A Sermon for 1 March 2017 – Ash Wednesday
A reading from the gospel of Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21. Listen for God’s word to us:
“’Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. . . .
“’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.’”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
I grew up in Wisconsin in a home in the woods along the shores of Lake Michigan. More than anything, my sister who is two years older than me and our neighborhood friends LOVED to explore outside. In the summers we’d ride our bikes as far as we could without being away too long for mom to ask too many questions when we returned home. We spent a lot of time playing on the rocks along the shore line – something we were NOT supposed to do lest we slip and get our shoes wet. (Getting our shoes wet was a sure sign to mom that we were up to something of which she did not approve!) We tromped through the woods for as far as we could go without getting totally lost. And it was on those treks we’d discover the signs. “Beware of Trespassing,” they shouted. We were about to leave our parents’ property lines. You haven’t met my sister, so it may come as a surprise that I was the cautious one among us. Those signs made an early impression. They were all it took to keep me from crossing the line. Beware. Beware because beyond this point you shall not go!
You too may be familiar with such warnings to beware. Perhaps you heard the tornado sirens this morning warning us all to beware. Maybe you have neighbors with a ferocious dog. “Beware of dogs” reads a sign hopefully posted on their property to be sure no one accidentally gets hurt. Chemical cleaners tout such warnings. Medicines not to be taken while operating heavy machinery or consuming things like alcohol have ‘em. Even roadway signs warning us of fast rising water and trains barreling down the tracks. Beware each warns because conditions hazardous to life lie before us.
According to the annual Ash Wednesday text of chapter 6 of the gospel of Matthew, beware kicks off the church season of Lent. Beware Jesus says mid-way through what has been recorded in Matthew as the infamous Sermon on the Mount. . . . As the primary sermon of Jesus in this gospel, it’s of note that his words take his listeners to the edge of his parent’s property. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1). Which goes to prove that Jesus was a good Presbyterian – lifting up that Reformed Theological principle of ours to “shun ostentation and seek proper use of the gifts of God’s creation” (PCUSA Book of Order, [F-2.05]). We’re not to do anything in our faith lives in order to be showy. It’s not like we can draw enough attention to ourselves that the LORD God of the Universe would take note of us. We must beware of making a to-do because it’s not about bringing notice to ourselves as we follow our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s about proper use of the gifts of God’s creation.
We don’t consider it enough, do we? That we are part of God’s creation. That we are a gift, beloved by the Creator of the heavens and earth. . . . How are we using the gift that is our life? . . . This is what Lent asks – what Lent warns, really. For against the span of eternity that is God, our lives are just a speck. As one wonderful song puts it: we just get so many trips ‘round the sun (Kacey Musgraves, “Follow Your Arrow”). Beware! We must not waste it! . . . Three times in the last six weeks, my work as a pastor has taken me to the liturgy we Presbyterians use for a Service in Celebration of the Resurrection of Life and of the precious deceased person. “The grass withers. The flower fades.” Quoting the Psalmist, I led the congregations in prayer with these words in every one of those Memorial Services. From an eighty-year-old to a seventy-two-year-old to a twenty-three-year-old. In my twenty years of ministry, I’ve been a part of such services for one as young as a still born baby, a seven-year-old, those approaching 100, and every other age in between. None of us knows how long our days on earth will be. A Memorial Service is too late. Too late to be warned about the reality of how fleeting life is. . . . That’s the beauty of Lent. Of Ash Wednesday especially. Every year the liturgical calendar brings us back to it. We cannot escape. Nor should we want to. We need the reminder that is Lent. The re-prioritizer that is this night. . . . Later in this service we each will have the opportunity to be warned. To hear the truth that is meant to keep us alert to the gift that we are, which is to be purposefully used. Tonight we remember that we are dust. And to dust we shall return. We feel the ash trace across our skin to mark us for all the world to see. AND we feel the sign of the cross. We are reminded that we are to live likewise – the Way of self-giving love. We are to let go of how we want it all to be, in order to follow in the footsteps of the One whose Way leads to Life. Lent tells us to make it all count here and now – and let God work out the happily ever-after.
Welcome the sign, brothers and sisters in Christ. Let this Lent be the warning to give of ourselves now as the gifts God intends us to be.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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