Sermon for Ash Wednesday Yr C, 25/02/2004
Based on Matt 6:1-6, 16-21
By Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson,
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of the Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
She had been a charter member of Trinity Church when it was founded just after World War II. She was an “original” and she was faithful. Every Sunday she sat in the same place, third pew on the right, just past the first large pillar. Generations of members of Trinity Church had grown accustomed to seeing her sit in that pew. Few knew her name, however. She didn’t mingle much and it didn’t seem like she wanted to be bothered much by small talk. So the folks just called her, “The Lady in Blue.” That’s because she almost always wore a blue dress to church. “The Lady in Blue” and her place in the pew had become part of the fabric of life at Trinity.
And then, one Sunday, her place was vacant. “The Lady in Blue” was nowhere to be seen. Everyone noticed, you couldn’t help it. There was just a kind of vacuum at Trinity Church that morning. The pastor announced from the pulpit that their “Lady in Blue,” whose name was actually Grace Givens, had passed away early that morning of a sudden heart attack. The funeral would be on Wednesday morning at 10 at Trinity.
Quite a few of the older members of the congregation gathered that Wednesday morning to pay their respects to this woman whom hardly anyone even knew by name. After the committal service many of them gathered back at the church for a light lunch. Grace Givens’ daughter had come back to town for the occasion. Her name was April Givens. April had spent the days prior to the funeral making arrangements for the burial service and going through her mother’s things. She got quite an education as she sorted through her mother’s belongings, diaries and financial affairs.
“So sorry about your mother’s passing,” Tom Warren said to April. “We hardly knew her, you know. But she was always in her place on Sunday morning.”
“Are you the Warrens whose son Frank had such a sickly spell some years back?” April Givens asked.
“Yes yes we are. Why do you ask?”
“Well,” said April, “I ran across your name and Frank’s name in mother’s prayer diary. For a long period of time it appears that Mom prayed for your family for an hour each day.”
“For us,” Tom replied with unbelief in his eyes. “I had no idea she even knew who we were.”
April Givens had many conversations like this the day of the funeral. When she met the Browns she told them that she had discovered that it was her mother who totally funded the scholarship the church gave for their son to get through college. “We had no idea,” said the Browns.
There were many more whom “The Lady in Blue” had prayed for and helped out through her years of membership at Trinity. April Givens revealed some of the secrets of Grace Givens’ life that day to the people of this congregation. Their responses all sounded about the same. “But I hardly knew her.” “How did she even know we had that need?” “Why would she do that for us?” “I didn’t even know her name.”
The people of Trinity Church were dumbfounded to discover all the myriads of ways that their “Lady in Blue” had served their needs through the years. It was astonishing. It was the best kept secret in Trinity Church. The dedication of “The Lady in Blue” was a secret on earth; it was not, of course, a secret in heaven. 1
In today’s gospel, Jesus gives us all a very serious warning against false, ostentatious piety. He knew that human nature, in its sinful state, always wants to show off; to be recognised and praised by others; to feel important; to be superior. Jesus is warning us against making a parade out of our almsgiving, praying and fasting in order to become the centre of attention. He is emphasising that self-glorification or self-promotion is not the right motive for almsgiving, praying and fasting.
The disciplines of almsgiving, prayer and fasting—when done with the right motives—will help our faith to mature and grow. Such motives are, Jesus says, because we can’t help ourselves; in response to what God in Christ has done for us; we will certainly want to respond in loving ways to care for the needs of others—but, following the example of Grace Givens, we shall do them without being ostentatious; without seeking self-aggrandisement.
These disciplines of almsgiving, prayer and fasting are a necessary part of life for Christians, even though they certainly are not popular. Just as a musician needs the discipline of practice to play or sing well—so we need these disciplines to grow and mature in our faith. With the right motives, almsgiving, prayer and fasting can help us grow closer to our Saviour. They can also help us appreciate more the suffering and death of Christ. Ash Wednesday, then, is really an invitation to begin once again at the beginning of our faith journey; to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus; to die to sin, self-centredness, pride, false piety and a thousand other things; which prevent us from faithfully serving our God and Saviour. May we accept this invitation of the Christ, and journey with him to the cross. For it is through his suffering dying and death on that cross that we are given the gift of life. Amen.
1 Cited from: Richard A. Jensen, “The Lady In Blue,” in 56 Lectionary Stories For Preaching (Lima, OH: The CSS Publishing Co., Ltd., 1993), pp. 37-38.