Put Off Pretentions – Ash Wednesday 2021

Matthew 6: 1-21

“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.

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

“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.

Sermon Text

            Lent begins today. For the next forty days (forty-six counting Sundays,) we should take time to intentionally think about our life. The things that we do, that we do not, and that we should do. The things that we do, we should weigh against the teachings of Christ and determine if they are worth continuing to do. The things we do not must also be examined, where are we sitting still where we should be moving – what aspects of faith are we neglecting in living out our Christian calling? Whatever we are neglecting we must take hold of, living truly into our calling.

            In our scripture, Christ puts forward several key aspects of our life as Christians. Piety, almsgiving, prayer, forgiveness, fasting, and an aversion to accumulating earthly treasures. We must understand each of these essentials fully, as they provide us helpful categories for how we might think about our actions over the course of Lent.

            Piety, firstly, is the ability for a person to live a life in line with God’s vision for their life. While we often use the term derisively, referring to “pious,” people almost exclusively as those who are “holier than thou,” the true mark of a pious person is in humility. The word Jesus uses in this passage is literally translated, “righteousness,” all right behavior and virtue of a person lived out must be done fully with God in mind, not our own glorification. Righteousness, like all virtue, is a muscle we must exercise. Piety is the method by which we train ourselves to become righteous. It is achieved through study of scripture, through acts of mercy, through all goodness which we seek to do in this life.

            Jesus leads us through the key aspects of righteousness one at a time – firstly in almsgiving. Almsgiving, often referred to charity, is the giving of resources to those who do not have them. It can be in money, it can be in opportunity, but it is not something which can be abstract. Charity, from the Latin caritas, is how we live out our sacrificial love for one another. It is one person giving something to another person with no strings attached, it is a gift in the purest sense. We must live out this selfless love, it is not optional. We should spend Lent considering how we can better support the people around us – in money, in time, and in sacrificing our comfort for their livelihood.

            Jesus quickly follows this up with prayer. Prayer is the root of all our Christian life. Without it we drift away from our source, the floodgates of grace which are given through knowing God personally and truly. Prayer can happen alone, it can happen in groups, but it must not stop happening in our life. While every moment of our mind cannot form the words we normally associate with prayer, we must train ourselves to have our thoughts in conversation with God. While intentional time should be given for prayer alone, we must also find ourselves sharing our thoughts with God throughout the day. The conversation of prayer is not formal, it is simply God standing with us and us standing with God, it happens in closets and prayer rooms, but also on buses and in the midst of a busy work day.

            We must never forget that our food and our livelihood is from God. We must not forget that all goodness comes from God. We must during this Lententide devote ourselves more fully to prayer. We must also, as Jesus teaches us, see prayer as a recognition of God’s goodness to us despite our sin. It must inspire us to forgive those in our life that we have neglected to forgive. To bridge gaps which we have previously believed unpassable. God who forgave us asks us to forgive others, and to embark on the difficult road of reconciliation with those we have grown distant from. Sometimes restoration to what once was will be impossible, but we must forgive our debtors – both those who have hurt us and those who literally owe us money or any other kind of wealth – as God has forgiven us.

            Finally, there is the matter of fasting. We in the modern Church are afraid of this practice more than we should be. For those who must eat during the day for their health, fasting is an impossibility, and it is often not wise for those who struggle with eating disorders to fast either. However, for those who have neither mental nor physical reasons not to fast, the practice is given as a expectation of the Christian. Fasting, as it was practiced in the ancient world, was the cessation of eating for a period of time, usually from one sunset to another. I invite us to consider together taking up the practice of fasting during Lent. I plan to abstain from food from Monday at Sunset to Tuesday at Sunset, and from Wednesday from Sunset to Thursday at Sunset. Join me if you feel so called.

            Most important for us to consider in Lent, and indeed in all of our Christian life, is that we engage in these practices only so that we can grow closer to God and more in line with God’s call upon our life. We do not fast, or pray, or study scripture so that we can look better or more holy or more in love with God than anyone else. These are transformative practices that we must keep close to our chest, sharing them only as needed and when doing so would be edifying to those around us. We must put away our desire for supremacy of all kinds, and any pretension that we are already as we ought to be.

            This Lent let us give up the idea that we must have it all together. Let us be honest about our fallenness and our failings. Reach out to God, for God cares for you. Lean upon the love of Christ, for Christ will deliver you. Listen to the call of the Spirit, for it is the call that will bring us all home. We have a holy life to live into this Lent, as we do at all times, but over the next seven weeks or so, let us commit ourselves together to not hold onto anything harmful any longer. May we find ourselves transformed into the image of Christ in a way we never have been before, let us seek after the word of God and find life, and life abundant. – Amen.

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