What Are You Giving Up for Lent This Year?

Sermon Preached March 9, 2011 - Ash Wednesday
St. Mark's Episcopal Church (Evanston, IL)

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent – a season which takes us from this day through to Easter. It is 40 days long (we don’t count the Sundays) and is linked to Jesus’ time in the wilderness.[1] The Reverend Margaret Jones calls Ash Wednesday “a wake-up call.” She writes:
“Ash Wednesday hits us squarely between the eyes, forcing us to face mortality and sinfulness. We hear Scripture readings that are urgent and vivid. We have black ashes rubbed into our foreheads. We recite a Litany of Penitence that takes our breath away, or should. . . .On Ash Wednesday we come to church to kneel, to pray, and to ask God’s forgiveness, surrounded by other sinners. Human sin is universal; we all do it, not only Christians. But our church tradition sets aside Ash Wednesday as a particular day to address sin and death. We do this mindful that ‘God hates nothing God has made and forgives the sins of all who are penitent.’ We are ALL sinners, no better and no worse than our brothers and sisters. This is not a day to compete ("my sins are worse than yours are"), but to confess…. Ash Wednesday is the gateway to Lent. We have forty precious days to open ourselves up most particularly to God, to examine ourselves in the presence of one who created us, knows us, and loves us. We have forty days to face ourselves and learn to not be afraid of our sinfulness. We are dust, and to dust we shall return, but with God’s grace we can learn to live this life more fully, embracing our sinfulness, allowing God to transform us.”[2]
In a little while you will be invited to “the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” These words, directly from our Book of Common Prayer, explain what types of things we ought to focus on during Lent. Most of us are familiar with the “fasting and self-denial” aspect as we vow to give up chocolate or coffee or a night at a restaurant with friends. In fact, But I’ve often wondered if this type of fasting – giving up of special treats - during Lent helps us to focus on God, helps us to become more aware of God’s message of forgiveness and a love that trumps all. I suppose each time you think about reaching for a candy bar or another cup of coffee, you are instead called back to your Lenten journey and your focus on God – or are you instead focused on a countdown of days until you can have that next bite? Or, if you are like me, wondering if it counts if you sneak a piece of chocolate on Sunday – after all Sundays aren’t counted in the 40 days of Lent. So much for my focus on God’s love. To be sure, our “giving up” of something we enjoy is a way in which we join – albeit in a VERY small way – join in the suffering Jesus went through as he was tempted by Satan – suffering that readied him for his great calling. But I am hard-pressed to believe that my denying myself coffee, chocolate or a variety of other vices is really preparing me for whatever great calling God has in mind for my life. Does our denying ourselves a piece of cake even remotely compare to the life Jesus gave up for our salvation?

What if instead of giving up a “treat” of one sort or another, we instead focused on giving up one or more of our less than desirable behaviors or character defects? Here are just a few possibilities taken from the book of Proverbs:
eyes that are arrogant, a tongue that lies, hands that murder the innocent, a heart that hatches evil plots, feet that race down a wicked track, a mouth that lies under oath, a troublemaker in the family[4] -
or perhaps you are more familiar with this list: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.[5]

What might it look like if we were to give up just one of these habits this Lenten season? Greed: next time I go to my closet, instead of lamenting my inability to decide what to wear, perhaps I should instead thank God that I am so fortunate to have clothes to choose from. Or, an even bolder step, perhaps I should go through those clothes and choose a couple of items in new or like-new condition and donate them to a local thrift shop so that I might rid myself of the vice of pride and greed and, at the same time, share the generosity of God with a neighbor in need.

What might it look like if we were to give up just one of these habits this Lenten season? Gluttony: next time someone suggests that we go out to eat, what if instead, I invite them to come over for a simple meal. Or, an even bolder step, what if we join together for a simple meal and give the money we would have spent on dinner out to a local pantry or soup kitchen so that our neighbors in need might eat a simple meal as well.

What might it look like if we were to give up just one of these habits this Lenten season? A mouth that lies under oath: Next time a colleague asks what I did this weekend, instead of saying, “oh, nothing much” – what if instead I said, “I joined my friends at church where we encountered God through singing together, praying together, reading Scripture together, and listening together.”

What might it look like if we were to give up just one of these habits this Lenten season? Just one. . . and who knows but maybe this bit of self-denial, this type of fasting, will become so habit-forming during these 40 days that you will find that God has transformed your life for ever. What are you giving up for Lent this year?

[1] Mark 1:12-13.
[2] From Margaret Jones, “Ash Wednesday - A Wake-up Call,” Calvary Episcopal Church (Memphis, TN), February 25, 2004, Ash Wednesday accessed online on February 25, 2009.
[3] Isaiah 58:3b-5.
[4] Proverbs 6:16-19 (The Message).
[5] This more familiar list is contained both in the writings of Pope Gregory the Great (6th c.) and Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy (14th c.)