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  • Writer's pictureChurch of the Incarnation

Ashes to Ashes: What Shall Remain?

I’m going to summarize our Gospel lesson for this Ash Wednesday: Don’t use God to point to yourself, Jesus warns the disciples.

Don’t give material goods of money or food or clothing to the poor, or pray out in public on the street corners, or look like you’re going to collapse from fasting so you can to grab attention for yourself, or so that you can virtue signal your piety and righteousness, how with it you are to ‘the right people’ out there. Don’t pretend these actions are all about God when actually they’re all about making you look good to people, particularly people with power and authority whom you can then influence or even control.

Don’t use God to try and get earthly power and influence, or to quell your own insecurity and need for affirmation. Influence, power and control among people is easily lost, or stolen, if not manipulated to really terrible ends; which would then make you a hypocrite by pretending to follow God while doing the opposite of his desire for people. So don't use God to try and get attention for yourself.

Instead, Jesus says, Pray, give to the poor, fast, in private so that only God sees what you do. Now let me nuance this a bit. The point Jesus is making is not literal. How do we know that? Because of what Jesus says at the very end of this passage: “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

That last sentence implies that Jesus isn’t saying don’t do things publicly, like join in worship or singing, or talking to people about the faith, or giving to the poor. Throughout history including the OT and NT Scriptures, God’s people have rightfully done much public proclamation and almsgiving.

Instead I think what Jesus is asking us to examine our motivations for what we do. Is what we do motivated by our love of God, and of wanting others to know who God is – that he is love; that in his love he comes to us, loving God his Father and therefore bearing our sin of rejecting God, so that we might be forgiven, reconciled, healed and transformed – or is what we say and do motivated by fear?

For if we’re motivated by loving God, an act that comes about by following and coming to know him, then our actions and words are going to look like Jesus’s: they will point to God. But if our words and actions are motivated by fear and insecurity, which usually means we’re invested in the world’s judgments of our value and worth, then it’s likely how we engage other people, the decisions we make about everything, what we prioritize in life, and how we present ourselves in the world, are going to be about grabbing and keeping attention on us; about filling up a hole we feel exists in who we are or what value we have.

We get this reading on Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of Lent, for one central reason, I think: we are being reminded that this season of Lent is a time for examining what motivates our words and actions. In what ways are we tempted to turn to the things of the world without examining those things first, through God’s own desire for us and for other people, which we find in Scripture.Why are we tempted in that way? What’s under the surface of the way we act and what we say? Are we insecure? Are we lonely? Are we feeling lost about purpose and meaning? Are we sad? Are we frustrated? Are we happy and content? Are we scrambling? Are we exhausted?

Do we bring these things to God at all? Where does he play into them for us? None of these things is inherently bad. They can be quite natural to our circumstances. But the way we respond to how we feel can indicate a break in our sense of security, trust, or faith in God, and that is something to be explored in relationship with Jesus and those people we find in Scripture to whom the same thing has happened.

So this Lent, my friends, I invite you to spend time each day with God, quietly working through where you’re at in life and where you need your relationship deepened, where you need support against those things that tempt you to turn from him, or where you need answers to doubt that arises out of pain, or loneliness or loss of meaning. God does not abandon us even when we are tempted, even when we act as hypocrites. Instead he continues to call us so that we might find our hearts and minds filled once again with his life giving spirit, with abundant enough treasure that our hearts might be filled with hope and love enough to pour out to others not to point to us, but so that they too can find and be led to seek God. AMEN.

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