Why we do what we do

Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Psalm 51, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 103:8-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND


May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your father in heaven.”  Wow, what a text to read on Ash Wednesday!  After all, here we are to practice a piety that can only be seen by others.  We’re here to get ashes put on our foreheads, and we ourselves can’t see it.  Only other people can see it.  And here we are, reading a passage from the Bible where Jesus says, practice your spirituality in private, where people can’t see you!  It’s kind of ironic.

Jesus’ objection isn’t primarily about other people, though; it’s about us.  It’s about the reasons why we do what we do.  I’m sure you all know people who act all pious, all high-and-mighty, just because they want other people to think they’re a good Christian.  I know people who give money—and then trumpet it for all to hear, because they want everyone to know how generous they are!  I know people who go on lots of spiritual retreats—and then talk your ears off about how enlightening it was, so that you’ll know how spiritual they are!  It’s not the giving or the retreats that are the problem, though; it’s the reason they’re doing it.

It’s like people who buy big books just so they can put them on their coffee table so people will think they’re smart.  If you buy a book just to put it on display, you may indeed get people to think you’re smart … but that doesn’t mean you actually know anything more than you did when you bought the book.  So, Jesus says, if you pray long public prayers to prove you’re a good Christian, you may succeed in getting people to think you’re a good Christian … but it doesn’t impress God, because God knows darn good and well why you’re doing it.  If you give lots of money and make sure everyone knows it, yeah, people will think you’re very generous … but God will know you’re only doing it to score points.  And while it will score you points with your fellow human beings, it won’t score you points with God.

You see, for God, why we do things is almost as important as what we do.  God is more concerned with inward truths than public show, and unlike humans, God knows the inward truths of our souls even more than we ourselves do.  God wants us to pray because we love God so much we desire a deeper connection with him.  God wants us to give because we love others so deeply that we long to help them any way we can.  God wants us to read our Bibles because we long for God’s Word.  God wants us to fast because we long to purify our hearts and minds and bodies.  God doesn’t want us to do these things to score points, and he doesn’t want us to just do them by rote because they’re expected—instead, God wants us to use these tools to do what he gave them to us for: to draw closer to God and to one another, to build ourselves up as God’s children.

Lent is a time with many pious traditions, and many churches and communities and families have their own practices.  Ashes on Ash Wednesday; fish instead of meat on Fridays; giving up chocolate or candy.  But how often do we do these things just because that’s what we’re supposed to do?  I know that when I was a teenager, my family didn’t really have a tradition of giving up anything for Lent, and I decided to start just because it sounded cool.  I didn’t know why people gave things up for Lent; I just know that some religious people did, and I wanted to be one of them.  And I liked talking about it—oh, no, I can’t have chocolate, I gave it up for Lent.  That was pretty much all I got out of it, the first several years I did it.  I got to feel pious, and I got to make sure people knew I was committed to Jesus so much I’d even give up chocolate for him.  It didn’t change anything in me; it didn’t bring me closer to God, and it certainly didn’t bring me closer to anyone else.  It didn’t deepen my faith, and it didn’t deepen my understanding.  It just made me look good.  When you get right down to it, it was pretty empty.

As I got older, I realized that my giving up chocolate was empty.  Now, I could have just stopped doing it and assumed that giving stuff up for Lent was meaningless, and rolled my eyes at the people who did it.  Because I know a lot of people who do it for the same reasons I was doing it, and get nothing out of it.  But I didn’t.  Because there are a lot of other people for whom giving stuff up for Lent is a deeply spiritual experience.  There are people whose Lenten practices have helped their faith to grow and mature.  So what’s the difference?  I spent a long time studying and searching for the answer.

It turns out, there are two major things that turn ritual into deep experience.  The first is attention.  If you’re just doing something by rote and not paying attention, chances are you’re not going to get much out of it.  You have to take time and energy and focus on your actions.  We don’t give stuff up so that we can look holy—we give stuff up so that we have roadblocks in our daily life, time when we would normally break out the candy or turn on the television but instead take time to remember the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  You have to take the time to open yourself up to God, to see what God is trying to teach you.  If you take that time to contemplate and pray and listen to God, then all of a sudden giving something up for Lent can change from an empty gesture to something full of meaning.

But not everybody responds the same way to the same spiritual disciplines.  For some people, fasting—giving up something they cherish—is deeply meaningful.  For others, it isn’t.  For some people, adding in extra prayers or extra time reading their Bibles is more important than fasting.  And for others, time spent in service and charity is the most meaningful thing they can do during Lent.  But no matter what spiritual practices you choose to follow for the next forty days, they will only be effective if you give them your whole heart and attention, and open yourself up to the lesson they teach.

So tonight, as we receive the ashes, take time to think about it.  Clear your mind of all your daily concerns, all the nagging things that draw your attention to the world outside.  Remember who you are, and whose you are.  Remember that you are God’s beloved child, whom Jesus Christ died to save.  Remember that we are all sinners, and that the wages of sin are death.  Remember that the only way through death and into life is through Jesus Christ, but we can’t get there on our own.  Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.



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