Ash Wednesday Homily

The following homily was given this morning at our Ash Wednesday service.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

The best movie of 1995 was “Tommy Boy”, starring Chris Farley and David Spade. It’s the story of Callahan Auto, a family-owned car parts distributer that was on the brink of foreclosure, due in no small part to the growing commercial success of Zalinsky Auto, a juggernaut in the industry. Early in the film, “Big Tom” Callahan dies, leaving the future of the company in the hands of his slacker son, Tommy (Chris Farley). Tommy was paired up with Richard (David Spade) to travel the country in an effort to make enough sales to keep their business from closing its doors. While on the road they would see commercials for Zalinsky Auto and cringe when Ray Zalinsky (Dan Aykroyd) would close every commercial spot with the words:

I make car parts for the American working man, because that’s who I am, and that’s who I care about.”

They were right words to say, but Tommy and Richard knew that they were just words. They sounded right, but the reality was different.

We live in a world of moral disclaimer.

Almost every major product line out there now comes with some sort of pronouncement that points to their moral mindfulness.

Ethically sourced coffee beans

Ecologically sustainable furniture

Environmentally safe clothing

There’s a funny moment in a Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee episode when Jerry Seinfeld and John Oliver are talking about certain words they use in their acts, about which they know very little, such as the word “sustainable.” Oliver says, “I don’t really know what it means but it makes people feel better when I say it.”

The right words.

We see something quite related in our Gospel reading for today, where Jesus sheds light on the human tendency to take good and pious behaviors and use them as a way to announce something about ourselves.

The acts of charity, prayer, and fasting, were all wonderful and effective behaviors for people of faith to participate in. They still are. Jesus wasn’t criticizing people who did these things; Jesus did them as well. The concern Jesus had was that people would reach a point when these things were dislocated from their divine purpose, and had simply become an outward display of the right things but perhaps done in the wrong spirit.

The words of Jesus here are homework for the Christian during this season. They push us to think deeply about our own intentions, about our inner world and its connection to our daily actions in life.

The push is towards congruency.

Of being who you say you are.

But the reality is this: it’s almost impossible to always live a congruent life, especially when it comes to our faith.

It’s a difficult task to live the Jesus way.

Grace is needed in order for us to even keep trying.

We are, without a doubt, a conflicted and contradictory people.

Anyone who has put in the effort and the time towards a Christlike existence knows firsthand that most days it isn’t doable.

We have the right words, and often that’s all we have.

The season of Lent is one that allows the Church the opportunity to be honest with itself, and to think deeply about these things. It is a season to reflect on and even repent of our tendency to live inconsistent lives.

Lent enables us to face ourselves, to see the weak places, to touch the wounds in our own soul, and to determine to try once more to live beyond our lowest aspirations.” – Joan Chittister, O.S.B.

But Lent is also a trap.

Because it is the season of the “fast”, the practice of withholding the privileges and vices that distract us from God’s presence and God’s will, we often find ourselves doing battle with our own wills over some personal effort of abstinence from coffee or alcohol or smoking or social media, which is often a combination of all three.

Like when my friends say they’re fasting from Social Media during Lent and then within a few days I notice that they saw my story on Instagram.

It’s just too hard.

Some people make it through, but most don’t.

As I say every year: “Nobody wins Lent. In fact, losing is the point.”

It’s in the losses that we remember how much we need grace.

The most graceless people on earth are those that haven’t yet been found out.

And this season of self-reflection and repentance, and the hope of renewal, begins here on Ash Wednesday. In a moment we’ll rub ashes across our foreheads in the shape of the cross.

The ashes themselves are a tracer back to the failure of Adam in Genesis, when God says to him: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19)

The ashes remind us of our frailty as a people.

We are not invincible nor are we on the track to perfection.

The ashes, also in the shape of the cross, remind us of our need for grace.

And so, we join Christians across the world today in this tradition that marks the beginning of the Lenten season, and that also marks our awareness and admission of our own imperfections, which is, by the way, the quickest route to extending grace to others.

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. – Collect for Ash Wednesday (BCP)

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