Almighty God, may you guide us to seek the truth- come whence it may, cost what it will, lead where it might. Amen.
Why? Why do we come for Ash Wednesday? Why do we celebrate Lent? Don’t we already have enough guilt, enough to do? Isn’t there enough doom and gloom in the world? Politicians fighting in Washington, Israel and Iran in a Cold War that is getting hotter every day, rampant poverty and famine around the world, dictators in Syria, Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea, a global debt crisis, not to mention all the stress and anxiety that we all carry around from our personal lives. It seems that instead of a season where we are more intentional, we need a vacation from it all. So again I ask, why Ash Wednesday?
Why is the most important of all the questions, as it gets to the purpose and end of things. Why is the language of inspiration, of core values, of meaning. The other questions: how, what, where, when, and who are just the details. What was interesting about Rosa Parks wasn’t how she sat at the front of the bus, it was why she did it. The Wright brothers were the first in flight, even though others had better financing and better tools, the answer to why they were first is a story of ingenuity and inspiration. Where or when Jesus was crucified doesn’t change much about our lives, but the why certainly does. Why is also the hardest question to answer. We’re all busy, we have a lot to do. Turn the news on, and they’ll give you all the details in about 20 seconds, but they don’t speak to the why. Why is also a subversive question, as it challenges our motives and assumptions. Many of us I’m have been stumped by a child who asks that piercing question- why? And “because I said so” isn’t a good enough answer. Why did my dog die? Why do people fight? Why doesn’t that man on the corner have a house to live in? Why is a tough question.
And why is the reason for Lent. Lent has always been a season of preparation. In the early Church, the process for Baptism took at least a year, and Baptism only happened on Easter. So the 40 days leading up to Easter were a time for focus, for preparation, for answering why. Why do you want to be baptized? Why do you want to be a Christian, knowing that the Roman empire could very well kill you for this?
This season of Lent, we need to examine the why, because that is where meaning comes from, because that is the question our hearts yearn to have an answer for. So let’s walk through the traditional Lenten disciplines and consider both the modern problem and the why.
We’ll begin with prayer. The problem with prayer is that most of us don’t do it. Surveys suggest that 58% of Americans pray daily while 83% identify as being religious. And the survey didn’t get into how people define prayer. Now I’m going to make some generalizations in this sermon, realizing that for some of us, these generalizations do not apply, but they speak to cultural truths. A lot of people don’t fully understand prayer. Prayers such as “please don’t let me get pulled over for speeding,” “please let me get this job,” “please be with my sick uncle” are certainly prayers, but that’s not the sort of prayer that Jesus is commending to us.
Throughout the reading from Matthew, Jesus challenges our assumptions about acts of religious piety. People often prayed in public to be seen, so Jesus encourages them to pray in secret; that is, have a relationship not with others and your ego, but with God. This is the why of prayer. Prayer is about relationship building with God, and others through being mindful of them; and prayer is also about working with God. Why do we pray? To be in touch with the divine. This doesn’t really happen though when we do all the talking, when we do it in a few short sentences of petition. I’m not dismissing intercessory prayer, but rather highlighting the fact that it’s only one aspect of prayer. And in the same way, if your prayer life only consists of walks in nature or doing yoga, then you aren’t getting it all either. And let us not forget about the Bible in prayer. The Bible isn’t just that book that sits on the coffee table so that others know of its importance to you. The Bible is a good book to read. I can only imagine how the world might look if every Christian read from the Bible daily. At St. Francis this Lent, let’s not have to wonder. Let’s ground ourselves in prayer, in Scripture, in getting to the why- having a robust relationship with God. And hopefully we’ll be transformed, and people will ask us, “why?” and we’ll have a good answer.
Fasting is another traditional Lenten discipline. The problem here, to put it bluntly, is that we are gluttons. America has many industries that are built on the assumption that we will consume that which is bad for us. For the most part, the diet, pornography, cosmetic, and self-help industries all assume that we will fill ourselves with empty calories which only satisfy us in the short term and leave us hungry in the long term. These are all multi-billion dollar industries, and there is something deeply wrong with the culture that leads to their thriving.
