February 17, 2021 – Ash Wednesday


Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

“Secret Disciplines”

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” Jesus warns us in the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday.

I suppose there’s not much danger of that for most of you who are participating in this service from the privacy of your homes tonight. Our avoidance of in-person gatherings during the Covid-19 Pandemic means that no one sees whether or when you attend worship. No one knows whether you take time to read the sermon that arrives in the mail each week. There is no one to impress or to show off to with your faithfulness in worship or prayer or tithing.

I, on the other hand, am doing my praying rather more publicly than usual. Instead of the normal 80-90 people gathered here in the church, these livestreamed videos are posted and shared for anyone to watch – hopefully to inspire and encourage people in their faith, rather than to impress them with the minister’s eloquence or the musicians’ talent.

But it seems to me that this locked-down Lent provides an opportunity to reflect on our spiritual practices, committing ourselves to the disciplines that may help us to live out our faith more fully, without wrong motivations (like impressing other people) getting in the way.

Jesus comments on three basic spiritual practices that religious folk in his time were engaged in, and which we might embrace as well. Although the context, content, and media may have changed from the first century to the 21st century… and although some of the methods have even changed from early 2020 to today, at their core, these practices remain the same.

First, Jesus talks about giving alms. These are the gifts and offerings we give in order to assist others who are struggling. We give to our church so that the good news may be proclaimed to all people, inviting others to experience the life, hope, and joy of living as God’s beloved children and disciples of Jesus. We give to missions of service so that the hungry are fed, the homeless find a home, and all people are treated with the care and dignity they deserve. We give our time, our talent, and our care as well – offering our lives in service to others – showing our thanks to God by loving our neighbours in practical ways.

In these days, we do not pass an offering plate, and no one sees what you are giving. You mail in a donation, or send an e-transfer. You set up pre-authorized giving so that it happens automatically without you even thinking about it. You respond to a special need or an appeal when your heart tells you to do so.

Jesus says, “when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret.” There won’t be any trumpets sounding when you get out your phone or tablet and click on the donate button to give something extra for refugees struggling in another part of the world or people in our community suffering from homelessness and this extremely cold and virus-ridden winter. But your gifts will make a difference, enacting God’s love and embodying Christ’s presence in the world. And God who sees in secret will reward you, no matter the size of your gift.

Next, Jesus talks about prayer. He tells us to go into our room, and shut the door, and pray to God who is in secret. Our prayers also, will be seen by God in secret and rewarded only by God. After all, prayer is simply a conversation with God. It is the back-and-forth of regular talking and listening with our heavenly parent who made us and who loves us.

Just think of other relationships that you have with people in the world. And imagine if you only talked with your spouse or your friends in order to be “seen to be talking with them” by others. Authentic relationships are nurtured through the time people spend together in conversation, shared activity, and caring for each other in the midst of life. The quality time we spend with our loved ones is not just for the sake of posting about it on social media, for example.

And the same is true of our relationships with God. When we engage in the spiritual practice of prayer, God sees in secret. And indeed, we are rewarded, most especially as we are strengthened and encouraged by the loving relationship with God that grows.

The final spiritual practice that Jesus mentions is fasting. This is the one that leads to the Lenten discipline of “giving something up” for Lent. Now, it’s not necessarily about giving something up for our own benefit – like giving up chocolate so we can lose weight, or giving up coffee so we can conquer our caffeine addiction. Giving something up for Lent (or fasting) is about setting aside some luxury or comfort that we don’t really need, doing without some food or activity that we will miss a little bit. And the purpose of that fasting is to draw our attention to God, and perhaps also to our other spiritual disciplines of prayer and giving.

Perhaps we will take the money we would have spent on that thing we’ve given up, and choose to give it towards a mission of love. Perhaps we will take the time we would have spent on that thing we’ve given up, and use it for prayer.

No, you don’t need to tell anyone what you’re fasting from in this season. It is not about either looking dismal or feeling dismal, but it’s about turning our attention towards God who loves us and is inviting us to draw near once again.

I still wish that I could see you all here at worship together – that I could witness your prayer, celebrate your generosity, and be inspired by your fasting. But in the quiet of your rooms at home, in the privacy of your personal finances, and in the secret places of your hearts, I pray that you will practice your faith fully and deeply during this Season of Lent.

May God who sees you in secret bless you with the best reward of all: May you know God’s loving presence with you each day, blessing you with peace, joy, and hope for today and tomorrow.