Mini Sermon #44 Ash Wednesday

Mini Sermon #44 Ash Wednesday

Lenten Devotional …. To Be Released @ 3 pm

A Lenten Devotional will be released on youtube, on this blog, and through the e-newletter at 3 pm today to mark Ash Wednesday! It will include the reading of a Psalm and a short message of hope!
-Rev. Averill Elizabeth Blackburn

Sermon Lesson: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 (NRSV)
Old Testament Lesson: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 (NRSV)
Epistle Lesson: 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10 (NRSV)
Psalm: Psalm 51:1-17 (NRSV)
Referenced Gospel Lesson: Luke 21:1-4 (NRSV)

This is a passage about motive, and there could be no better passage for Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a time for penance and contribution in the Christian calendar.

In religious life, we often have to strike a balance, between the seen and the unseen.  The seen is what others around us see and observe and comment upon.  We must, of course, show ourselves to be examples of a good and Christian life.  What is the good of leading a good Christian life if we do not bear witness to Christ?—the Apostle Paul would certainly ask.  If we are not little Christs, or Christians, then our work is not done at the end of the day.

But sometimes we can go too far.  We can do the right thing, the good thing, so that we might be seen to be doing the good or the right thing.  That is when the “seen” becomes ultimately the wrong choice to make, when our motives become suspect, when our motives even become wrong so the right thing becomes the wrong thing to do.

Far better to do the right thing, and for no one to witness, then to accept accolades for doing a kindness when we have only selfishness in our hearts.  This is the sort of remark that our Lord, Jesus Christ, certainly would have said.

And he does say it, here in the Gospel of Matthew.

The Big Three in Jewish Spiritual Life

In Jewish Spiritual Life there were three forms of piety to show one’s devotion to the Lord God (1) Almsgiving (think of the Offering) (2) Prayer, and (3) Fasting.

All three have crossed into Christianity in one way or another.

In this passage Jesus addresses the hypocrites who practice their piety publicly both in the synagogue and on the streets so that others may see them.  Their piety has no other reason than that others might bear witness.  There is no devotion to God behind their piety, no love for the Lord, only a selfishness of spirit.

Jesus urges his followers to “not be like the hypocrites” (v. 5) and not be prone to shows of great piety, gathering attention toward themselves out of sheer vanity.  These men—these hypocrites—put on performances in their piety, their acts of devotion smokescreens to hide that there is no sentiment of religious devotion behind their words and actions. 

They are empty.  They are hollow.  Therefore, their piety is equally empty and hollow.

To give an example: imagine a man, dressed in torn robes and rags, stumbling up the aisle in the synagogue and dropping one hundred silver coins into the offering plate in almsgiving, counting each one carefully and loudly, before stumbling out again, accepting all the praise and devotion and thanks he got on the way out.  His performance is to solidify his own self-worth, and nothing more.  He wants to be known as pious and gain such a reputation, so he planned to appear at the time of high prayer.  Such a performance—to Jesus—would have been disgusting.  Jesus would clearly favor the widow who came in after hours and gave her last two copper coins when no one was looking (Luke 2:1-4).

The Right hand and The Left hand

The idea of the right hand and left hands being separate crops up from time to time in the Bible. 

I want you to take a moment and look at your two hands.  They are separate.  Some people can pat their heads with one and rub their bellies with another (those people sometimes go on to become conductors of symphonies).  Hands need not work in tandem.  What one does, the other need not actively be involved in. 

The idea that the two hands keep secret from each other is, of course, a metaphor… one that may sound confusing to us.  In Jesus’s time, it simply meant that one hand goes about its business without expressing praise from the other hand.

It’s simple and to the point.

Verses 16 Through 21

Jesus always has a point, and he usually has several points layered on top of each other.  It’s not merely enough that whatever you do for God, you should do for him and not for recognition for others… but it’s more than that.

It has to do with our place in the heavenly kingdom.

We should not store up earthly applause and earthly treasures here, on this earth, because it will mean nothing when these lives are over.  It will go to moth or, rather, it will all come to ruin.  It will be consumed by rust.  Thieves will come into the night and take it away.  Perhaps not tomorrow, but in one hundred years or in a thousand. 

And in a hundred or thousand years from now, where will you be? 

Hopefully, you will be in heaven, and you will no longer care what happens to your earthly possessions.

For instance, how many of us care for a cherished but grubby penny we found when we were five years of age?  Now, decades on, how many of us even know where that treasure is?—Just give that a thought, to give us some perspective.  There is of course the exception to this example, but 9 times out of 10, you might understand what I’m talking about.

True treasure is not anything material, but where we keep our hearts—such as love, truth, charity, peace, hope, and harmony (to name but a few).

A Note on Lent

Lent is the observance of roughly forty days before Easter Sunday to prepare the Christian through penitence.  This is done, often, through fasting and the giving up of luxuries.

Often, in English-speaking and Western countries, this is done through “giving up” something.

I once had a Science teacher who gave up chocolate.

In my Lenten Devotional (released this year) I mention how every year I have a tendency to give up cheese, which I find extremely difficult due to my French heritage, among other reasons.

I am friends with a minister who famously “gives up Lent for Lent.” 

We as Congregationalists often do not feel the need to engage in the more stringent of Lenten observances, which is perfectly understandable.  We are not a people of creeds.  The closest we get is the Lord’s Prayer.  We tend more toward small acts of faith and not grand gestures.  Our reading for today is less likely to fall on deaf ears as we Congregationalists—in my estimation—are a quieter people.  It’s one of the many things I like about our brand of Christianity.

But to get back to Lent.  When people choose to “give something up” it tends to very quickly devolve into a competition.  The stories I could tell of my time in Scotland of what fellow students did in and around Lent and the “one upmanship” I myself engaged in… it should make all of us—now ministers and deacons spread out across England, Scotland, and America—ashamed.  We should not be ashamed because our love of Christ put the original thoughts of contrition in our mind, but because it became more about the competition with each other than about God, about Jesus, or about Lent or Easter.

In a situation like that there was no winner.  All we had were stragglers in the end who were surely disappointments in the eyes of the Lord, who missed the point entirely.  Our puffed up sense of our egos overshadowed our studies, overwhelmed our reason, and eclipsed our faith.

What Lent is Actually Meant For

What Lent is meant for is a self-examination of the soul.  Giving something up is just a way of making ourselves humble and the giving up of luxuries can really be entirely unnecessary.  For this reason, I shall not be giving up cheese this year—and, really, the idea is ludicrous when cheese is my primary source of protein in my diet.

We, as Christians, are to look inside ourselves and open our hearts to Jesus, to make ourselves ready for him. 

We should not horde our treasure on earth, not compare and contrast with others to see who might be the most worthy, but instead off humbly what we already possess in the knowledge that it will be acceptable to the Lord God.

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21) Jesus told us.  I can think of no truer words this Ash Wednesday to bring us into Lent.  It doesn’t matter if our hearts are a little bashed up, a little gray around the edges—certainly they are perfect just the way they are, because they are true and offered humbly.

Amen.

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