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      Altered in witness

      Matthew 6: Ash Wednesday February 15, 2024 by Sebastian Meadows-Helmer
      Filed Under:
      Pr. Sebastian

      On this Valentine’s Day which focusses on love, flowers and chocolate, 

      as liturgical Christians we nonetheless stick fast to the church calendar 

      by celebrating, 

      (well celebrating is perhaps the wrong word,)

      the most solemn day of the year, 

      Ash Wednesday.

      (But at least as we know, red does go well with black)!

      It is quite rare that both feasts fall on the same day; 

      the last time this happened was in 2018, 

      but then before that, it was 1945 when it last occurred.

      Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten Season.

      “Lent is often a time of self-reflection, spiritual discipline, commitment, 

      and community. 

      [This Lent through our special theme “Altered by the Spirit”, 

      we will] look at the ways the Spirit alters our perspective, 

      transforms our communities, and consistently blazes a trail ahead of us,…beckoning us forth into an alter-native way. “

      The key word for the season is “Altered” 

      A-L-T-E-R not 

      A-L-T-A-R which is a table for performing sacrifices. (Point)

      The definition for A-L-T-E-R is to “change or cause to change in character, typically in a comparatively small but significant way”, 

      and I think that’s a great way to understand what Lent is all about.

      During Lent the hope is that we are altered, 

      changed in a small but significant way, 

      when we are called to repent and 

      “summoned to a different relationship with those around us” and with God.

      Lent is a time for repentance, 

      “leaving behind the damaging ways of being and embracing the promises of God,” the God who loves us and embraces us in return.

      In the Ash Wednesday Gospel text, 

      we are again, as every year, reminded to

      beware of practicing our piety before others in order to be seen by them.

      It’s important to remember that Jesus doesn’t say that practicing piety, 

      or doing special acts of faith, is a problem.

      The problem is when we’re doing it for the wrong reasons, 

      namely to be seen by others, 

      Like when we’re practicing our faith just for show.

      This ultimately defeats the purpose, 

      and we are promised no reward for it 

      from our Father in Heaven.

      When we give to charity, pray and fast…

      it should be done quote “in secret”, just between us and God, 

      not that we’re blaring it like a trumpet 

      or standing at the corner of King and Queen, showing off.

      It’s probably obvious to us that faith is not for show,

      But the flip side is that Christian witness is also important!

      How do we witness to our faith, but not for the sake of appearance?

      The problem too often for mainline Christians and Lutherans

      is that the pendulum has swung the other way.

      We in general are too private about our faith!

      We don’t show any signs that our faith is important to us.

      Would your average friend know you’re a Christian?

      Would your neighbour know?

      The reality is that most of us, we don’t do the Lenten disciplines much, 

      I mean who fasts, really?

      Who increases their prayer time and gives more to charity?

      Who bothers coming to an Ash Wednesday service?

      Well, at least a few of you this evening!

      And this evening we do something a little strange,

      We have an ashen cross traced on our foreheads.

      Which takes us out of our comfort zone!

      It is a bit of a paradox, 

      A contradiction in terms, 

      To on the one hand - affirm that we should practice our piety in secret, 

      but then walk around, very visibly, very un-secretly 

      with black ashes on our forehead.

      Nevertheless, the purpose of our spiritual disciplines 

      is not for other people 

      but in order to consciously put God first.

      And in so doing, to inspire others, not to drive them away.

      If we appear only as self-serving hypocrites,

      Then that is just obnoxious to others around us.

      And God knows, Christians in the name of their faith 

      have done many things over the centuries 

      that have been off-putting to others.

      And so we ponder, what it means to be altered through Lent,

      To be changed and to prioritize our discipleship, 

      our following of Christ throughout the Lenten season.

      Perhaps one good illustration of that this evening 

      is how I’ll be playing the Aria, the duet by J.S Bach a little later. 

      The text in English goes:

      “I follow you, Jesus, with joyful steps and do not leave you.” 

      I’ll be playing this with an ash cross traced on my forehead.

      In a way, as Christians, we all follow Christ, 

      with a cross traced on our foreheads, 

      with the symbol of Jesus’s death and triumph etched on our skin.

      Not everyday is the cross visible. 

      Sometimes it’s more secret than others, 

      but today we get to be a little more visible with our witness 

      to Christ and the cross.


      On Ash Wednesday we ponder the meaning of a public faith:

      What does it mean to bear witness with ashes on our foreheads?

      How might our own transformation in this season be a witness to the world around us, 

      in ways that are not the hypocritical acts listed in our Gospel reading?

      What does it look like to be transformed in secret like the Gospel says, 

      but still maintain a public witness?

      One place to start is with our community 

      which gathers and grows here at St. Matts.

      This space in Downtown Kitchener which is welcoming more and more people through the work of The St. Matthews Centre, 

      our Community Hub.

      We intentionally decided to call our community hub 

      “The St. Matthews Centre”, and not a generic name like “54 Benton” 

      in order firstly to keep our branding consistent and recognizable,

      But also to bear witness to the fact that this building 

      is first and foremost a church which houses a community of faith 

      inspired by the Gospel writer named Matthew.

      All our space users should know that they are in faith-based community building serving a higher purpose.

      Another public witness is how the Food Bank of Waterloo last week shone a media spotlight on our Out of the Cold Programme, 

      which has been going on for over 20 years. 

      “Every week, a team of about 10 to 15 volunteers prepare 

      and serve 65 to 75 meals” 

      “providing not only sustenance but also a sense of belonging 

      to those in need.”

      What a wonderful witness to the community at large that our faith 

      makes a practical difference to those who are without warmth or food.

      However we choose to be altered by our witness to our faith, 

      we remember that a proper witness focusses on words and acts of love, just like how Jesus did it.

      Whether it’s sharing God’s love by chatting up newcomers or greeting them with a smile, attending Noontime Oasis, 

      or just by having patience with others, 

      and realizing that their imperfections and foibles 

      are no greater than our own.

      (“Ash Wednesday invites us into the sacred act of remembering and returning with the phrase: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” 

      Today, we are reminded of this with a bit of ashen

      dirt across our forehead as a visible sign of our mortality, 

      yes, and also our connection; our connection to the earth, 

      our connection as part of God’s whole creation, 

      our connection to the rhythms of life and of Spirit. 

      As we turn our hearts toward this connection, we remember and

      return to the One who calls us by name and who is, as the prophet proclaims, “gracious and deeply loving as a mother, quick to forgive, abundantly tender-hearted— and relents from inflicting disaster.”)

      I’d like to end this sermon with a BREATH PRAYER

      You are invited to…

      Gently pause

      Take a few moments of silence //////

      Soften your gaze or close your eyes////////

      Softly connect with your body and breath…

      As you inhale: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust

      As you exhale: Always we begin again

      3x Amen.

      *Hymn of the Day 320 “The Glory of These Forty Days


      Sources: Lent in a Box Volume 3 (Churchanew)

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