“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. “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. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“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.But 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.
“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. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so 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.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Pastor Marc's sermon for Ash Wednesday (March 6, 2019) on Matthew 6:1-6,16-21. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
One of the most trendy and completely overused terms in business is “disruptive innovation.” It was originally coined in 1995 to describe the kind of technology that subverts an existing industry and eventually replaces it. For example, the first cars in the late 19th century were amazingly innovative but they didn’t replace the horse and buggy market because cars were really expensive. But once Ford started to mass produce cars with the innovation of the assembly line, the horse and buggy went the way of, well, the horse and buggy. Since the late 1990s, tons of startup companies and inventors have tried to make a lot of money with so-called “innovations” that “disrupt” the market. Sometimes, it worked. Uber and Lyft, the ride-hailing companies, really did disrupt and subvert the taxi industry. But other “innovations” really didn’t. A few months ago, a company wanted to put fancy vending machines filled with deodorant, laundry detergent, ramen noodles, and basically everything you find at a neighborhood store or a bodega - in apartment buildings. At the time, they seemed like they wanted to “disrupt the bodega” which is an industry that, as someone who relied on them while living in NYC, doesn’t really need much disrupting. Some churches, also, want to find some kind of “disruptive innovation” that would reinvigorate what the Christian faith is all about. We want to “disrupt church” and make it more meaningful in the lives of those around us. I saw an attempt at this recently when the actor Chris Pratt, from Guardians of the Galaxy, posted online about something he tried. He shared with all his fans about his experience with the “Daniel Fast” which is based on a handful of verses from the book of Daniel. The Daniel Fast usually takes place in January and is supposed to grow your faith and your sense of well-being by encouraging you to eat less, pray more, and work on your connection to Jesus Christ. It’s a movement that’s been around for a few years and it even has its own website, how-to-guide, and devotional book. Yet, it basically sounds like a program reinviting what we believe Lent is all about. And instead of spending 40 days (46 if you include Sundays) on Lent, the Daniel Fast let’s you do all similar things in only half the time. In the words of a friend, the Daniel Fast is an attempt to “disrupt Lent.” And it’s not the only one. A colleague reported seeing a similar kind of devotional book for Christians who don’t practice Lent to use in the 21 days leading up to Easter. There’s a desire, by some, to repackage this season of the church year, turning it into a program that will give us the results we want. We fast to make ourselves slimmer, we read some bible verses out of context so that we can feel more spiritual, and we do it all 21 days because 40 is too long for our attention span. But when we disrupt Lent, we actually end up doing the opposite of what Lent is all about. Lent isn’t about doing more, trying to aim for something we can get; Lent is about rooting ourselves in a season to discover what we already have.
Tonight’s reading from the gospel according to Matthew is the middle part of Jesus’ sermon that Matthew uses to frame everything that comes next. In a sense, Jesus is upfront about how his life, his teachings, and how his death will disrupt the expectations we all have. He started the sermon in chapter 5 with the beatitudes, the verses about “blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn,” and blessed are those who we don’t see as being blessed. Jesus inverts our expectations, showing us how we can have a different kind of life once we re-discover who God is and who we really are. And that experience isn’t always easy and doesn’t, necessarily, make us comfortable. Tonight’s verses from Matthew chapter 6 asks us to spend time realizing what we want and what we expect. In Jesus’ day, the wider community understood the world in terms of honor and shame. The relationships people had with one another were rooted in a sense of what you could get from someone and what you could give. There was an entire system of patronage, of using what you could give and what you could get as a way of building personal loyalties and personal brands that the entire community chose to embrace. Being seen while in prayer was important. Being known as someone who gave generously mattered. Having other people watch you do your faith out loud was part of what society was about. If you weren’t being seen, then it was as if it didn’t happen. And if no one knew it happened, why do it in the first place?
That, I think, is why Jesus moves to treasure at the end of tonight’s reading. Treasure isn’t only limited to gold, silver, and how well our investments in the stock market are doing. Our treasure is also those things, experiences, and realities that we choose to keep. They’re what we work hard to cultivate and what we choose pay attention to. Your treasure is what you chose to tend. And what we tend, in the end, reveals who we are.
That kind of revelation takes time to discover because we have to be honest about what we’re trying to get and also what we try to give. Are we generous with our neighbors? Are we willing to give ourselves grace? Are we intentional with our faith or do we just sort of go with the flow? What do we put our trust in? And do we only care about what we get? None of these questions are easy but they’re not meant to be. Because the season of Lent is a season designed to disrupt us just like Jesus disrupts our expectations of what faith, life, and love are all about. These next forty days and six Sundays are an invitation to take ourselves, our lives, and our faith seriously.
And we choose to start this process with a little bit of ash, mixed with olive oil, on our foreheads. Most of us don’t usually wear a lot of ash. Yet tonight, the ashen cross will disrupts what we normally do. The next time we look in a mirror, we don’t see who we usually expect to see. Instead, we will re-discover what was first given to us. The ashen cross, like some kind of divine blacklight, reveals what we have: and that’s Jesus. In your baptism, you were marked on the forehead with the sign of the cross and sealed with the entirety of Jesus’ story. You were given a new life that doesn’t let your limitations or expectations be the end to your story. In the Cross, we discovered how far God goes to show each of how much we’re loved. And it’s that kind of love which has the power to turn what we get into what we can give. In Jesus, the world was disrupted. In Jesus, our old way of living has been replaced. We are not the sum of our expectations. We’ve been loved by too hard and too much let ourselves be the only ones that define our story. When we Lent, when we cling to God, and when we follow Jesus to wherever Jesus takes us, we end up tending to a new reality where you, me, and the entire world end up being as treasured as God knows we should be.
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