February 14, 2018, Ash Wednesday Lectionary B
ELIZABETH OF HUNGARY IN RICHMOND HILL, GEORGIA
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Rector Scripture: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirt to encourage, guide, and strengthen us to turn our hearts and minds increasingly toward Jesus, so that we might come to enjoy your heavenly treasures and tell of them to others through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
In today’s gospel for Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, there are two words, used by Jesus that might have especially caught our attention, indeed pricked our ears if not our egos. They are two words that we might have heard with some frequency when growing up, and they are two words that we ourselves might have used with some frequency in raising our children or grandchildren. Jesus uses those two words unequivocally; no ifs, ands, or buts. He makes Himself perfectly clear.
Five times we hear those two words in the gospel this morning. What are they? The two words are “do not.” “Do not sound a trumpet before you; do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing; do not be like the hypocrites; do not look dismal; Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,” and yes, there is one other “do not,” but we will save that for later.
“Do not.” It is a simple command. It is not a request or a suggestion. Jesus is not offering advice. Indeed, we recall when we were children similar commands from our parents or teachers. Do not put your elbows on the table. Do not forget to wash your hands before eating. Do not forget to say, “please” or “thank you.” Do not forget to do your homework or clean up your room. Our parents or teachers were not kidding when they told us, “Do not.” They meant it. Jesus means it. His are clear instructions for behavior and for how we are to be.
Within Jesus’ specific “do nots” we hear a common message or theme in the first four. We probably heard a similar message from our parents, teachers, or peers. We heard this when we were children and it is an accepted principal of good manners for us as adults. In the game of football a team can be penalizing for violating this principal or rule. Though the rule has to do with over-celebrating, it is synonymous with this accepted principal of good manners. What is that principal? It is very simple. Do not show off.
Jesus tells us not to show off in giving alms. Look how much money I am giving to the church or some charity. He tells us not to show off when we pray. I doubt we will have much trouble with that one. In fact, most of us have trouble with praying in public at all, never mind showing off about it. Do not show off when fasting. Guess what I gave up for Lent. I gave up chocolate. I gave up alcohol. I gave up eating meat.
Are we then to understand that Jesus is speaking against spiritual vanity—being a super Christian? Is that His message to us in today’s gospel reading from St. Matthew? Do not be a Christian show-off.
A bookie was at the races playing the ponies, all but losing his shirt. He noticed a priest step out onto the track and blessed the forehead of one of the horses lining up for the 4th race. Lo and behold, that horse – a long shot – won the race. Next race, as the horses lined up, the priest stepped onto the track. Sure enough, he blessed one of the horses. The bookie made a beeline for a betting window and placed a small bet on the horse. Again, even though it was another long shot, the horse won the race. He collected his winnings, and anxiously waited to see which horse the priest would bless next. He bet big on it, and it won. As the races continued the priest kept blessing horses, and each one ended up winning.
The bookie was elated. He made a quick dash to the ATM, withdrew all his savings, and waited for the priest’s blessing that would tell him which horse to bet on. True to his pattern, the priest stepped onto the track for the last race and blessed the forehead of an old nag that was 100 to 1 odds. This time the priest blessed the eyes, ears, and hooves of the old nag. The bookie knew he had a winner and bet every cent he owned on the old nag. He watched dumbfounded as the old nag pulled up and couldn’t even finish the race.
In a state of shock, he went to the track area where the priest was. Confronting him, he demanded, “Father! What happened? All day long you blessed horses and they all won. Then in the last race, the horse you blessed never even had a chance. Now, thanks to you I’ve lost every cent of my savings!” The priest nodded wisely and with sympathy. “You are not Catholic are you my son?” “No, I’m Jewish” “That’s the problem,” said the priest, “you couldn’t tell the difference between a blessing and last rites.”
Like the bookie in the story , wanting to win big, but not understanding what was going on, we might have missed what Jesus is really up to in His series of “do not’s.” Not being a spiritual show-off is the least of it. Rather, He gives us a hint as to His real intent when He says after each “do not” “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” God the Father sees our giving of alms, our fasting, and our praying, and He will reward us for that. What reward is that, we might wonder? Other than perhaps feeling a little paranoid about God watching us, do we care that God is watching us? What’s in it for us?
