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Matthew 5.13-16

Matthew 6.1-6, 16-18


Ash Wednesday

In his essay titled, “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote,

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.  With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.  They may as well concern themselves with their shadow on the wall.  Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradicts everything you said today. - ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood’ – Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood?  Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh.  To be great is to be misunderstood.”

Well now, don’t misunderstand me, but as both a native and a proud resident of the Land of Steady Habits, I think consistency, foolish or otherwise, has some merit.  Which is why I am more than a little perplexed by the inconsistency between Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 which we just heard, and his words in chapter 5, which Claudia read for us.  You might remember it was just a month ago when Diane Adams and her daughter Jordan brought us some delightful music from the musical “Godspell.”   One of the songs they sang came from this very Sermon on the Mount, “You Are the Light of the World:”  “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God in heaven.”  If we’ve heard these words once, we’ve heard them a dozen times at least.  But then come the words we hear every Ash Wednesday:  “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…  So whenever you give alms, whenever you pray, whenever you fast, do not be like the hypocrites who love to be seen by others.  Instead, go into your room, shut the door, and then give your alms, and pray and fast, so that God who sees in secret will reward you.”  Well Jesus, which is it?  Shine a light so everyone can see it, or shut yourself in the closet so that only God can see it?  You can’t have it both ways, and you’re being very inconsistent.  Aren’t you?

Dr. M. Eugene Boring, who teaches at Brite Divinity School in Texas – you can already guess what someone named Dr Boring is going to say about consistency, right? – Boring points out that Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount are really meant to be taken proverbially, meaning there are some places they apply and some places they don’t.  And he offers some other examples.  “Look before you leap” is wise counsel, but then again, so is “The one who hesitates is lost.”  So which is it?  Again, we’ve heard, “Fools rush in where angel fear to tread,” and then there is “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!”  Aren’t these proverbs, or popular phrases, inconsistent with one another?  Here are two more from the biblical prophets.  We probably recognize the words of the Isaiah, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”  But then we turn to the prophet Joel, who contrarily prophesied, “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears.”  So which is it?  Where is the consistency?  Enquiring hobgoblins want to know.

Perhaps it is just an inconsistency we have to live with.  After all, Lent is a season of inconsistencies and contradictions, isn’t it?  We have lived for so long with the idea that we have to give something up for Lent, and then along comes our minister who suggests we might want to add something to our devotional lives rather than subtract anything.  Of course, as Matt Laney rightly asks in his devotion for this first day of Lent, “I’ve heard a lot of progressive Christians say they don’t like the idea of giving something up for Lent… More than one has told me they prefer to take something on.  But I find myself wondering, “Where do they put it?  How do they manage it?”  Good questions.  Sometimes consistency and inconsistency just have to be held in tension, and Lent seems like the right season to do it.  Lent, after all, is the season of the crucified messiah, a contradiction in terms of epic proportions.  As we heard a week ago Sunday, God chose what is foolish to shame the wise, for God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.  So whether we choose to take on something extra by giving something up for Lent, or choose to give something up by taking on something extra, at least it is in the same spirit of consistent inconsistency.  Or is that inconsistent constancy? 

There is yet one more inconsistency we hold in tension during Lent, and it is that precarious balance between sin and forgiveness.   The contemporary church doesn’t talk that much about sin anymore, but by whatever name we call it, we continue to make choices and decisions that hurt our relationships with others, with God, and as a result, with ourselves as well.  And while Lent is the season for naming our sin and complicity, it is also the season to remember that in Jesus Christ, we are a forgiven people.  This word of forgiveness, this assurance of God’s pardon, is what ends our every Ash Wednesday service.  It is not a facile or glib assurance we receive, but rather a deep and abiding conviction that the grace of God is more powerful than my own inclination to make poor choices or cause hurt or harm to someone else.  And even on this first day of Lent, it is something for which we can be both mindful and grateful.

Let’s give writer F. Scott Fitzgerald the last word on this.  Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  So go ahead – put your light on a lampstand so everyone can see it at the same time you offer your prayers, your alms and your fasting in the closet where only God can see.  The hobgoblins will be happy.

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