The purpose of our faith practices is not to improve our reputation or to prove to others our holiness. The purpose of our faith practices, rather, is to deepen our relationship with God, to practice humility, and to go about our daily lives with intention and focus.
Vicar Anna Helgen
Ash Wednesday, year C
text: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you and peace, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Around this time two years ago, I was just beginning my spring semester at Luther Seminary, and I was signed up for a bunch of classes, including Lutheran Confessions. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this class, not because I wasn’t interested in learning about the Lutheran Confessions, but because I was dreading one of the assignments: memorizing Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. The Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, the Sacrament of the Altar, all the explanations to those things, plus all 28 articles of the Augsburg Confession.
I am not good at memorizing things. I can do it, sure, but it takes me a long time. So I knew this would be a challenging assignment for me. I spent hours pacing through our condo in St. Paul, reading off of notecards, and then repeating back to myself. “I believe that God has created me together with all that exists. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason and all mental faculties.” And so on and so forth.
Well, in the midst of all these studies, my dear grandmother became sick. She quickly entered hospice care and my family rushed to be with her in her final days. For the next week we kept our own sort of vigil with Grammy. It was lovely to spend that time with her, and amidst the grief and tears, there were holy moments of laughter and joy.
And then one morning, very early, she died. My mom and I had spent the night with her, and I woke up early in the morning to the sound of silence, quite a contrast to the erratic rattling breathing we’d heard as we fell asleep. I woke up my mom, and together we went in to check on Grammy. And she was gone. Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
So we did the only thing we knew how to do: we prayed the Lord’s Prayer together. And at the end I felt such peace, because in my head I was hearing all those explanations that I’d memorized, especially the explanation to the seventh petition: ”And deliver us from evil.”
What does this mean, you might ask? “We ask in this prayer, as in a summary, that our Father in heaven may deliver us from all kinds of evil--affecting body or soul, property or reputation--and at last, when our final hour comes, may grant us a blessed end and take us by grace from this valley of tears to himself in heaven.” Embedded in this petition is a promise that through Christ we shall overcome all things, even death.
Together we clung to that promise, my mother and I, to that blessed end. Which is also a beginning. God’s beginning for us. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
As we hear these words today and make our way into the season of Lent, we too are reminded of our own mortality. That without God, our lives are dust and ashes. They are empty vessels. Today, we remember that it's not about us. That with God, the Spirit gives us life abundant. Fullness. And hope.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us some clues about how we might live fully, with God at the center of all that we do. “Give alms, pray, and fast,” Jesus says. But he doesn’t invite us to these practices, he assumes that we already do them. “Whenever you give alms...whenever you pray...whenever you fast.”
I like this. Because it reminds us that there is value in the faith practices that we already do. His point, of course, is that we don’t show off. The purpose of these faith practices is not to improve our reputation or to prove to others our holiness. That is how we store up treasures on earth, “where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.” There is shallowness there. And emptiness.
The purpose of our faith practices, rather, is to deepen our relationship with God. To practice humility. To surrender. To go about our daily lives with intention and focus. This is how we store up treasures in heaven--treasures with God that cannot be taken away from us. Practicing our faith with intention helps us to live confidently in Christ’s promises for us. We have courage to go into the world and live as God’s people, knowing that we are forgiven, loved, and blessed. Here there is depth. Meaning. And promise. For today and all the days ahead.
In this season of Lent, as many of us may begin a spiritual discipline, I appreciate that Jesus gives us permission to carry on in our normal business, but with this new intention. At the time when I was memorizing Luther’s Small Catechism, I certainly didn’t see it as a faith practice. It was homework! But after days and days of memorizing, it became a practice for me. A habit where I’d spend an hour or so each day working on the Small Catechism.
Soon, the explanations to these important confessions of faith became a part of me. They weren’t just words on a notecard; they became truths that I lived out in the world. This practice changed the way I experienced life. And when confronted directly with my mortality and the mortality of someone I love, I had hope. I heard Christ’s promise of the resurrection. And I believed it. Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Those seminary professors knew something when they assigned this exercise. While the words may fade from memory (and many of them have), God’s promise of hope made known to us in Jesus Christ certainly will not. And that is the purpose of our Lenten disciplines: that we may be moved from our self-centeredness to God-centeredness.
In Lent, we remember that our faith practices are gifts of God, gifts that bring us back into relationship with God--who forms us from dust, who by his death and resurrection gives us eternal life, and who makes us holy and equips us for the work of the kingdom. We give extra focus during Lent so that these practices might become a part of who we are, so that during the rest of the year we can simply live out this intention and embody God’s love in the world.
In the coming weeks, may you continue in your faith practices with intention. May you have the courage to live out your faith boldly for the sake of the world. And, when you need some extra encouragement, may you be immersed in God’s abundant grace: a grace so amazing it turns endings into beginnings and brings life out of ashes. Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.