Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday

Robert P. Hoch

First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
Baltimore MD 21201

February 26, 2020

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

1“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.

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.”

N.T. Wright tells of a time when he was living in the Middle East. He’d gone out for a walk and was returning home. He was hungry so he stopped at a stall and bought a bar of chocolate. When he got home, he fixed his tea and sat down at the table. He unwrapped the bar of chocolate . . . and was glad he looked at it first, because when he did he saw it was alive with bugs.

On the outside, it looked good. On the inside, it wasn’t. Maybe you could say that’s the overall message of our scripture readings tonight. We sometimes get into the mindset that as long as we look good, we are good. But prophet, psalmist, epistle, and gospel writer aren’t satisfied with what we’re like on the outside, but how it is with our insides. And maybe Matthew’s goal is for us to be pure chocolate.

Jesus identifies three practices that people of faith would take as foundational to being true to God and fully human.

First, give to the poor.

Second, pray.

Third, fast.

Taken together, these were ingredient to the formation of a righteous person. Righteous does not mean morally better, at least not in the Hebrew mind. It means to be rightly related to God, neighbor, and self. But it’s apparent that Jesus believes we sometimes give, pray, and fast with the wrong motive. We get the wrapper of prayer — the religion, the robe, the denomination, the style of worship — but somehow the motive gets lost. We want the motive to be the lasting thing.

What’s that motive? Jesus aims to orient our heart to God, ultimately, so that our giving, praying, and fasting are only glancingly about how we are seen by others but, mostly, about conveying our utter dependency on God.

Notice to begin with, Jesus assumes that we give to the poor, pray, and fast. Jesus will say “when” you give, pray, and fast. Jesus speaks of fasting as something all people do, and so, therefore, Jesus doesn’t scold us, or even encourage us to do this when we haven’t been doing so in a while, but to form the content, the interior motivation for giving, praying, and fasting, which, as followers of Jesus, is more a “when” than an “if.”

Let’s begin with giving. “Whenever you give alms, do not sound the trumpet before you in order to be seen by others . . . they will receive their reward.” I guess we get the point here. Don’t make a great fuss about your gift to the poor. But make the gift. But then there’s this thing about rewards.

A pure gift, we say to ourselves, is given without any reward for us, the giver. And yet maybe we’re surprised that in each of these practices, giving, prayer, and fasting, Jesus speaks of rewards in a positive sense, as in you, you will be rewarded by God.

Maybe we believe we should give without expectation of a reward, but apparently Jesus doesn’t have the same issues we do. What you give in secret, or when you give — as God gives —God will celebrate your gift or you will be rewarded.

God gives to us. A day of health. Memories of a loved one flood into our minds, and bring to us comfort, a sense of affection. Or you step into a new day after a long winter of suffering and you feel the warmth of hope wash over your skin, and you feel as if you’ve been born brand new. God doesn’t come out, say, did you see me give you those tender memories?

God doesn’t say, “What did you think of that feeling of inexplicable hope, that swept into your soul, almost like the song of a bird returning in spring? Guess what? That was me!”

No, God gives to us in secret ways . . . God doesn’t give us a sunrise or a sweet memory with the feeling that we must take it, value it. God gives generously, you might almost say thoughtlessly. Maybe we would say that God has all but forgotten the sunrise that greeted us when we were born. But that’s not all bad. Maybe it’s a sign of God’s generosity rather than God’s forgetfulness. God will give again, another smile, another star to wish on.

So you also give. And God, who sees in secret and gives in secret, will reward you. With what? With deeper knowledge of God.

You could say that giving, praying, and fasting are all forms of the same thing, meditation on the nature of God and our nature in God’s eyes.

Rabbinical teaching had a saying for this. They said, “An hour of study is in the eyes of the Holy One, blessed be he, as an hour of prayer.”

Knowing God better is its own reward.

But there’s something about knowing ourselves as we are known, too. Maybe all this business of “not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing” and “praying in a closet” feels a bit strange set alongside public worship, where, in a few minutes we’ll all be wearing a smudge of a cross.

Maybe it’s a bit like getting dressed, only this time, we want to show that we’re coming to God not as whole vessels but broken ones. We come to one who can see us for who we are, through and through.

The psalmist says his sin is before him always, night and day. Think about that. What, if anything, do you see in your mind’s eye, night and day? Maybe think of a regret. Something done. Or something left undone. It can sear right into your soul, right into your heart. Maybe it becomes our sum total. But the psalmist knows that God loves us.

Blots out our transgression. Blocks from memory those very things that we ourselves struggle to forgive, either in ourselves or in others.

In a sense, maybe that’s why we wear the cross on our foreheads. Because our hearts have been cleansed.