The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 6th Chapter
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
WHAT... are you doing for Lent? That’s the question we hear for Ash Wednesday, isn’t it? WHAT are you doing for Lent? The answer often includes something like… “giving something up”… maybe ice cream or swearing or beer. Others might answer the WHAT question by saying “prayer”… an additional devotional or worship time maybe. They might even answer the WHAT question with a plan to give to a charity, either with their time or their money or maybe even both.
All of those are good answers to the WHAT question… Not a definitive list, by any means, but a good place to start… after all, giving alms, prayer and fasting are all the themes Jesus talked about in the Gospel text for today, but there’s a deeper question that lives next to the WHAT question. It's the HOW question. HOW will you give alms? HOW will you pray? HOW will you fast?
Jesus was all over the HOW question. If you give alms, do it quietly… privately… so it’s between you and God, not between you and everyone else. If you pray, don’t pray on the street corner, or shout it out in church… pray in private… so it’s between you and God. The same for fasting. The HOW of fasting is that it should not be done so the people around you notice and feel sorry for you, but fasting should be done so it’s between you and God.
The WHAT question is where most folks stop. It’s not bad to stop there, but there is more. Deeper than WHAT, is that HOW question but there’s more… still deeper… the place that Lent is really meant to begin, even if it’s the place we almost always get to last… if we get there at all. That deeper place… the place where LENT is meant to begin… is with WHY. If someone asked you WHY LENT or WHY Church or even WHY faith… do you know how you’d answer?
It’s hard. It’s hard because in most of our lives we start with WHAT, we might go deeper into HOW and then maybe… but really not all that often… go from there on deeper into WHY. The season of LENT… but Ash Wednesday in particular, is meant to JAR us out of the usual and turn that WHAT, then HOW, then WHY series of questions inside out. LENT is meant to be a time where we START… WITH WHY. WHY is often avoided because its so much harder, in part because it isn’t so much spoken as it is experienced. The fullness of WHY is really beyond our ability to fully describe with words.
The answer to the WHY of Ash Wednesday is there, in between the ashes and the words which are proclaimed as you receive them, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The WHY of Ash Wednesday is right there in the space between “You are dust” on one side, and “To dust you shall return” on the other. In between those two… in the place held by a simple comma, is each of our entire lives. On one side of that comma we were dust. On the other side of that comma we will be dust again.
The WHY of Lent is there in the seemingly insignificant space of that comma… a space that actually contains the entirety of God’s amazing, grace filled, love fueled, miraculous, wonder-packed creative work that is YOU. YOU and all that you have been and all that you will ever be, is there in the space of that comma, between “You are dust” on one side, and “To dust you shall return” on the other.
The answer to WHY lies there between the dust. It is the answer, not only to the WHY of Lent but to everything else as well. WHY Lent? WHY Church? WHY Faith?... Because... between the dust on one side and dust on the other, the awesome, amazing POWER of God’s creating love, INSISTED… INSISTED… that the ENTIRETY OF ALL OF CREATION would not be complete, without your life perfectly, beautifully, fabulously filling the space between “You are dust” on the one side and “To dust you shall return” on the other.
In our busy, frantic, fear filled lives we forget that. Our forgetful world trains us to start with WHAT. Sometimes we move to HOW but we often forget to even wonder about the WHY. On Ash Wednesday we begin a season where that is turned INSIDE OUT and we BEGIN with WHY. The WHY is simply because God, with an entire universe to be concerned with, has chosen in love to carve YOU out of dust, because God is convinced that Creation... the ENTIRE Universe, would simply NOT be complete without you. The WHY is LIFE! You have been given LIFE between the dust! THAT'S the WHY! Given as an extravagant gift... to YOU... with unmeasurable love from God.
Embracing and living into that WHY... NOW you can move to HOW. HOW will you connect more deeply with the One who loves you… YOU… with an infinite amount of creative and redeeming power? Humility, passion, intimacy and dedication are some good answers to HOW. Now, WHAT are some ways you might act on that connection? Prayer, fasting and giving alms are a few ways, but by no means an exhaustive list.
WHAT are you doing for Lent turns out to be the least important question. WHAT you do for Lent or for any other day of the year for that matter... will become clear if you let the WHATs and the HOWs start from and flow out of the WHY. May you approach each of the forty days of Lent beginning each and every morning, marveling that God has loved into being your LIFE which lives now in the space between "you are dust" and "to dust you shall return." May you experience the season of Lent embraced in and living out of that wondrous WHY. Amen.