others. Growing as a disciple of Jesus includes growing from a selfish, self-centred person into a loving and caring person. Giving to the poor is a vital part of this. The Gospels are full of examples of Jesus encouraging us to do this; in one place he even says that when we care for the needy it is really him that we’re caring for.

In our Old Testament reading for tonight the prophet Isaiah warns the people of his time that God isn’t impressed with fasting and liturgical worship if it doesn’t lead to a change in the way we treat the poor. He encourages the people to loose the bonds of injustice, to share their bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless into their homes, and to stop pointing fingers and speaking evil of other people.

Now of course there are obvious ways in which we obey this commandment, and I don’t need to give people in this congregation any lessons in it. We’ve demonstrated by our ongoing generosity to special projects like our water well appeal that we understand how important this is. We understand that loving our neighbour as we love ourselves has a special application to our neighbours who are dying of starvation or AIDS, or who live in countries where oppression and violence trap people in cycles of poverty with little hope of change.

But let me just take this a little further and remind you that one of the purposes of giving is to knock selfishness on the head. In other words, we don’t just give for the sake of the people to whom we give; we give for our own sake, too. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul tells us that godliness with contentment brings great gain. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a very content sort of person. I live in a culture where I’m constantly bombarded with ads for all sorts of gadgets I don’t really need, and where the government tells me it’s my patriotic duty to spend so that the economy will do well. Giving, in this context, is a counter-cultural act; it helps me to focus not on my own imagined needs, but the needs of others. As I grow in holiness, the idea is that I will grow not just in generosity, but in my enjoyment of generosity. And that’s a real work of grace!

If we ask, “How much should I give?” I always remember C.S. Lewis’ rule: if my giving isn’t making a difference to my standard of living, I’m probably not giving enough. But we need to remember that giving isn’t just a matter of money. It’s also generosity with my time and talents. How do I show my love to my family, my friends and neighbours, and the people I don’t even like? This is all included as we think about our relationships with our neighbours.

The next thing Jesus deals with in this gospel is prayer. Why do we pray? We do so because prayer is about our relationship with God; it is one of the ways we love the Lord our God with all our heart. If we love someone, we want to spend time with them; as someone once said, the greatest compliment you can pay a person is to waste time with them!

When it comes to prayer, Jesus gives us some very simple guidelines in this passage. He assumes that his followers will pray regularly; he doesn’t say “If you pray”, but “whenever you pray” (v.5). And everyone has to find the best way of doing that – that’s to say, the time of day and the place of prayer that works best for you. For myself, since I moved to Edmonton eight years ago I’ve discovered that taking a walk outside is often the best way of having a prayer time for me. And so I get up in the morning and go out for half an hour; I walk around Blue Quill and have my prayer time, and I find that I can actually pray for quite a bit longer while I’m walking than if I were sitting still in a chair at home or in my office.

But everyone has to find what works for them. Some are night people and find that praying last thing at night is good for them. Others like to get up early. Some pray at work, and some pray at home. Some pray out of doors, and some indoors. It doesn’t really matter; what matters is that we pray regularly.

Jesus also tells us to pray sincerely. In the bit we didn’t read, he talks about how some people like to heap up empty phrases, or, as it says in the Revised English Bible, they like to ‘go babbling on like the heathen, who imagine that the more they say the more likely they are to be heard’ (v.7, REB). I suspect that we Anglicans are in special danger here, because we’re so used to the beautiful prayers in our liturgy that we think we can only talk to God in language like that. What Jesus is teaching us is that it isn’t especially important what words we use, or even how long we pray; the important thing is that we mean what we say!

In Philip Yancey’s latest book, on prayer, he tells a story about a man who works in a downtown rescue mission. At the mission they have prayer meetings, and some of the street people pray rather direct prayers. One day one old guy prayed, “Thank you, God, for Metamucil”, and someone else chimed in, “That’s a 10/4, God!” I don’t expect to hear that sort of prayer in the Prayers of the People here at St. Margaret’s any time soon! But perhaps we could learn something from the simple directness of this man of the street, who prayed out of the honesty of his heart.

A third thing I learn from the Lord’s Prayer is to pray simply. This is not an elaborate prayer; it approaches God simply as Father, and prays first of all about his concerns – his name, his kingdom, his will being done – and then about the necessities of life – forgiveness, daily food, deliverance from evil. And it’s a short prayer, too – there’s nothing particularly virtuous about long prayers. Martin Luther used to say that it was better to pray short and often than long and seldom.

These are some of the guidelines Jesus gives us about prayer – pray regularly, sincerely, and simply. And in all our praying let’s remember the fundamental goal – to grow in our relationship with God.

We’ve said that prayer is about my relationship with God, and giving to the poor is about my relationship with my neighbour. The third discipline, fasting, is about my relationship with myself. This is important: the way we love ourselves is by disciplining ourselves! This is a recognition that our physical appetites do tend to run wild if we let them have their way. Of course, there is nothing wrong with food and drink and the other physical pleasures; they were all created by a good and loving God to be enjoyed – but in moderation. However, in our sinfulness we human beings tend to go beyond moderation, and when that happens eating becomes gluttony, drinking becomes drunkenness, sleep becomes laziness, sex becomes immorality, and so on.

So Lent is a good time to look at the way we use this stuff. In what area of my life do I need more discipline? Eating? Drinking? Sleep? Exercise? Lent is a good time to make a plan and then work on forming it into a permanent habit. That’s what the old tradition of ‘giving things up for Lent’ is all about. But too often our choice of what to give up is arbitrary; it’s not something that is a real issue for us. I’ve tried to keep that in mind in the last few years. For me, spending too much time on the Internet is a problem, so this year I’ve decided again to give up blogging and reading blogs for Lent. I suspect that for me this will be a far more meaningful form of fasting than giving up chocolate!

The point of all this stuff, you see, is not to work hard during Lent and then quit afterwards. I’ve never understood the idea of taking on a discipline for Lent and then letting it go after Easter. Rather, Lent is a good time for us to jump-start ourselves in learning habits we need to make into a permanent part of our lives.

In a few moments we will use the ancient sign of ashes, but this is not something we ought to do just because everyone else is doing it. Rather, we ought only to do it if it is a sign of our sorrow for our sins and our genuine desire to make things right in our lives. So I encourage you now to take a few minutes in silence to prepare for this. Think about these three areas of prayer, fasting and giving to the poor. Think about your relationship with God, with your neighbours and with yourself. Can you think of one definite thing in each area: an old habit to break, or a new habit to form? Then, if you wish, you can come forward when we offer the sign of ashes. You can take those ashes as a symbol of your commitment to follow Jesus in this new and deeper way during Lent.

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