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Ash Wednesday B Sermon
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
February
17, 2021


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Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 ‘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. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
5 ‘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. 6But 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. 16 ‘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. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so 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.
19 ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; Amen.

This passage from Jesus’ sermon on the mount is perfect for Ash Wednesday. Jesus tells us not to practice our piety visibly and not to disfigure our faces. It is a call to honest, humble actions of faith and spiritual growth. And yet, it is also terribly odd because this is the very day that we disfigure our faces publicly. I have no idea how many folks are receiving ashes today in the parking lot. Nor do I know their motivation for doing it, but I have a feeling most will leave them on for the rest of the day. This year they might not be seen by folks as in years past, outside of family members and a glimpse from the person in the car next to them. With the cold weather, snow, and folks social distancing and staying out of the public, our ashes aren’t seen this year by as many people as they usually are. All of this adds an interesting twist to the beginning of Lent 2021. It may be a twist that makes for more honest and faithful responses to the Lenten call for reflection and renewal.

I want to ask you to do something whether you get ashes today or not. Go into the bathroom and look at yourself in the mirror. Take 5-10 minutes at some point today and check out your reflection. Look at yourself - with or without this visible reminder of your mortality on your face. Repeat the words out loud - those words that we all hear when the ashes are imposed - “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Look into your own eyes, your face, your whole self. The mirror is usually an instrument that assists us in covering over our imperfections - is our hair perfect or is it time to cut or color again? Do my clothes match, or are they getting to the point where they need to be replaced? Is my face clean of dirt or blemishes that may need to be concealed? And that tricky question, do these pants make my butt look big?

Linger before that mirror and ponder that you - with all of your imperfections and warts - have been marked with the shape of that instrument of both horror and hope - the cross of Jesus. There is a line in Isaac Watt’s hymn, “When I survey the Wondrous Cross” that goes, “Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?” At Elizabeth II’s coronation, the Archbishop of Canterbury placed St. Edward’s Crown on her head. Weighing nearly five pounds, it is forged of 22 karat gold and adorned with 444 precious stones - aquamarines, topazes, rubies, amethysts and sapphires. Upon being crowned with this precious headdress she knelt to receive the body and blood of Jesus. If she were to look into a mirror, would she have lingered over this ornate symbol of wealth and her participation in the eucharist? Would she have pondered the crown of thorns worn by Jesus when he ascended the cross and showed forth its glory? Would she, as one of the most powerful people in the world, have realized her very need for the one who’s crown was composed of thorns which gashed his forehead, scalp and temples? She needs it just as much as you and I do.

When you look into the mirror, contemplate what God sees in you to love you so dearly. God has made you just as you are, after all. It was as much out of love for you as it was out of grieving over the sinful world that God sent Jesus to live, die and rise again. Maybe during Lent we can do this practice once a week … or even more. As we share the story of Jesus’ passion and death each Wednesday this year from Mark’s gospel, you can look at your own reflection and consider how personal this sacrifice was and is, that God would love you and the world enough to send the only son to die. And keep a copy of the Ash Wednesday prayer next to whatever mirror you use. Retrace the sign of the cross on your forehead and repeat the prayer. Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth. May these ashes - or this cross - be a sign of my mortality and penitence, reminding me that only by the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ are we given eternal life. Amen. In this way, you have not only a wonderful rite of your piety to share with God, but you do it in private.

I have one other activity for you to do each morning. It is an activity which grows out of a literal reading of our gospel text today. Jesus says for us to go into our closets to pray in private. In the original Greek of the New Testament, Jesus was talking about an inner room which many homes of that day had - usually a small storeroom where few people went except to store or retrieve something. It offered plenty of privacy to the person who entered there, which was needed since extended families would share one household.

I am suggesting we try this as a Lenten devotion this year: when you are preparing for your day by picking out you clothes - whether it be in a walk-in closet, standing in front of a open door of a closet attached to your bedroom, or even getting something out of a wardrobe or chest of drawers - pray. As you prepare for your day with God and physically dress yourself, contemplate the scripture that offers clothing images - like Romans 14:8, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” and Colossians 3:12, “Put on compassion, patience, forgiveness, love - and be thankful. Whatever you do, do it in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Remember, Jesus does not say, “If you pray…” He says, “When you pray,” and this gives us an opportunity to do as he tells us. When William Willimon was Dean of the Duke University Chapel, he was approached by a Muslim student who asked him, “why don’t the Christian students ever pray?” He obviously observed the five set daily times for prayer in Islam and was puzzled that he never saw Christians stopping to pray. That can be a bit of a challenge for us Christians who consider ourselves faithful in a couple of ways. To be sure, prayer takes many forms, and we believe that we can pray when we get some quiet time in our home, office or car to contemplate God’s goodness to us. But we can also take this challenge to set aside specific times out of our day to intentionally focus our prayer on God’s gifts of love and grace through Jesus Christ and our need for that grace every day of our lives. What better time to do this than in the morning as we clothe ourselves and thank God for the blessings of life.

I am proposing a literal reading of this text and suggesting two regular spots for prayer this Lent - the mirror and the closet. If not daily, then weekly or at least occasionally. Jesus then talks about rewards in such a way that he shuns earthly rewards and points to other kinds of rewards - heavenly rewards. I believe this is more than just life in heaven after we die. This is life in God’s kingdom here and now, ruled by love, joy and peace as we connect with our loving and gracious Father in heaven. May this Lent be a time of reconnecting with God in new ways at the mirror, in front of the closet, and whenever we have the opportunity to contemplate our need for God’s mercy in our lives. Amen.