Ash Wednesday Sermon: Holy Habits

“Holy Habits” by The Rev. Lisa Caine

Matthew 6:1-6, 19-21 • March 5, 2014 (Ash Wednesday)

Our theme for Lent this year is Holy Habits.  We are here tonight and we gather here on Sunday mornings and at other times because we sense the presence of something greater than ourselves within us and around us.  We seek closer communion with that Other, with God,  whom Paul describes in Acts as the One in whom we live and move and have our being.   But how do we go about doing that besides coming together for worship on Sundays?

John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist denomination wondered about that too.  As a young man, together with his brother Charles, he organized a group of likeminded persons into what was known as a “holy club.” There they encouraged one another, read and studied scriptures together, prayed, practiced fasting, and encouraged each other to participate regularly in worship and Holy Communion.  Wesley believed that the methodical commitment to these spiritual habits would result in the grace of God being channeled into a person’s life, and he considered these “Holy Habits” to be means or channels of God’s grace.

The primary means of grace, according to Wesley include: avoiding harmful behavior, doing good, praying, engaging in Christian conversation, fasting, participating in Holy Communion, and searching the scriptures.   And so this Lent, we will follow in our founder’s footsteps, at least for a little ways, in the hope that the development or strengthening of Holy Habits will lead us to a closer relationship with God and with one another.

Wesley, of course, was not the first to recommend the importance of certain practices to come closer to God.  The Old Testament is full of practices – thou shalts and thou shalt nots – designed to bring the Hebrew people into right relationship with God and each other.  Each of the laws that were so carefully spelled out in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy were designed to remind them that they were a chosen people, blessed by God to be a blessing.  And the observance of these laws, and the performance of certain actions and the refraining from certain others were designed to keep holiness and right relationship with God constantly at the forefront of one’s attention.  So that from getting up in the morning until going to bed at night, every action was aimed at pleasing God and being holy as God is holy.

These laws were not meant to be ends in themselves, but were meant to be constant reminders and pointers beyond the act itself to God.  They were a means of discipline and a regimen for growing in faith.  Performed rightly, with exquisite care and concentration, the mind could be focused on God and God alone.  So – I am washing my hands before meals because God is pure and I want to be pure.  Hand washing is a reminder – it not only effects clean hands, but it points towards something even greater than clean hands, the purity and holiness of God.

But you know how it is with a lot of rules and traditions.  They become ends in themselves after awhile, and pretty soon means and ends get confused.  So hand washing becomes an end in itself.  And if you can wash your hands while others are around to see you do it, then you reap double benefit – very clean hands and the admiration of the onlookers. And if you can criticize someone who has failed to wash his hand, you can perhaps be seen as a pious and knowledgeable upholder of the law.

So it was with the Pharisees who come in for some pretty hard knocks in the gospel of Matthew.  In our reading for tonight, Jesus lifts up some holy habits – habits that we are going to be talking about and practicing in the next four weeks – but he says, don’t perform these habits the way the Pharisees do them.  They are experts at giving alms and praying and fasting, but unfortunately they are now doing them for the wrong reasons; they’re doing them for an audience, and that audience isn’t God; it’s other people.  They like to be seen – not just by God, but by their peers.  They enjoy the attention – not just from God, but from the crowds.

Now before we jump on the “beat up on the Pharisees” bandwagon, we have to stop to admit that we kind of like the approval of others too.  There are things we do and don’t do that are aimed at acceptance, appreciation, admiration, or praise.  We all like to be liked and looked up to.  Anybody here not appreciate positive attention?  And we also do things that are designed to keep us safe and protect us – have you ever withheld information about yourself, or refrained from a particular behavior because you feared you might not be liked if you were totally honest?   And, of course, we do things for control, to maintain a power balance, to never seem vulnerable or weak because vulnerability and weakness are signs of failure in our culture.   So when Jesus calls the Pharisees “hypocrites,” instead of immediately pointing our fingers and nodding in self-righteous agreement, we have to admit “been there, done that.”

Jesus is telling his disciples that when we give gifts, when we pray, when we fast or practice other holy habits we have to decide what is our motivation, who is our audience, for whom is the effort intended, and with whom do we wish to establish a relationship.  If we decide to go for the recognition, praise, and attention of our peers, then Jesus says we will receive an appropriate reward – which is exactly the recognition, praise, and attention of our peers – no more, no less.  I have a sinking feeling that this means if I give a gift to charity, even to the church, on December 31 because I need another tax deduction, that’s exactly what I’ll receive – another tax deduction. No more, no less.  And if I decide during these four weeks not to eat chocolate, hoping to lose five pounds in the process, and even ask God to help me to accomplish this goal, that’s what I’ll get.  A five pound weight loss.  No more, no less.  Jesus says in each example, as the Pharisees sound the trumpets before giving alms, or pray loudly on the street corner, or drape themselves in sackcloth and ashes while fasting, “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”

But if we want a different kind of reward, then we approach these habits quietly, humbly, free from the temptations of the crowd, and focused on the One whom we want to please, whom we want to know better, love better, and serve better.  Three times Jesus says, “your father who sees in secret, will reward you.”   In this time of Lent, as we prepare for Easter, we have the opportunity to be present to God and to seek guidance and renewal for no other reason than to love God more.

For some it may be a time to concentrate on prayer, for when we pray, we are changed as God meets us where we are and moves us deeper.  Prayer brings us into the presence of God, where we are open to change and grace.  For some, Lent is a time of abstention, and many people give something up for Lent.  John Wesley encouraged regular fasting as a way of drawing nearer to God.  In abstaining, we are reminded that we are truly sustained by God.   For all of us, I hope, Lent will be a time of giving and generosity, as we remember Jesus saying, “do not store up treasures for yourself on earth; where you treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

In a moment each of us will come to the altar and have a cross of ashes placed on our foreheads as a symbol – a symbol that we need to repent and change our direction, and that we are human creatures, made by God from dust and in our physical being destined to return to dust.    It will be an opportunity to commit ourselves to practices that will remind us of God and will have the potential to lead us into an ongoing and closer relationship and awareness of God.  May it be so for you and for me as well.  Amen.

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