NOTE: This sermon mentions three benevolences known to the congregation where it was originally preached. In reading the sermon, you may wish to substitute benevolences familiar to your congregation.
Jesus warns us to practice our piety in secret. We are not to give alms, to pray, to fast in a way that plays to an audience of other people. Instead, we are to do these things in secret. And in each case, to this secret practice a blessing is attached. As Jesus tells it, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:4).
Hearing these words today, on this opening day of Lent, means that whatever we do by way of Lenten practices is not done for a human audience, whether others or ourselves. The significance of these practices appears at a different level, that place where we encounter God. This is a hidden place, concealed certainly from others, and in a real sense, a secret even from ourselves. God meets us in our depths, in places that remain beyond our conscious sight.
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Yet still it is easy for us to look upon our Lenten practices as an area where we can earn rewards, the frequent flyer miles of the spiritual life. We do well at keeping our Lenten practices, and God is pleased with us that much more. If we do not do well, if we make a scramble of Lent, then God, who sees in secret, is that much less pleased with us.
It’s easy to regard our Lenten practices in this way, perhaps unavoidable, but to do this, I think, is to miss the point. What God sees in secret is something other than our achievement.
Almsgiving, prayer, fasting–these are classic practices for Lent. There are others as well. But all of them, I have come to believe, lead us to the same place. For the sake of simplicity, let’s consider only how almsgiving, prayer, and fasting take us there.
So you give alms to help people in need or distress. Perhaps you donate to WUMCO Help to assist suffering people in this community. Perhaps you write a check for Hope in Richmond or Episcopal Relief and Development. Maybe your almsgiving is expressed in action. You visit the sick, the lonely, people in prison. The giving of alms can take any of these forms and many more. However it’s done, almsgiving brings us that much closer than usual to the raw edge of human need.
And what happens when we go there? We find out that human suffering is not a problem to be solved like an arithmetic exercise on a blackboard. Instead, we give alms and we find ourselves keeping company, directly or indirectly, with people whose suffering we would rather not have to consider. We lose our innocence again about the state of the world, we trade satisfaction for solidarity.
Someone else is fed or housed or comforted, but we are transformed. That’s the real cost of almsgiving for us. Not only do we empty out a little bit of our treasure, but we are made a bit more compassionate, perhaps against our better judgment.
This is how the Father who sees in secret rewards us. We would have settled, say, for a framed certificate of appreciation, and instead God changes our lives.
So you pray more than usual during the forty days of Lent. Perhaps you sit in silence before God for a specified period of time, or you read the daily office, or you say a certain prayer once a day. Keep this up, and in time you may make a discovery, it may be thrust upon you, that our prayer is something poor, dust and ashes before the majestic reality of God.
The devotional practices we engage in may be eloquent, orthodox, time-tested, even enjoyable, but the doing of them is full of distraction, characterized by uncertainty, an exercise in always starting over. We hardly know when we are praying or if we are praying, and whether or not it works.
We pray, or think we do, and what we discover is the poverty of our prayer, the emptiness of our words, the shallowness of our silence. Yet thus we are made a little less incapable of recognizing the generosity of God, who gladly accepts that we want to pray, or even that we want to want to pray.
Once we may have thought that prayer changes God, aligns God with our view of the world, but when our prayer falls apart in Lent, we find that through our prayer God changes us, lets us recognize ourselves for who we are. It is in this way that the Father who sees in secret rewards us.
Then there is fasting. Maybe it’s a meal regularly skipped, or certain kinds of food abstained from. There are other fasts as well. People give up alcohol, or television, or book buying, or grumpiness as part of their Lenten observance. But all the forms of fasting resemble abstinence from food. This traditional religious fasting is not done to make us trim, though it may do that; it is done to make us empty.
A fast deserving of the name will leave us hungry. We will recognize our frailty, that our lives encompass not the spiritual only, but also the biological. We are dependents of the food chain. We are based in our bodies. We cannot live on bread alone, that’s true, but without bread we cannot live at all.
The fleshly hunger that we feel as the result of our fasting reminds us of the spiritual hunger that we need to feel to be truly alive. Yet so often this spiritual hunger is sated, concealed due to the ingestion of one sort of junk food or another that lusts for our allegiance.
Hunger for God is our healthy state, yet so often our hearts are stuffed with what cannot nourish us. An empty stomach will give us hope that our hearts may become empty enough to receive the God who is our only satisfying food.
Through our fasting God changes us, reminding us that we are constituted not by our achievements or even our failures, but by our need for him, our hunger not for bread alone, but for the holy.
The practices of Lent are good for us, but not if we see them as achievements. They are instead ways in which we become aware of our poverty and awake to the generosity of God. What we seek is not a successful Lent, a check list of what we have done. What we seek instead is a holy Lent, an opening up of our poor lives so that they can be a place of resurrection.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright for this sermon 2009, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).