2/10/2016 Ash Wednesday The text is Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
A story appeared on Facebook recently about a person who went to a concert. At the end of the concert, this person noticed two ushers standing near his seat who were applauding harder than anybody else in the whole place.
The man said he was thrilled with this particular concert because of the talent and virtuosity of the musicians. It also impressed him greatly to see these two ushers standing there applauding more vigorously than all of the concert goers. His experience was somewhat diminished, however, when he heard one usher say to the other, “Keep clapping. If we can get them to do another encore, we get overtime!”
I thought about these ushers when I read our lesson for today from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
I can think of no faithful or thoughtful person who would take issue with any of the comments Jesus makes in today’s gospel. Most people can’t stomach a religious person who wears his or her acts of kindness in a way that publicly advertises his or her virtues. This type of showboating flies in the face of the self-emptying love of Jesus. When we draw undue attention to ourselves for the sacrifices we have undertaken, the gospel is muted. For, we are not shedding light on Jesus, who takes the greatest and most overwhelming burdens and makes them light and endurable. We are taking the spot light away from Christ.
But, the gospel can be muted in other ways, too. In this day and age, there is a hidden abuse which is probably more destructive than the specific ones outlined around alms, prayer and fasting. This abuse is the flip side of the same coin as instead of making the practice of faith a banner waving event pointing to the one waving the banner, it makes matters of faith a strictly private matter.
Although my parents were not regular churchgoers, they made sure that I knew about God. I was taught to pray as a child. As a child, I was taught that Lent was a time to give up something because Jesus gave up his life for us. As a baby, I was baptized and when I was old enough, I was sent to Sunday school. I knew my parents’ faith, not because they visibly displayed it, but because of what they believed it was important for me to learn.
My seminary roommate had a very different experience growing up. Every night, the family would gather in living room and kneel as a group for intercessory prayer, which was concluded with the unison reciting of the Lord’s Prayer. I experienced this one evening when I stayed overnight with her at her home. It was a powerful witness to the faith of the family.
All of this is quite the opposite of the experience of the grandson of Thomas Jefferson. When asked, he said that he had no more insight into what his grandfather personally believed about God than any biographer did. It was strictly private and was meant to be that way. Now, some may find this wonderful…but if we never tell our children about how much God means to us, and even more importantly, if we never live our lives in such tangible ways so they can see how much God’s love for us influences what we do, then they will never cherish Christ and his self-emptying love for them. We will have abused the God-given faith that is within us, simply by keeping to ourselves and never sharing it.
So as you depart on this Ash Wednesday, and as you see the ashes imposed upon foreheads as the mark of self-denial before Christ’s self-sacrifice, let that mark remind you, not only of your humanity, but also of the appropriate times when God would have us show forth our faith. For, without the faithful witnesses of the past, we would not be here today. The church would have been extinct years ago, and we would be lost.
But praise be to God that we are not lost. God has raised up faithful servants in every generation so that we might know his love shown forth in his son. May we be found among those faithful people, who share our faith ways that give glory God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your heart and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.