Sometimes the most difficult thing we do with our day, or with life in general, is to prioritize, to sort out, to make triage decisions with our time, our calendar, our energies. Of course, we make these decisions based on our priorities, on what we value, and rank as important.
Thirty years ago my parents were moving from the New York suburb in Westchester County where I grew up, to a small town in eastern Connecticut. At that time, it was even more rural than it is now, with a number of working farms. And because my father had his business at home, one of the tasks to be taken care of while they were settling in, was getting the office up and running. The house was 200 years old so it needed a lot of electrical work to accommodate a fax line, a copier, and a desktop computer. On the appointed day the electrician arrived and began to get the office in order. But at about 11:45, the electrician told my father that he was taking a break for lunch. In his family, it was his job to make lunch for his children who were at home. My dad didn’t like this at all; he wanted the man to stay and finish the job right then. But the electrician said to ad, “Mr. Geer, you city people have to get your priorities straight!” So the man went home, took care of his children’s lunch, and returned about an hour and a half later, and the work got done…just not on my father’s timetable.
Lent is all about getting our priorities straight, and Ash Wednesday helps us to do that in a very clear and stark way, in the context of our mortality. That is why we receive ashes today; we are literally wearing our mortality on our forehead. With that framework we can see life a little more clearly.
In the Gospel we heard Jesus talk about three traditional practices or disciplines that were well-known to all Jews of the first century: alms-giving to the poor, prayer, and fasting. These disciplines are still core practices for Christians; that’s why we hear about them on Ash Wednesday. These traditional Lenten disciplines are all inter-related. When we fast from food that is expensive (say a nice juicy steak), we are supposed to take the money that we would have spent on that steak and give it to someone else in need. And of course, when we give to the needy, it reminds us to pray for them and their concerns, as well. And praying for others reminds us that we should be praying for ourselves, also. As we pray for ourselves and become for open to God we are led into further Christian spiritual practices. The Lenten disciplines are all of a piece.
Jesus has something to say about these three particular practices. He says we should do them simply, for God. He tells to do them “forgetfully” – not to pay attention to ourselves fasting, praying, giving – at least as much as we are able not to watch ourselves. The idea is that we don’t want to draw the attention of others to what we are doing.
The goal of these spiritual disciplines is integrity; that means having our outward appearance and our inner reality match up, be in alignment with each other as much as possible.
Jesus mentions the word “reward.” He says that God will repay us for what he sees us do in “secret,” in private, known only to us. We don’t know what that reward will be; Jesus doesn’t tell us. But we certainly know that one result of these disciplines is that we will get to know God better. That’s the general outcome, that applies to everyone; but there are other things that may happen to us as each of us needs, depending on what it is that should be developed further in us. Some of the results that we might need may an increase in humility, or faithfulness, or peacefulness, or strength. We might need to be more courageous, more generous, more patient or honest. Perhaps we need to be more trusting or compassionate.
But all of these character traits and spiritual growth and development only happen when we are rooted and grounded in Christ. And we do this by getting our priorities straight, by focusing on Jesus, by being his apprentices. This is the road and the task before us this Lent. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
March 1, 2017