Motivation 3-6-19

In this Ash Wednesday sermon, based on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, I explore an ironic passage in which Jesus warns us against public displays of piety on the one day in the Lutheran world when we publicly display our piety.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

You can also follow along with the text of there sermon here.

May the grace and peace of our Triune God be yours, now and forever. Amen

When I got into the office this morning, the very first thing I did was move around the church to bump up the heat for this evening…so I went down stairs to the two different thermostats in the basement, and then I came into the sanctuary to bump up the temperature in here.

And as I walked up the aisle towards the thermostat located right over there…I noticed something…with our maroon colored carpet here in the sanctuary…any salt left behind by people’s shoes is blatantly visible…and considering the weather and the amount of salt that each of one us is walking over every day…you can imagine the MULTITUDE of salt that was left behind last Sunday…and since the cleaning ladies aren’t here until Thursday, that salt wasn’t going anywhere.

This is one of those moments that qualifies in a job description as “any other duties as required.”  And so I busted out the vacuum to give the carpet a quick once over and clean up the majority of the left over salt. Now as I was vacuuming, I just kept thinking about a statement that Jesus makes very pretty early on in the Sermon on the Mount…about a chapter or so before the portion that I shared just a moment ago…one that perhaps sounds familiar to you. (pause)

If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored. It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. (pause) But…evidenced by my work this morning…what Jesus failed to tell us with that pithy little saying…once the salt is trampled underfoot, it sticks to our shoes, and it will be carried back inside again.

And with that realization…along with awareness of what today is, I present to you a new statement…Remember that there is salt…and the salt it will return. (pause) Now its not much of a stretch to go from that statement to our actual statement that applies tonight. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. A phrase which is spoken to each one of us tonight…as a reminder of where we came from…as well as where we will return…a statement that we will hear along with the tradition of smearing ashes on our foreheads…a visual sign of our mortality…a tradition which we do each year to kick off the season of Lent.

This action is a physical statement of our faith…an action that we participate in as a way to physically live out that faith…and there’s a word for this type of thing…piety…a way that we show reverence to God or a way that we act that fulfills a religious requirement…that’s what piety means. And tonight…in one of the rare instances here in our Lutheran tradition…tonight as we hear those words, and receive those ashes on our foreheads, we publically practice and display our piety…

And I don’t know about you…but I can’t help finding a sense of irony tonight…because on this night when we do just that…public displays of piety…our gospel lesson is a warning from Jesus against…public displays of piety. (pause)

And with that…we have a couple of different choices right now.  I can stop now, offer up a prayer of repentance, we could all say amen, and sheepishly sneak out the back…or we could take a closer look at just what Jesus is talking about here…I’m gonna lean towards the latter if that’s ok. (pause)

Now sure enough…Jesus does offer this warning about 3 different types of religious practices…but what’s strange about it…is that none of these things are bad.  Giving alms…offering as we know it…though giving directly to the less fortunate would probably be a better description…that’s a good thing.

Praying…nothing wrong with that one…its something we do here in worship every week and its something that we do individually whenever we talk to God…prayer’s good right? (pause)  And fasting…maybe not the most common practice in our tradition…but fasting as a way to focus our attention back to God isn’t a bad thing either…and many participate in this spiritual discipline.

So I gotta ask…Jesus…what are you talking about in these three warnings? I wonder…why is he warning us against them…or is he?  Does Jesus tell his followers not to give alms…not to pray…not to fast?  Or does he give a warning about the motivation behind these actions? (pause)

If we consider each of the three statements…I think we’re getting closer to his intention.  When you do these things…when you practice your piety…do not be like the hypocrites…they do these things publically…and they act to draw attention to what they are doing…so that they might be seen by others.

The motivation behind our actions…behind our tradition and our practices…that seems to be the key…because who are we doing it for? Who is our audience? Is it other people? Or is it God? That’s the big question that we need to be asking ourselves…especially tonight as we have gathered to do something similar…and maybe, just maybe…the whole thing can boil down to the final statement that Jesus makes for us tonight.  Where your treasure is…there your heart will be also.  Jesus is talking about our ultimate desires…because if we’re simply playing the crowds…or we’re acting in a way to get ourselves something that the world tends to value…we need to remember that all that is fleeting…but treasures in heaven…I think that’s something altogether different. (pause)

I’ve had a lot of conversation over the years about what these heavenly treasures might be…conversations that are often tied to questions about what heaven’s going to be like…what will we experience in the afterlife? What will we see or hear…what will we think or feel?  And when we’re honest in those conversations we have to acknowledge that we don’t know…but when I find myself in these conversations…often times with an individual who is looking at the rapidly approaching end of this life…I tell them that whatever it is that they will experience…they won’t be disappointed.

And that right there probably brings us around to the important aspect of this day…and this worship service…and this public display of our piety that we will all participate in.  In a few more moments, each one of you will come up this aisle…and I will look you in the eye, smear ash on your forehead and tell you “remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

Those words refer to your mortality…they refer to your death. They are an acknowledgement that this life you are leading…is fleeting.  I’ve shared with you before, that this action that we share tonight is one of the most personal and powerful moments that I have every year…because with each passing year, the depth of the relationship that I hold with you as individuals deepens.  I’m your pastor…I consider many of you friends…I have family sitting out there.

For some of you, I have buried your spouse…or your parents, or your siblings.  Some of you young ones out there…I baptized you…the nature of our relationships differs from person to person…but as I look you in the eye and say words that speak of your death, its hard.

I’m not sharing this to toot my own horn or to make you feel sorry for me…but rather I want to highlight the importance of relationship that lies between us…and not only that but to remind you of the importance of the relationships that you hold with one another…and to go one step beyond that…perhaps most importantly tonight…to remind you of the relationship that you hold with God.

The relationship that you hold with the one who made you in the first place…remember that you are dust…know where that comes from?  Genesis…and God making humanity out of dirt…and God being a little on the nose in naming this mud person Adaam…from the Hebrew Adamah which literally means dirt. And then following the creation of humanity out of dirt or dust, God calls us Very Good…and being there in relationship with this very good creation that in which God finds delight.

God finds so much delight in you…that God will not be separated from you…and so through whatever it was that God was accomplishing through the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ…God is making that ongoing relationship with you a reality…one that not even death can stop.

Because despite our brokenness…God has offered us healing…and we will hear that tonight as well…because immediately after you hear the words that speak of your death…you will also hear the body of Christ broken for you….the blood of Christ shed for you…and remember this has been done for the forgiveness of sins…it has been done…for…you.

This is a promise that we cling to…and that is faith…believing the promises that God has made for you and to you…let us each hold on to that faith…let us each hold on to that promise, and be motivated by the love of the one who made us in the first place…and let us act accordingly…whether we are doing it in public or in private…may we each be motivated by gratitude to the one who loves us and made us in the first place. Amen.

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