February 22, 2023
Isaiah 58:1-12 Psalm 103:8-14 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Our reading from Isaiah begins with God instructing the prophet to “shout out” to the people, calling their attention to “their rebellion . . . their sins.” Isaiah asks the people, “Why do we fast, but . . . do not see? Why humble ourselves, but . . . do not notice?” He goes on to say the people are only fasting to serve their own interest, they wish to appear righteous, but they are oppressing others.
Ash Wednesday is one of the two days in the Episcopal Church that is considered a day of fasting (the other is Good Friday). Yet, here Isaiah tells the people, and us, that the fast God chooses is not to abstain from food, the fast God wants them to observe is for us “to lose the bonds of injustice . . . to let the oppressed go free . . . to share [our] bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into [our] house.” The religious observance God wants is not one of fasting or worship – God wants our love for God and one another to lead us to take action.
Like Isaiah, Jesus teaches: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” He tells us not to be “like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray [where] they may be seen by others.” Prayer, fasting, and giving are of little to no value to God if they are done for show. What is important is what our heart motivates us to do for others.
The words of the prophet Isaiah and the words of Jesus challenge us to practice our faith in tangible ways. Lent is the season for us to reflect on our faith, our relationships, and how we practice our faith. What is it we ask for in our prayers? Are we asking God for what we want for ourselves, or do we listen as we pray to hear what God wants of us? It is okay to pray for what we want, but if we only pray for what we want, we will be disappointed. Jesus teaches us to pray for God’s kingdom to come and for God’s will to be done. God’s will is quite simple, it is for us to live in a loving relationship with God and one another. If we do, what we want changes. We place the needs of others over our own self-serving desires.
Today’s gospel reading is read each year for this service. It has always given me pause to think when Jesus warns us not to leave with the ashes on our foreheads so that others can see we are religious. Jesus says, “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.” Yet, Jesus says beware, which is not the same as saying, do not. Why we do what we do is what is important. Like the passage from Isaiah and this gospel reading reminds us that God wants our hearts and our service.
So why do we have ashes smeared upon our foreheads? The practice of us having ashes imposed upon our foreheads on Ash Wednesday draws from our burial office where we say:
You only are immortal, the creator and make of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth and to the earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust.
In Genesis, God creates Adam from dust, and when the Lord expels him from the Garden of Eden this is what the Lord says to Adam, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Thus, in Lent we remember our mortality with the imposition of ashes.
Remembering that our time on earth is limited helps us reassess how we spend our lives – our time and money. Lent is time to reflect on what we believe to be most important in our lives. Does what we do with our time and money reflect what we value most in life? If not, Lent is a good time to develop plans to make whatever changes we need to make in our lives so that it reflects what we hold sacred in this life.
Let us pray.
Open our hearts, O Lord, that we might live inyour presence. Help us to overcome the obstacles that have prevented us from living our lives in you. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.