Each spring, Harvard Divinity School's Office of Ministry Studies organizes the Billings Preaching Prize Competition, an annual preaching competition open to second- and third-year MDiv students. The finalists delivered their sermons at the Wednesday Noon Service on April 11, 2018.
Below are the remarks of competition winner Hal Edmonson, MDiv ’18.
A reading from the Gospel of Matthew 6
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
It started a few days before Christmas. I tried to turn the key in the lock to my apartment, and found that I couldn’t quite do it . A glass slipped out of the same left hand the next night over drinks with friends. Dexterity isn’t my strong suit, I’d be the first to admit, but the morning after that, I awoke to find a strange tingling in my arm, and a muscle that wouldn’t stop twitching. It didn’t stop me from doing anything important, but right when I thought it was just one of those things, or that I’d just slept on it funny, it would come back again—fainter, or stronger, depending on the hour. Not obvious, or painful, just there, a little weaker.
It will go away. These things always do. But it didn’t. The trouble with having spent a great deal of time thinking about the way we handle illness in our society, and having spent a great deal of time in hospitals working with patients with ALS, or MS, or Parkinsons, is that you have no shortage of ideas about what such symptoms can portend. There were days when I reasoned that the odds of this being anything bad were very remote, but when Ash Wednesday dawned, I couldn’t really see any other explanation than that this was the early stages of something very, very bad.
Now, I know that nothing gives a sermon instant credibility quite like believing that it’s a preacher’s last one. It’s homiletic cheating, really—I mean, are you going to argue? So I need to spoil the ending a bit and say, right here, that if you had placed your bet on my being a hypochondriac, and needing to spend a little bit less time thinking about burial practices and death and dying, you can come down and collect your prize at the end.
But I don’t think you can spend much time with the dying and not imagine yourself there. Funny enough, I don’t imagine the moment of my death nearly as much as I try to envision the moment that I learn that I am going to die. I’d always sort of pictured a serene moment, overcome with gratitude, but that’s not how it was, sitting in a darkened church on an Ash Wednesday Eve, this smudge of dust on my forehead.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know I thought a lot about Netflix, and how much of the world I could have saved with those hours. Or every argument I hadn’t quite forgiven. I wondered if I should follow the example of a medieval French monarch or two, and devote the rest of my time to prayer in a monastery. Like any good millennial, I thought that narrating my own quest for a good death would make a nice podcast, maybe. But mostly, I was afraid, and angry. Afraid of pain, I suppose, but mainly angry at the injustice of it, at the future I’d envisioned that at that moment, I didn’t believe would happen; at spending all this time working on how to help others contend with mortality, only to shuﬄe oﬀ this mortal coil before putting any of it into practice; I’ve made something of an academic career out of steering people away from theodocies, only to fall into the most pernicious one myself: that somehow, I deserved better, the chance to accomplish more, to do more.
On Ash Wednesday every year we are treated to Jesus’ how-to manual for Lent. Seems simple enough, right? To put no store by the frail, vulnerable things, but to focus instead on what is not subject to rust or decay. Transcend your limitations, and your fears, and focus on what really, in the end, matters. Where your treasure is, your heart will be also, so you had best make it the right treasure. And so we fast; we give up things that do not matter in the hope of only leaving room in our bandwidth for what does.
There’s a way of thinking about fasting that’s popular now where endurance is the point; what can we give up that will make us better? What do we want to emerge from these 40 days having put behind us forever, leaving us a little less dependent and a little more worthy of the resurrection that comes at the end of it all? What vine, if only we could prune it away, will give us the body we want, the relationships we want, the faith that we want, the self-awareness we want? It’s like CrossFit, except according to Jesus we’re not supposed to talk about it all the time. That part is critical—never, ever complain. If you’re doing it right, after all, whatever is painful is nothing compared to the transformation that is being eﬀected.
I hadn’t fasted for years, or even given anything up for Lent. I couldn’t quite stomach the performance of it, posting on Facebook about giving up Facebook. But now, in an involuntary fast, divested of the necessary fiction that as long as I made the right choices, and cared about the right things, I would turn out all right, I realized: I’m really, really, bad at this, this whole putting up a treasure somewhere other than this body thing; and this life, sustained as it is by wealth and happenstance, and the hope that it will endure. I knew, now, where my heart was, and it was the fleshy one in my chest, and all that I thought I could control. No cross of ash, boldly displayed to the world, and no amount of oil could cover that loss.
But that’s the thing about a fasting: It is an exercise not in discipline, maybe, but failure. Not because you don’t manage to not eat added sugar for 40 days, or never argue with a person during the season. Jesus tells the disciples to cover their heads with oil, and never to speak of a Lenten fast, because it will, always, be impossible. The point isn’t that you’ll transcend it with stoic grace, but because you won’t be able to. Think about what it is that Jesus suggests fasting on: Food, sure, but money, mostly. The most vanishing and decaying thing of all is our own body, and the illusion of control. The real kind of fast that Jesus is interested in, it seems, are the things that are so alloyed with who we are that there is no giving them up.
The end of a day or a season of fasting doesn’t show you, usually, how little you need whatever you gave up. It shows you, instead, what you really hunger for, and what your treasure really is. Lent isn’t a season of recovery or cleansing, it’s a season of withdrawal, forcing us to look at what we are, and what we fear.
And, beloved, that matters, because that’s what this Gospel is for. It’s not the perfected, sanitized, self-actualized and enlightened post-Lent version of ourselves that merits Christ’s journey toward a cross. The Gospel is for the fearful; for the addicted, for the wrathful, for the ill who aren’t writing a best-selling memoir, for people, like me, who talked ourselves into thinking that we could play all our cards right, somehow. These things we cannot look at, these wrong treasures: that’s what these ashes, and the shape they take, are for.
So, I can’t really recommend running late at night, tripping over a tree root, and injuring a nerve in your hand, and then refusing to seek medical attention for it as a Lenten practice—mainly because it’s really painful, and hard to do—it was undeniably eﬀective at getting into the spirit of the thing. But if your Lent journey be of anything, let it be not of trying to give up something for 40 days or 40 years. Because its not a resurrected body that merits salvation, but the one with all the wrong treasures, that is broken perfect and lost and loved, that merits a resurrection, and is already being made new.