Most weeks as I am preparing my sermon at some point I call a retired priest who, for almost thirty years, has been my spiritual director, mentor, and one of my two best friends. We talk about our lives, the scriptures, my sermon ideas, and how what I am reading and studying are connecting with my life and sermons. It’s one of my favorite conversations. He is always supportive and encouraging, and our conversations are fun, creative, and challenging.
Yesterday after I spoke with him I reread today’s gospel (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21). That first line in which Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” caught my attention. Is that what I just did? And then I read those lines in which Jesus talks about people who do things “so that they may be praised by others,” “so that they may seen by others, and “so as to show others” what they are doing.
Have you ever recognized something about yourself and then had a sick feeling in your stomach, the kind of feeling you get when you’ve been caught?
I’d been busted and I couldn’t help but wonder how much or what parts of our conversations were about me wanting to be seen and recognized by him, needing his praise and approval, or wanting to show and prove myself to him. I couldn’t help but wonder in what other ways I am doing that, and with whom or what?
It was as if Jesus was pulling back the husk on those conversations and asking me to look at myself, the ways in which I too often let others determine, direct, or define my life, and why I do that. And that’s not about my friend, that’s all about me.
Maybe you understand what I am talking about. Maybe you recognize yourself in what I am describing. Maybe it’s also all about you.
- How much time and effort do you and I spend wanting to be seen by others, needing their praise, or trying to get their attention? And how does it affect us when those things happen and when they don’t?
- In what ways have we outsourced our lives to the choices, expectations, and messages of others?
- Are we authentically living our own life as best we can or are we living primarily for and through others; our parents, spouse, children, friends?
- What are the old fears, guilts, or wounds that have shaped or misshaped our lives? In what ways are they still doing that today?
- In what ways are you and I expecting someone else to give us the answer, fix our problems, make us happy, or give meaning to our life?
Today’s gospel is about so much more than how to correctly be pious, give alms, pray, or fast. It’s inviting us to consider the ways by which we let “others” direct and determine our life. When it comes to the “others” we usually have three choices:
- We serve and conform to the other, and try to imitate, repeat, or replicate him or her; or
- We resist and rebel against the other, vowing to never be anything like him or her; or
- We take responsibility for fixing and healing the other. (James Hollis, Living An Examined Life, 30)
I wonder if you see any of those in your life today. In what ways are they happening? Who or what are the “others” you are serving, resisting, or trying to fix?
It makes no difference which one we choose, in each case our lives are directed and determined by “others” and not by us. We are, Jesus says, hypocrites, pretenders, because we’re not living our life, we’re only pretending to. We’re actors living on the stage of someone else’s life.
I think that’s when we often do or say things that are destructive or harmful to ourselves or others. And it’s not because we are bad or defective. It’s because we have “a wounded vision” (James Hollis, Swamplands of the Soul, 25). We make “choices whose consequences cannot be foreseen” (Ibid.) We make choices based on the husks surrounding, containing, even imprisoning our life, rather than making choices based on the kernel that is our life.
That wounded vision is neither an excuse nor a justification for those choices. It’s a call to wake up and pay attention to what is happening around us and what is going on within us. It’s a reason to be even more diligent and intentional about the choices we make and why we make them. And it’s the ongoing insistence that we take responsibility for ourselves and our life.
So I want us to consider a different kind of Lent this year.
- First, I don’t want us to obsess about lamenting, bewailing, or bemoaning our wretchedness, sinfulness, or whatever it is we think somehow makes us bad, defective, or not enough. Lent has never been about going to those places, it’s always been about growing up and leaving those places.
What if we let today, Ash Wednesday, be the “appointment with our soul” (Hollis, Living An Examined Life, 43) when we start to pull back the husks on our life and see what’s really there?
You might know exactly what the husks are in your life today but if you’re not sure, look at the places in your life that always ache and hurt, the parts of yourself that you avoid or run from, the things that continue to haunt and disturb you, the ways in which you are stuck, the patterns you repeat over and over. There’s a husk there and chances are you are serving, resisting, or trying to fix it.
- Second, I don’t want us to spend the next forty days on a program of self-improvement as if we are nothing more than the sum of what we have done or what has happened to us.
What if we let Lent be forty days of courageously and persistently facing and dealing with what’s there when we pull back the husks? It might mean facing and dealing with embarrassment, shame, or guilt; self-doubt, disappointment, or unmet expectations; grief, loss, or betrayal; a need for recognition, praise, or perfection; despair, anger, obsession, or addictions.
Regardless of what you find when you pull back the husk, you’ll probably come face to face with what you most fear. There is no way around the fear, there is only the way through it. And on the other side of our fear lies our larger life, more of ourselves, and possibilities we never imagined.
- Finally, in just a few moments when we hear and remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return I don’t want that to be only a reminder of our mortality. We already know we’re going to die. What remains to be seen is whether we will live before we die, whether we will claim our personal authority and take responsibility for our lives, and whether we will give ourselves permission to become ourselves. That’s what today’s gospel calls “treasures in heaven,” the treasures that neither moth nor rust consume and which thieves cannot steal.
What if we let the ashes with which we are marked today be less about our ending and more about a new beginning, less about where we’ve been and more about where we are going, and less about who we’ve been and more about who we are becoming?
Remember this, “remember that you are dust and dust to you shall return,” and then answer me this: What’s the first husk you want to pull back?
Father Mike, this is one of the most impactful Ash Wednesday sermons I have ever read/heard. Thank you for the invitation to examine and admit and for reminding me of the grace that will accompany me in the process.
Wishing you a revealing Lenten season.
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Erika, I hope you have a blessed and holy Lent.
Peace be with you,
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