Ash Wednesday Homily 2018
Based on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, 2Cor 5:20b-6:10, Mt 6:1-6, 16-21
There are few things that the Bible has more to say about than hypocrisy. In fact, there are at least 100 verses of scripture that deal with this issue. Granted, much of the use of the term is found in the New Testament, but the prophetic literature contains many references as well. The word “hypocrite” is a Greek word that denotes an orator, story teller or actor. It was a neutral term until it was used in the Bible, where it took on a decidedly negative connotation. Jesus speaks pointedly in the Gospel according to Matthew about the practices of the hypocrite; the prophet Joel, less straight forward, but equally as powerful, speaks to the wrongs of human empire living versus living in the kingdom of God.
We begin our annual Lenten journey tonight with the imposition of ashes on our foreheads. We could have chosen to be at home watching the Olympic coverage or reality T.V., but instead you have chosen to come to church to hear the reality of your life that “from dust you were made and to dust you will return”. The mark of the ash symbolizes the connection from the beginning of Holy Week last year with waving palms and hollered Hosannas, to the beginning of the next repentant Lenten season with those very same palms reduced to ash.
Ash Wednesday reminds us also of our very dependence on God. As we read in the second creation story in Genesis, we are of the dust of the earth and without the breath of God we would still just be dust. Thus it is important that we place the right emphasis on where everything we have and all that we are comes from…we would literally and figuratively be nothing without God’s presence in our lives. Thus, as the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, we are to work together with Jesus to fully accept the grace of God and realize our salvation which can only come from our Creator God.
Once we are reminded of the power and presence of God in our lives, we are called to humility, self-denial and repentance. The season of Lent speaks to us of our holy duty to seek a right relationship with God and to put the things of the world in their proper place. Paul writes to the Corinthians saying that the world treats us, “…as impostors, and yet [we] are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, and yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, an yet possessing everything….” (v 8b-10) One way to release the hold of the world on us is to fast from the things that are “stumbling blocks” to our faith.
It is popular among many during this 40 day season to fast – that is to give up something that is getting in our way of becoming more focused on God and living in a manner similar to the way Jesus taught. This means that the more popular ideas of fasting such as giving up chocolate or ice cream, etc, though self-denying are not going to do anything to move us closer in our relationship with God. I would like to propose that for this Lenten season we all look at ourselves and our tendency towards hypocrisy and seek to root that out of our spiritual lives.
The Gospel of Matthew in the sixth chapter has a list of some of the ways that good religious folks will practice hypocrisy. In and of themselves, the things that are listed are good Christian practices. The problem comes in when we seek to earn kudos from the world for the things that we are supposedly just doing to please God and to build up that relationship. The writer of Matthew is making a point for us to consider why it is that we are doing things – for whose benefit? If it is to increase our stature as mature and devoted Christians among our fellow believers, then this is hypocritical. If we only pray on Sundays and then only in Church, we are not living fully and completely into our role as disciples. In Jesus’ own words. “we have received our reward” or we “will have no reward in heaven”. God knows what it is we are doing and why we are doing it; that is, God sees our hypocrisy – what it takes for us to move away from it is a truthful self-assessment as a first step. If we continue to deny the problem, then the problem will not go away.
When we do acknowledge our hypocrisy, then we can begin to dismantle it by fasting from it – taking a “time out” if you will. Once the sin of hypocrisy is admitted and shown the light of day, then it loses its power over us. It becomes another thing that we can choose to set aside and to live our lives without. Remember that you are not on the fast alone. Ask God in prayer to help you acknowledge your need for help and for forgiveness when you fall short of your goal. Journal about your struggles with giving up hypocritical behaviors and about how it is that these things were controlling your life. Join an accountability group that will hold each other to be honest and to work together to seek God’s grace, forgiveness and transformation.
You see, one of the major knocks against joining the Church is that it is full of hypocrites – people who do not practice what they preach. What would it mean to the world if we could say at the end of this 40 days that we had broken the powerful hold of hypocrisy and were free now to live into our salvation and to share that with the whole world? Let us spend this Lent saying “no” to hypocrisy and “yes” to living fully into the truth of the Word become flesh, Jesus. He told his Disciples in the Gospel according to John, “…If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free….” Let us begin this night to live into the freedom of the truth and away from the imprisonment of hypocrisy. Amen and amen!