Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2017; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Today starts our journey to the cross. Today we start the life-giving, slow and methodical, scripture-filled centering traverse towards what ultimately saves us. But, as I’ve thought about it, I wondered why we think about Lenten practices only during the time of Lent. If we take scripture seriously, which we should, then perhaps it might be good to ponder what it would look like to give alms, pray, and fast all year around. I love that this scripture comes today because this actually is the end of the sermon on the mount. This is the same scripture we’ve heard over the last few weeks. Jesus is educating the disciples before they go out into the world serving in his name. Clearly, Jesus didn’t tell the disciples that they only need to engage in alms giving, praying, and fasting for 40 days or so. Jesus never mentioned “do this only until I am raised.” But, that is often what we chose to do.

And why? Why focus on these practices for only 40 days? It’s not like they aren’t life giving. Jesus wants to provide us with life. He provides us with the tools to do that. Give alms, engage in prayer, and fast. However, most of us do this for only the season of Lent, if we do it at all. Once Easter rolls around, we congratulate ourselves on keeping the discipline, engage and overindulge in the things from which we fasted, and go back to our “regular” lives. Instead of these becoming sacred practices, they become something to cross off our to-do list. Even more interesting, Jesus suggests, maybe even commands us, to do all of these things in private.

Doing any of this in private doesn’t seem to be the American way. If we’re going to be honest, we like to be recognized. Any of you that receive any kind of mailings from organizations that thrive from donations know that at least one mailing is dedicated to givers. Sometimes the givers are even noted by really fancy names “gold level giving” or “president’s society” and the like. It is a nice way to say thank you and perhaps guilt/shame others into giving more in the following year. Many times, our giving is rewarded with actual gifts of thanks. “Thank you for your donation! Can we send you a coffee mug you don’t need and will never actually use?”

I’m just as guilty about praying in public as anyone else. If we’re friends on Facebook, you know that I make it a habit to publicly pray for anyone who requests it every single Thursday. Now, I don’t do this to earn praise or even to make myself appear holier than thou. I do it out of love for my neighbor. But, I can understand how from the outside, I could appear to be lifting myself up as better than someone else because I am praying for other people and you aren’t.

But, when we engage in any of these practices in private, something happens. According to scripture, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” When we give alms, pray, and fast without boasting, without a thought of self, and without the desire to earn anything God sees us and will reward us. I don’t know about you all, but a reward from God is better than any coffee mug. Do we have a relationship with God so we can brag to other people? Do we come to church so that others can see that we’re here? Do we pray in the hopes that others will see us doing it and desire to be us? Do we fast because we want others to be jealous of our discipline? I hope you answered “no” to all of these questions. Anything we do we do because we desire to have a private communion with God.

Please don’t misunderstand me, brothers and sisters. There is a time and place to be a disciple. But, being an evangelist is different than giving alms, praying, and fasting. Being an evangelist is a response to God’s love and grace showered upon us. God has been so good to us that we can’t not but tell other people. But we don’t tell other people about God’s love and grace as a way of bragging, right? We don’t do it so we can boast like “you won’t believe what I have and you don’t!” No. We share about how good God is to us because we so badly want everyone to experience this love and grace.

What might it look like, then, to engage in the practices of alms giving, praying, and fasting all year around? Theologian Douglas John Hall says “the very purpose of almsgiving, prayer, and religious observance is to deliver us from the debilitating and exorbitant self-consciousness that dogs our lives. ‘Salvation’ for self-absorbed creatures like us means finally–or at least intermittently!–to lose our precious selves in the other: the other who is the recipient of our alms, the Other who hears our prayers, the others who wonder what our religion really comes to if not just more public promotion and self-display! In most of the days and hours of our lives, we are burdened with the thought of how we are being perceived: What will they think? When faith is true, Jesus affirms, we find ourselves–at least here and there, now and then–graciously liberated from the burden of self, liberated for the other. That is faith’s essence!”

The truest definition of sin is whatever comes between you and God. For me, brothers and sisters, the thing that comes between me and God the most is myself. The idea of being liberated from that is intoxicating, enticing, and incredibly appealing. And God tells me this freedom comes from giving alms, praying, and fasting in private? I’m in. If you need a reminder of our mortality, brothers and sisters, it will soon be smudged on your forehead. We are dust, and to dust we shall return. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done or not done. It doesn’t matter if we leave millions to charity, pray in the public sphere, or fast from indulgences, we will return to dust. All of us.

In the cross, we are freed from our sin and freed for service to one another. We have been liberated for the other. So, my challenge to you, my dusty friends, is to see Lent as the start of something. Not the start and end 40 days later; but the actual start of something: a deepening of your own faith life. Our relationship with God is very private. The fruits of that relationship are very public. God knows you, sees you, and loves you. God loves “the you you hide.” God knows every single one of the hairs on your head and knows every single one of your flaws. And God loves you still the same. You don’t need to prove that to anyone. In the cross, Jesus died for your sins, yes, but also died so that you wouldn’t need to carry your burden of self anymore. The only person you ever have to worry about impressing already thought you were worth dying for.

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