A Homily for Ash Wednesday
Margaret D. McGee
The Ash Wednesday Gospel reading comes about midway through the great set of teachings commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus, seeing the crowds following him, goes up to the mountainside and sits down to share with them his vision of what makes a good life.
It’s clear from our passage that Jesus just assumes he’s talking to people who practice their religion. “… whenever you give alms,” he says, “…whenever you pray … whenever you fast.”
He’s not telling people what to do, ‘cause they’re already doing it. He’s talking about the how and the why, the underlying values that come from the heart, and that motivate any act of generosity, prayer, and self-denial.
And he wants to give the folks some good news, news about an out-of-the-ordinary reward—the extraordinary blessing—that lives in these acts. Blessings freely given by God—our God—whose nature, the prophet Joel reminds us, abound[s] in steadfast love, who, the psalmist sings, is full of compassion and mercy.
Jesus lives in this world, and I think he has seen that, in trying live a good life, to practice our faith, we all too often end up playing a role to a much smaller audience than the loving Father he knows. Instead, we start playing to the audience of our neighbors, friends, and family. After all, it’s only human to seek the good opinion of other human beings.
But Jesus also knows—no one knows better—that the good opinion of other people is also … only human. Kinda shaky, unreliable, needing to be won over and over, while we stand up and blow our horns on our own small stage.
Don’t even get on that little stage, says Jesus. And if you’re already on it, get off. Too distracting. You play to that crowd, you’re gonna miss the real blessing, the one that’s pouring in right now from the Love that made you. Doing your dance for this little world’s esteem—or even for your own self-esteem—it’s too easy to miss the presence of Mercy in the room, mercy as great as the heavens are high above the earth.
Now it happens that this passage, these few verses, resonate strongly with me from my own childhood. Growing up in Ohio, in the McGee household, we practiced our religion: went to church every Sunday; prayed before every meal. I know my parents gave ten per cent of my father’s income to the church—because they told me so. I was also expected to tithe from my modest weekly allowance, which I thought carried principle way too far.
In one respect I can read these verses from Matthew with a certain quiet, modest pride in how my family practiced our faith. My parents were not at all given to loud religion, or to outward display of piety. When my Dad dropped his weekly envelope in the offering plate, no trumpets sounded. And when we went out for dinner, I doubt if anybody in the restaurant even noticed that we prayed as a family before our meal, unless they happened to glance our way in just the right moments. We knew it was bad form to call attention to our goodness, the way the hypocrites in this morning’s passage do.
And yet. Those deep inner motivations, the how’s and the why’s, can be so complicated in this world, can be so complicated by this world.
Both my parents were p.k.’s, preacher’s kids, growing up under the very watchful eyes of their father’s two congregations. My mom and dad each grew up in a world where the behavior of the pastor’s family reflected back on the pastor, on his standing in his church, on his church’s standing in the community. A heavy burden for a kid to bear.
And, by the time I got out of elementary school, my father, the preacher’s kid, was superintendent of the public school system in the town where we lived. So I grew up under the watchful eyes of teachers and principals who were hired and supervised by my dad. My classmates’ parents voted on the school levies that paid my dad’s salary. And the behavior of every member of our family—our grades, extracurricular activities, church attendance—reflected back on him, on his standing in the schools, and the schools’ standing in the community. Or so we were told around the dinner table.
I mean, you know, if the superintendent can’t keep his own kids in line…
Now, in all fairness, I don’t doubt the depth and sincerity of my parents’ or my grandparents’ faith. The Sermon on the Mount is one of my father’s favorite texts. He uses it often for inspiration when leading devotions at the retirement community where he lives now, and does his best to live by its guide, day after day.
At the same time, I’ll confess that Jesus’ words, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” kinda touch a nerve with me. Growing up, I sometimes felt as if we practiced our piety only to be seen by others, and I often felt boxed into the narrow space of whatever they might think, whoever they might be.
Ever since, I also confess, it’s been a struggle to tear my attention away from how I look to my neighbors—or even to myself. A struggle to find my way back to that secret place where I can shut the door, and pray in secret, where only God hears me, and only God knows me. A struggle to rest in that same God who, in the words of our collect, hates nothing [God] has made, a God whose very nature is Love that knows no bounds.
Though my growing-up story is mine alone, I’m pretty sure that those struggles are not mine alone. From what I’ve heard, plenty of stories lead to the same boxed-in place of limited possibilities. Distracted and seduced by status, money, anxiety about money, stuff—all our stuff—anxiety about stuff—that path is the human condition, part of what it means to be made of dust.
Fortunately, as the psalmist says, our God knows whereof we are made … remembers that we are but dust. Our God,full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness calls us back, saying Yet even now … return to me with all your heart.
And part of the struggle, as Jesus knows, involves coming back to one’s own heart, remembering, rediscovering, again and again, what our values really are. Paying attention to what brings joy and wholeness to each day. Weighing the treasures of this world, uncertain and easily lost, against those treasures the heart longs for:
- Love, given and received;
- Relationship, a hand to hold, a hope to share, a common goal to work toward;
- Community, the chance to answer the call for assembly, climb down off our little stage, stop the act, and join together with the aged and children, the bridegroom and the bride, finding one’s place alongside others round a big, common table.
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
♥ ♥ ♥
Delivered at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, Washington on March 9, 2011
Psalm 103:1; 8-14
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21