Christ Church Gardiner
March 6, 2019
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent. The word, Lent, actually means spring, and although these cold March days here in Maine don’t much feel like spring, the daylight is growing each day and there is at least the promise of warmer days, though today isn’t helping. And it is during this season that we focus on growth—our spiritual growth as Christians.
And despite all the language about our sinfulness, our wickedness, and our wretchedness that you will hear in our Ash Wednesday liturgy, these days leading up to Easter really are much more about growth than they are about guilt or shame. But spiritual growth requires self-reflection. That’s always difficult and it doesn’t help that it seems like or culture doesn’t put much value on it. We are very good these days at having opinions about others as you can see from the squawking on partisan news channels and social media, but not so adept at reflecting on our own shortcomings or faults.
But Lent asks of us that we do that very thing. Look inward—even when it means noticing where we have fallen short. Paying less attention to how we presentourselves to others and more attention to how we actually treat others.
In our Gospel today, Jesus warned of practicing our piety before others—praying and giving money, primarily so that others can see how great we are. Jesus called out this hypocrisy—publicly displaying moral standards and beliefs that our real behaviors often don’t conform to. Reading this in our modern context, I can’t help but wonder what Jesus would have thought about Facebook? Because of Facebook and other social media, we now have the tools to create a public image of ourselves that may have little to do with the reality of who we are and the truth about how we act. The potential for our hypocrisy is endless. Go ahead and take a look at my Facebook page some time. There are no pictures of the mornings I lose my temper with my daughters as I try to get a hairbrush through a mess of tangles before the bus pulls up. And no indication that I ever snap at my husband for loading the dishwasher the wrong way. (Knives go down. Especially sharp knives.) There are no posts confessing that I don’t check in with my aging grandmothers often enough. Or that I spent money on a new pair of boots that I didn’t really need—money that could have gone to feeding people or my kids’ college fund.
I’m not suggesting that we all need to give up social media. We just have to be careful not to always hide our true selves behind those projections of our perfect selves. I think we all have a hunger for authenticity. For honesty. For space to be vulnerable in our imperfections.
And Lent is a good time to make that space. We are all in need of a little honesty and self-reflection and this is the season to do that. One way we do this is to consider our own sinfulness. Now I know that sin is a word that can make us squirm. It’s a word that is sometimes used to shame people and make them feel undeserving. But sin is something we all experience. We sin against others. And others sin against us.
In Hebrew, one of the words for sin is “hhatah,” and it literally means “missing the mark.” It’s like straying from the right path. The Israelites were a nomadic people, always moving from place to place, and their language reflected that. Staying on the right path was vitally important to survival. And important to their relationship with God. And so, sin, is how we have come to talk about all of those things that get us on the wrong path…those things that separate us from God. Sins are always relational whether they are against God, any of our fellow human beings, or against even the earth and its living creatures. Acknowledging our sinfulness means asking: Who have we hurt? Who have we failed to love? Those are the sins God cares about. Those are the things that make us miss the mark with God.
And we can’t talk about sin without talking about repentance. And when we talk about repentance, we mean how do we get back on the right path. How do we turn around—turn back to God. God desires to be in relationship with us. As we heard from the prophet Joel today, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart.” God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
As we spend this season reflecting on our spiritual health and turning our hearts toward God, we may choose to fast or to pray more often. We might read the Bible more often. We may give something up or to take on something new. But whatever we do to observe the season, our guiding question should be, How do we get on the right path with God: “How are we living the Gospel in our lives, our homes, our churches, our towns, our schools, and our places of work?” This is the season to take an honest look at ourselves…not the self that we may show the world but our real selves in all of our messiness and shortcomings.
In a few minutes, we will kneel before the altar and hear the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words are a reminder of our mortality and a reminder that we should not delay in our self-reflection, our repentance, and in our attempts to live more fully and to follow Jesus more faithfully.
But while you’re doing all of that self-reflecting and repenting, don’t forget to be gentle with yourself, too. Don’t forget that you are loved. Remember that our God is one of mercy and boundless grace. Even when we are not. Amen.