Ash Wednesday
14 February 2018

Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 51:1-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

 

There is a common theme in both the reading from Isaiah and the reading from Matthew: Don’t be hypocrites, don’t praise God with your lips and take advantage of the poor, don’t fast to increase your status, don’t give alms to make yourself look good. It is a call to integrity.

There is some semblance to the saying we occasionally have heard people express, that they don’t go to church because churches are filled with hypocrites.

And while I generally would like to take that for what I think it is – an excuse – I cannot help but admit that churches have not always been places of wholeness, blessing, and peace.

I remember once saying to Martin, a member at Peace in Abbotsford, that sometimes I feel like an imposter. Martin smiled and said that we all have times when we feel that way. Perhaps the point is for us to admit that there are times when we are imposters.

Admitting to be an imposter is a curious thing. One of the hymns we sung in youth group when I was growing up was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s hymn “By Gracious Powers”. It is No 626 in our hymn book. Bonhoeffer wrote the hymn (as a poem) while in prison. The first verse goes like this:

By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
and confidently waiting come what may,
we know that God is with us night and morning,
and never fails to greet us each new day.

These are comforting words. It is hard to imagine that Bonhoeffer wrote these verses in prison, only five months before his execution.

But the poem goes on. Verse three poses great challenges.

And when this cup you give is filled to brimming
with bitter suff’ring, hard to understand,
we take it thankfully and without trembling
out of so good and so beloved a hand.

Of course, the suffering Bonhoeffer speaks of is not a suffering we seek nor is it a good. But Bonhoeffer is writing from experience. He had been imprisoned for more than a year and a half. It is New Year’s Eve 1944, bombs are falling on Germany, but there is no sign of his release.

Bonhoeffer writes about suffering he experiences. When we sung these words in youth group we wondered how we could possibly sing this verse. We who were born during the post-war baby boom and lived a comfortable life in a democratic society, we who were young and at least in comparison knew little about suffering. Would we not be lying to ourselves and others if we sung those words, for we did not know what we would do, should suffering come to us?

I cannot remember who answered our question. It may have been our youth group leader. They said, ‘You can sing this verse not because you are able to do the things the verse describes, but because it is your prayer that if and when suffering comes to you, you may be able to discern God’s presence and grace even in your suffering.’

That made sense to us and thus these words,

And when this cup you give is filled to brimming
with bitter suff’ring, hard to understand,
we take it thankfully and without trembling
out of so good and so beloved a hand,

did not become an expression of imposterdom but they became an orientation. We sung the words expecting God to be our future and whatever the future would bring we would receive with thanks for it was from God.

(I need to add a footnote here: Bonhoeffer resisted evil, that is why he was imprisoned. Bonhoeffer’s poem is not an encouragement to conform to anything that comes along.)

Yet, Bonhoeffer affirms God’s reign in the midst of evil that appears to triumph, and his poem is an assertion that evil has no substance and must vanish, while God will prevail, for God is our life, is present in suffering, and transforms suffering. In this way, verse three echoes verse one:

By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
and confidently waiting come what may,
we know that God is with us night and morning,
and never fails to greet us each new day.

To trust God means to keep our eyes on God, as opposed to keeping our eyes on our fears, our suffering, ourselves, or our accomplishments. To trust God is to keep our eyes on Jesus.

And keeping our eyes on Jesus keeps us from becoming the hypocrites Jesus and Isaiah speaks of.

Dallas Willard once gave an address on how it is that churches that started well and strong often lose their vision and become something else.

In his answer he quotes Henri Nouwen who once said that, Nothing conflicts with the love of Christ like service to Christ. Willard’s theory is that “intense devotion to God by the individual or group brings substantial outward success (however one may want to measure that). Outward success brings a sense of accomplishment and a sense of responsibility for what has been achieved — and for further achievement. For onlookers the outward success is the whole thing. The sense of accomplishment and responsibility reorient vision away from God to what ‘we’ are doing and are to do.”1 And thus God’s vision is lost and we become something else.

What we do on Ash Wednesday and during Lent is to remember that we are imposters so that God can be God. Without knowing that we are imposters we would not be able to put our eyes on Jesus, for we would not need to. But putting our eyes on Jesus we will grow in love toward God and each other and we will see that Lent is not about less but about more, even when some of us give things up.

Amen.