As many of you know, Lent is my favorite season of the liturgical year. I love the spiritual discipline Lent encourages, I love the liturgical uniqueness of Lent, and I love the ways that Lent encourages us as a community live life differently, even if only for a little while. By Ash Wednesday every year, I usually have a set discipline in place, and I am eager to get going. But this year, I find myself in a situation in which I have never been. With the pending birth of our second child, I find myself hesitant to commit to any spiritual discipline this Lent. I have no sense of how tired I will be, or how upended my home routine and family life will be; I have no idea whether I will be too exhausted to stay connected digitally to the world, or whether technology will be my way of escape when everything else is disjointed; and besides the desperate prayers of an exhausted, weary mother, I have no idea how to tend to my spiritual life once I step away briefly from my churchly life.
I confess this sense of being lost about Lent because I imagine some of you may be feeling that same sense of being lost as well. We have been buried in an awful winter, longing more for spring and the joys of Easter, than preparing for burrowing deeper into the depths of penitence and discipline. Our news feed is full of local and global disaster, making even the normal joy of international events like the Olympics feel a bit hollow. And we have a growing itch to be more settled here at Church – as we trip over one another trying to find adequate space for normal activities while our undercroft is under construction, as our Vestry makes changes to better equip us for ministry, and as our Rector steps away for a time, making us all have to assume responsibilities that burden our already full plates and sparking concern about how we can thrive without our leader at the helm. Who has time for figuring out a Lenten discipline when we feel like we are just barely managing our lives?
Into this sense of discombobulation, Jesus comes at us in the gospel lesson today with a scathing critique of our spiritual lives. Jesus wants us to give alms, but to do so with such secrecy that even our own selves are unaware of our sacrifices. Jesus wants to take our prayer to our private rooms, so we are not tempted to bring attention to ourselves in public. Jesus wants us to gussy ourselves up daily so that no one notices the longing and discomfort our fasts are creating for us. To be honest, his words are a bit confusing and seem contradictory to Jesus’ other messages. This is the same Jesus who later in Matthew says, “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.”[i] So which are we supposed to do? Are we to keep our faith humbly hidden so as not to be seen as braggadocios, or are we to shout about our God on the mountaintop, or at least in the local diner, so that others might see the goodness of what God has done for us, and want to join us in that joy?
Perhaps a better place for us to begin is to imagine Jesus offering this teaching with a bit of sarcastic humor. This past stewardship season we showed a video about the ways in which people give to church with muddled intentions. The video has a series of clips with people doing things like using their generous giving to garner the decisions they want made in church or dramatically holding up their pledge envelopes before dropping them in the plate. Imagine the person who would rather put coins in the offering plate for the noise they make than put in bills which silently but strongly support ministry, and you have the idea. This is the kind of ribbing Jesus is doing when he describes the showy alms giver.
In high school, I was friends with a girl whose father was an evangelical pastor. I remember going out to dinner with her family once, and being mortified before our meal began. Once our plates of food arrived, her father stood up in the middle of the dining area, and very loudly began a prayer that, I promise, was easily five minutes long. My cheeks began to redden as he went on and on. I could feel the shifting of people near us as they became equally uncomfortable. As I peeked mid-way through his prayer, I could see a waitress approach our table for drink refills and the recoil back to her station. I was so relieved the next week at school when my friend apologized for her dad and made a joke about how much she actually hates eating in restaurants because her food is always cold by the time the prayer is over. This is the kind of prayer Jesus jokes about too when he sends us to our rooms to pray.
And we all know examples of that complainer who has taken up fasting or whatever form of denial they have chosen for Lent. They regale you with stories of how they almost fainted, or how they had to avoid their favorite activities in order to stay faithful. You almost want to give them a handkerchief so that they can more dramatically tell their tale of woe as the lift their hand dramatically to their heads. These are those whom Jesus teases when he says to put some oil on your face – so that even if you cannot keep your mouth quiet with complaints, at least you will look good.
The challenge with us in Lent is not that our spiritual disciplines need to be so rigidly hidden away. The danger comes when our disciplines become more about ourselves than about our relationship with God and one another. Jesus is not telling us not to exercise our piety. Jesus is trying to jokingly help us to see the ways in which our piety can become a stumbling block to others seeing the goodness of God.[ii] Think of the person who gives generously, who prays prayers that always seem to touch you, or who shares with you what fasting has done for them in a way that inspires you. Jesus is telling us to be more like them: not to dramatically hide away our almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, but to do that almsgiving, prayer, and fasting with a genuine humility that invites others to want to know more. And at the end of the day, Jesus is also telling us to chill out – to enjoy whatever discipline you have chosen and not to worry so much about performing that discipline, but humbling trying that discipline within a community of people who can laugh at themselves as they try to do the same.
This Lent, as I begin this journey with you, my discipline is going to be about giving myself a break, and not taking myself so seriously. I am trusting that by not pushing myself to take on some discipline that will only make me feel like a failure by week two of newborn sleep deprivation, that God will be present, revealing God’s self to me and showing me that God can work in spite of me and in spite of what promises to be a very unique Lent in the life of a priest. I am trusting that God, the faith of this community, and my intentional letting go this Lent will work in harmony to make this time a time of holy connection to God. Jesus invites you into the same trusting release this Lent. No matter what discipline you assume, or what battles you face in the coming forty days, God will give you moments of insight and blessing, and even a bit of humor to keep you going. Amen.