Sermon notes: Giving up, taking on

© BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

© BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

SERMON NOTES, ASH WEDNESDAY (2013, Preached at St. Peter’s/Ladue)

The party’s over. It’s time to hang up the beads. Today we embark on the season of Lent, the forty days leading up to Easter.

The time span reflects the period that Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting, praying, preparing for his ministry, facing and resisting temptation. The purpose of Lent may be found in the collect for the day: We ask God to give us new and contrite hearts, to help us to acknowledge our sins, to receive forgiveness for them.

That’s something we should do every day, of course. But Lent gives us a focus and a framework for accomplishing it.

This is a period of preparation for us, as followers of Christ, for the world made holier by the light of the Resurrection. In the early Church, Lent was the time when new converts were prepared to receive baptism, learning about the doctrines of the faith and what is required of believers. Through the centuries, this season has been a time to focus on prayer and penitence, on doing without and doing for others.

How do we keep a holy Lent?

When I was a child in a High Church household, it was all very straightforward. I gave up sweets, which I loved – I mourned whenever Valentine’s Day arrived after Ash Wednesday – and my favorite television show. I put money – the pennies, nickels, and dimes which still had some value then – in my mite box, to help poor children. I tried to do my chores more cheerfully, and without being reminded. I said my prayers. On Fridays, I ate fish sticks.

In later years, it got more complicated.

There were years when I gave up chocolate. There were years when I treated Lent as a sanctified diet aid. There were years when I did nothing at all to observe the season.

In all of that I had plenty of company. There’s a tendency among some modern American Christians to observe Ash Wednesday as a sacred New Year’s, to focus on personal self-improvement instead of the spiritual: to give up alcohol, or smoking, or fatty snacks because giving up alcohol, or smoking, or fatty snacks is good for us physically.

It is a sacrifice to give up things we enjoy, whatever they are, but sometimes we don’t look beyond a few obvious suspects. It might be more useful to examine some of the other things in our lives, and consider the importance they hold for us. Sometimes we may find that those things have become little gods for us, and that we are worshipping at other altars.

It’s a good thing to exercise; it’s not so good to obsess about it and run roughshod over family life. It’s a good thing to connect with friends; it’s not so good to spend whole evenings on Facebook, or to check the Twitter feed every few minutes. It’s fun to play video games, but not to the point that they make us cranky and obsessive. It’s fun to play Words with Friends, but this Lent I’m going to play just a couple of times each day, instead of grabbing the phone every time my day slows down.

At least as important as giving something up is to take something on. We can check the daily meditation from “Forward Day by Day” every morning, or be conscientious about reading Morning and Evening Prayer. We can walk a labyrinth, or join a Bible study. We can work to increase our giving of time, talent and treasure, both at church and in the community. We can take on something new, as well as give up something familiar.

There’s another important point to keep in mind, and that’s the one that Jesus is talking about in the gospel reading from Matthew: Don’t make a big deal about it. At a restaurant with friends, don’t announce, “Oh, I’ve given that up for Lent” when the wine list or the dessert menu comes around. It’s human nature to want to get credit for our sacrifices, but, as Jesus notes, the announcement itself then becomes our reward. Just smile and quietly decline. Even if you’re suffering withdrawal symptoms, don’t say anything. Keep them guessing.

Practicing our chosen Lenten disciplines is a form of spiritual exercise, and the point of the exercise is to bring us closer to God. The ways in which we observe a holy Lent have changed over the centuries, but not the reasons that we do it. Like the earliest Christians, our aim is preparation to lead new lives in Christ Jesus.

– Sarah Bryan Miller