Read this sermon from the Rev. Stephanie Cooper titled “How Do You Practice Your Piety?” from our Ash Wednesday service on Wednesday, February 14, 2018.
I’ve always been told that God sees everything you do. As a little kid or teenager, that is sort of a scary thought. God sees everything? And too often, this thought of God seeing everything was used as a warning. God is always watching. My 15-year-old self can still feel the anxiety of worrying about God spying on me when I was swooning over the Spice Girls. 15-year-old Stephanie didn’t want to be gay, and I was worried I’d disappoint my “heavenly father” if my true colors were to be revealed.
And that’s how this sentiment of “God is always watching” is often perceived. It’s almost always warning not to do something— rather than the invitation that Matthew’s Gospel points to.
Matthew’s gospel warns again practicing your piety. When you give to the needy, don’t sound the trumpets. When you pray, don’t do it from the steps of the synagogues. When you fast, don’t distort your face so that others know that you are fasting.
Sort of an odd text for the one night of the year where we mark our heads with ashes and leave this place clearly practicing a Lenten discipline.
But the ashes of tonight should draw you inward. It should cause you to examine the depths of your heart to see where transformation can occur.
Matthew’s Gospel tonight begs the question: who’s your audience? Why are you doing what you’re doing? Is it so you can be seen and praised by others? Or is so that you might elongate that connection with the Holy and to be transformed by the renewing of your mind (as Romans 12:2 reminds us)?
It’s like the idea that the way you act when you think no one is watching is the most authentic look at the kind of person you really are. When we practice these disciplines of praying, fasting, giving and serving, it draws us towards that deep spring of God’s love and compassion for us so that we are transformed to be that love and compassion in the world.
Because it’s not about what other people think; it is all about what God knows of your heart.
This is what the Lenten invitation means. We are invited to take a look inward as we journey these forty days towards the cross. You are invited to take on a fast or a discipline for these forty days. Whether you give something up or take on something more, through this practice, we look inward into our own hearts so that we might find ourselves in the heart of God. And where is the heart of God? Compassion, grace, mercy.
It’s as the prophetic book of Isaiah (in chapter 58) reminded us so long ago:
God asks, “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed for others to see
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
Or- is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free…
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
It is then that your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your Holiness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard, your protection
Then you will call, and God will answer;
you will cry for help, and God will say: Here am I.”
What fast will you choose? How will you choose to spend these forty days?