So the answer to “why fast?” is rather simple- gluttony leads to death. Death of relationships, death of self-confidence, death of our bodies. In Lent, we are invited to fast, to give things up. In seminary, I spent a month in the Dominican Republic and I was struck by both the simplicity in people’s lives, but also the great joy. I went to a church service that lasted for several hours and was held in what our parish hall might look like if you dropped a few bombs on it. It was a three-walled concrete structure with a tin roof. And yet, that worship service was one of the most joyous and festive I’ve ever seen. No one thought about a capital campaign to add a fourth wall or some stained glass windows. Why? Because they had what was necessary and they lacked nothing which they truly needed. This is a lesson we could learn. I didn’t talk finances with the priest there, but I’m guessing they had a very small maintenance budget. Gluttony not only takes us away from what is healthy and important, but it also costs us a lot. This Lent, let’s focus on why we do what we do, and leave off the stuff that we can’t come up with a good answer to “why do we do this?”
Lent is also a season where we highlight almsgiving, not because the church budget is tight, but because money says a lot about our priorities. The problem is rather easy to identify- we live in a world in which money is the tool to value time and goods. If churches and charities had greater financial resources, the ripples of their ministry would extend further and further.
So why should we give? I would suggest to you that we give not for tax purposes, not even because it’s right thing to do, but rather we give because if we don’t, we become slaves to our own money. I’ve said it before and I’m going to say it again, if you want to know if you have control over your money, then try to give it away. If you can’t, then your money controls you. And I’m not talking about throwing $5 in the offering plate, that’s not a test. Try giving to the point where you have to rethink your budget. I’m not suggesting almsgiving to the point of losing your house or not feeding your children, but I am talking about significant giving. There is no magic percentage or dollar amount, you have to do the soul searching on your own on this one. Why give? For one, it changes the world, but perhaps more importantly, it changes you.
And finally, I’d like to consider one other Lenten disciple- that of introspection. The problem is that most of us don’t take the time to stop and think; we don’t see spiritual directors or therapists to debrief. Far too many people have very little sense of self-awareness. That’s one reason why we put ashes on our foreheads today with the words “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We’re all going to die, each and every one of us, even Jesus did it. There is a book written in the 1970s called The Denial of Death, and it address the fact that most people live their entire lives in the fear of death, instead of embracing the reality of life.
Consider what an apology sounds like today- “I’m sorry if you were offended by my comments,” which insinuates that we did nothing wrong, but that you’re the problem. No one ever says “I’m sorry for being offensive.” If we can’t understand ourselves, if we can’t objectively look at our faults alongside our gifts, then we are just zombies walking around, going through the motions of life. Socrates said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” A paraphrase might be “a life without the why isn’t a life at all.” Without introspection, without asking and contemplating the why, life passes us by without us understanding it. And if we can’t understand the why, then we can’t be responsible.
Look at what has been happening in the Roman Catholic Church with the sex-abuse scandal, or what happened at Penn State. No one took responsibility. There was no introspection. Everyone knew the details, what who did to whom and where. And they all knew what would happen if this got out, so they kept it quiet. No one answered the question “why are we covering this up,” “why are we protecting the abusers at the cost of the victims?” Answering the why can make us see the things we try so hard to forget but need to deal with. This season of Lent, let us be introspective by considering the whys in our daily lives.
So we’re back to the first why. Why now? Why Lent? Well, as Joel and Paul say, “blow your trumpet…the day of the Lord is near…now is the acceptable time.” There is no time like the present to wake up to the reality of the why. Why is about conversion. And we live in a place and time that needs some transformation. We are hungry for depth. We are hungry for love. Our world needs more followers of Jesus and less admirers of him. A lot of people like see Jesus as a great moral teacher, as a wonderful man, as someone to admire. But then there are those who follow Jesus, who follow him to the cross and the grave because they know the why of God’s love, of God’s transformative power.
This season of Lent, let us ask ourselves why. You don’t always have to come up with the answer alone. We can answer it together in community, God can help you to answer it. May we explore the why through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and introspection.
Let us pray- Almighty God, as we embark on our Lenten journey, may you give us the honesty, strength, and courage to ask why. Guide us in our answers, that in all we do we might answer faithfully and to your glory. And through asking why, may we come into a deeper understanding of your Truth and Love. This we pray in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.