The fifth of Jesus’ “do not’s” begins to answer that question. It is no small thing; in truth, it is everything. Though it is no small thing our natural inclinations, yes our desire or desires will lead us to ignore it or at least pretend that we don’t understand. The fifth “do not” not only tells us what not to do, but why not to do it. Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.” Why is that a bad idea? As Jesus tells us, it is a place, “where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.”
Jesus isn’t telling us something that we don’t already know. Clothes wear out. Houses need maintenance. Repairs to our cars will get too costly. And, eventually these bodies of ours will rust and that most insidious of all thieves, old age, will steal our vitality, indeed our very lives. Certainly, the kick we might get from showing off will similarly not last. Jesus, though, came to give us more than some transitory pleasure or enjoyment. He came to give us something eternal. He came to give us, as He says, “treasures in heaven,” where in contrast to the things of this world, “neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
Sounds good, does it not—a place where nothing ever rusts or can be stolen, but do we have to die to get there? Isn’t that where we find heaven—after we die? My answer may surprise you. Yes, heaven is a place that comes after we die, but the treasurers of heaven, well, we can have them now. What are those treasures? I can say the words, but they will not capture the real meaning and experience of those treasurers.
Regardless, those treasurers are peace, love, joy, and reconciliation. I know those words sound canned. I wish I could tell you how real they can be. I can tell you, though from personal experience that the peace, the love, and the joy of the Lord is just that—real, very real and experiential. Suddenly, God will open up a window from heaven and those treasurers will tumble into our hearts, filling us to the point of bursting. It is more than we can hold, as we sob with thanksgiving.
What of the reconciliation? That answer can be rather personal, but I can tell you that Emily and I experienced something of it within our blended family this past weekend. We were celebrating Emily’s birthday with our children. Each of our children was sharing some remembrances in respect to Emily. As those remembrances were vocalized, suddenly our children were able to see each other with different eyes, eyes of acceptance and love for one another. It truly was a beautiful moment, something for which Emily and I had been waiting for years. Why had it taken so long? Only God knows for sure, but I suspect part of the reason is that each of us had to die first. No, not physically, but die to some part of ourselves that was holding on to those things where moth and rust consume. And, yes, that would include our egos.
This, of course, is an indictment of our hearts. Jesus puts it this way: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Though this may indict our hearts, it also offers us direction or a way to repent. We can know greater security, love, peace, and joy in our lives if we focus more on God than on the things of this world that rust and can be stolen. Therein is direction for the Lenten discipline we might choose this year.
Lenten disciplines basically fall into one of two categories. We will either give up something or take on something. The purpose of either one of these two is to deepen our relationships with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit and to open us up to whatever heavenly treasures they may wish to bestow upon us. Frankly, deepening our relationship with the Trinity should be our motive for any spiritual discipline at any time. If eating, drinking, or some habit is hurting our relationship with the divine Three, then maybe we should try a little fasting. If giving up chocolate will somehow make us feel closer to God and enjoy His love for us more, then certainly give up chocolate. If not, then don’t give up chocolate. Certainly, our intent for giving up whatever it is does matter.
As to taking on something as a Lenten discipline, there are obvious options, again for the purpose of bringing us closer to God and receiving His heavenly treasures. Reading the Bible is always a good choice and prayer is paramount. Prayer, you see, really is a matter of being in relationship, with God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit. We talk and listen to those with whom we are in relationship. Establishing a time during the day, every day, is a good way to proceed.
As many of you know, one of the things we give up liturgically during Lent is saying the “A” word. You know, Alleluia. I remember some years ago finding that to be rather strange if not backwards. It seemed to me that Lent should be the very season in which we most say the “A” word. Why? It is during Lent that we more intently turn our focus on God and Jesus from whom all blessings flow, especially heavenly ones. Isn’t that a good reason to say the “A” word? The “A” word is actually a Latinization of the Hebrew word, Halleluiah, meaning praise the Lord. Should we not praise the Lord during Lent?
I’ll close with this last reflection. Lent is also that season when we remember and perhaps on some level even participate in those forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness after His baptism, being tempted by the devil. He, too, had to choose between that which lasts and that which does not. The devil, of course, would have Him choose that which does not last. Jesus knows our temptations and He knows how hard it can be to choose God when it costs us. Certainly, it cost Him His life. Be then encouraged to take on some Lenten disciple this year. Expect some special blessing, some heavenly treasure for doing so. Borrowing Jesus’ words, do not, do not miss this opportunity.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.