Date: February 22, 2023 (Ash Wednesday)
Scripture: Matthew 6:1-6, 6:21
Scripture Reader: Dan Ward
Sermon Title: “Store Your Treasure in Heaven”
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There is a story about a priest who was coming to his rectory at night. Suddenly, a robber appeared from the alley and pulled a gun on him. “Your money or your life!” As the priest slowly reached his hand into his coat pocket, the robber saw his Roman collar and said, “Never mind, Father. I see that you are a priest. You can go.” The priest felt touched by the unexpected mercy and piety of this robber and wanted to express his gratitude by giving him a candy bar in his pocket. The robber said, “No, thank you, Father. I don’t eat candy during Lent.”
How are you preparing for Lent this year? What are you giving up during this Lent? Or what are you starting as a new practice during Lent? As Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, many of us feel something different in the air. At least, that is why we want to make some changes in our daily life, whether we give up something from our routine or add something new. Whatever we plan to add as a Lenten practice or give up a certain thing, Jesus teaches the crowd the heart of practicing piety: We practice piety, expecting that it is God who knows our heart and it is God who will reward us. If we practice piety so that others would acknowledge our effort and praise us, that would be our reward, nothing more.
As Jesus teaches the crowd on the mountain, Jesus warns them of the hypocrisy of those who practice piety in his days, such as giving alms, praying, and fasting, so that they might be praised by others. He says, “When you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do so that they may be praised by others. They have already received their rewards.” “When you pray, do not be like them who stand and pray loudly so that they can be seen by others. But when you pray, go into your room, shut the door, and pray.” Finally, “When you fast, do not look dismal like those who want to be recognized by others. But when you fast, hide it from others because God already knows that you are fasting.”
When I was in college, I was attending a church near the school. Each Sunday, they had a bulletin that reported how well each small group did each week, such as how much each group gave for the special offering, and how many pages in the Bible each group read. Somehow, these groups became competitive with each other. And I wanted our group to win. We were college kids, so we had no money. But we could read the Bible. Well, I decided to take up the challenge myself and read over a hundred chapters each week. I could hear people whisper, “Who is reading these many chapters in the Bible? It is Bob. He is so diligent and pious.” I will be honest with you. I was happy to hear their comments and recognize my effort.
And Jesus would have told me at that time, “You have already received the rewards. That’s it. There is no reward from God. Have you also done something like that in your life? Doing good work to help others, giving our donation to charity, praying or fasting so that we could be recognized by others who might praise us? I think that praising might be too strong a word. But we are tempted to practice piety or do good work so that we can feel good about ourselves. But Jesus says, “God already knows you. God already knows what you are doing. You are accepted.”
In a way, I believe that we are living in a time today practicing piety is not something people desire greatly. As more people define themselves as spiritual, not religious, even many Christians would not want to be seen practicing piety, such as reading the Bible or praying in public. We might be afraid of being seen as religious fanatics who often offend the faith of other religions. Instead, people want to be seen as good people. We want to be considered good fathers or good mothers. We want to be called good sons or daughters to our parents. We want to be recognized for the contribution we make to our workplace. We do the best we can, but we often feel that we are not appreciated for who we are or what we do.
It might not necessarily be religious piety. But people often show other people what good people they are, what good parents they are, what good co-workers they are, and what good citizens they are, because we as human beings crave to belong somewhere. We want to be acknowledged. We want to be accepted. We want to belong. James, Peter, and I had a meeting with the staff at Middlesex Community College this morning to discuss how we could contribute to their scholarship. And these staff said, “Three or four out of five applicants end up not completing their application for financial aid. When we asked them why, many of them answered, “Because I did not feel worthy. I thought I was not good enough.”
Henri Nouwen says, “Our true challenge is to return to the center, to the heart, and to find there the gentle voice that speaks to us and affirms us in a way no human voice ever could.” He believes that when we experience the love of God who accepts us without limit, we can experience freedom from “our compulsion to be seen, praised, and admired” by others. Maybe our desire to practice piety to be seen by others is grounded in our fear of emptiness, and we want to fill our empty hearts with recognition and praise from others. But Jesus says that we are already known by God, who accepts us and loves us more than we can imagine. The love of Christ frees us to truly love our neighbors and serve them in God’s grace.
The good news that I find in Ash Wednesday is that it is not us who are called to save ourselves from our fear, loneliness, sin, and brokenness. It is God who graciously embraces and promises that God’s love overcomes even death. We may be weak. But God is strong. We are mortal. But God is eternal. And through our weakness, the love of God is revealed. When we say that we repent on this day, it means that we are open to God who graciously accepts us and is about to do something new in us. It is not just about giving something up during Lent. But it is also about actively turning our hearts to God who loves us, heals us, and promises hope in this life and even after.
 Harold A. Buetow, Embrace Your Renewal (Alba House, 2004)
 Henri Nouwen Society, “God’s Acceptance of Us Is Unlimited,” https://henrinouwen.org/meditations/gods-acceptance-of-us-is-unlimited/ (accessed March 2, 2022)