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Single-minded Devotion

  • February 14, 2018
  • 12:00 PM

Sermon for Ash Wednesday (February 14, 2018)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Isaiah 57:14-21; Psalm 103 & 51; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

My dear friends, it is good for us to be here together on this day.

But I want to know what you are going to do after I anoint you with this mixture of ashes and oil in just a few minutes?

Will you keep the ashes on your forehead for the rest of the day (night)?

Someone who doesn’t know this ancient practice might say to you, “Hey, you’ve got dirt on your forehead!” What will you say? Is this an opportunity to talk about your faith?

OR does this contradict what the Lord taught about doing our works in secret, and not to be seen by others?

The last thing that we want to do is to be a hypocrite. Yes, we are all hypocrites at some level. None of us can be perfectly consistent in making our actions match our stated beliefs.

We all fall short. After all, that is why we have days like Ash Wednesday!

But, at the same time, we know that hypocrisy is one thing that really made Jesus angry.

Hypocrisy, and those in positions of power who took advantage of others.

Yes, when he walked this earth, Jesus was kind and compassionate and loving to all of those who were humble and contrite – to all of those who came to him with their need for help.

And, on a deeper theological level, we in the Church understand Jesus to be the very embodiment of God’s good and loving intention for humanity.

The Bible says unequivocally that God is Love and this love is seen in Jesus, the Savior and Redeemer of the world.

And YET, none of this means that he was some kind of pushover. Some weakling who lacked any kind of spine.

No, Jesus got angry. He got mad. Especially when men with power used their power for personal pleasure and profit. Oh, he did not like that at all – and he still doesn’t!

But he also got angry at hypocrites. People who were like actors on the stage. That’s the original meaning of the word, hypocrite. People who wore masks on the stages of the Greek amphitheaters of his day. People who put on a show so that others would think well of them.

If you want to do that, you most certainly can. It’s quite easy to do – to manipulate what people think of you, to manage public opinion through a carefully crafted public persona. You can do that quite easily and, as Jesus said, you will get your reward. It’s rather simple.

However, IF you are actually thinking about God, IF it is God who you want to think well of you, that is a different process – and a different result. You can do this. Jesus is quite clear about this. You can pray and give and fast in secret- and your Father who sees in secret WILL notice and will hear and will see.

You CAN connect with the God who made you, with the One who breathed life into you within your mother’s womb. You CAN draw near to the One who has kept you alive until this very day. You CAN store up treasures in heaven that are completely safe and secure.

But, what you CANNOT do, is to do both!

You cannot have your awareness divided between pleasing God and pleasing people at the same time. It is just impossible. Just as impossible as loving two different people with complete devotion at the same time. It just cannot be done. (Today is also Valentine’s Day, after all!).

You cannot love God and love money at the same time. People are just not built this way. Water cannot simultaneously be in a solid and liquid and gaseous state all at the same time. I cannot tell you exactly why, but this is just the way the universe works!

Humans cannot have divided loyalties at the deepest level. It just does not work. If we try to do that, we will be living a lie. We must choose.

So what will you do with the ashes on your forehead? I cannot tell you what to do. But I CAN tell you this:

The Lord Jesus invites us today to a life of deep and honest commitment to God, not so that others will think well of us, but so that we can experience life in its fullness, abundant life that is discovered when humans live at peace with God, within themselves, and with the world.

It IS possible. But we must commit ourselves to this path – today and everyday.

May it be so in your life and in mine. Amen.

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