Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to 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 in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when 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 when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay 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 will your heart be also.
Grab your bucket. Get a mop, and bring a broom, and some towels, and cleaners. Today is going to be a day of exciting cleaning. Some of us may remember Spring cleaning, some of us might have heard about it, and others of us may have no idea what this is. Spring cleaning is a time to remove all of the dirt and dust built up over winter. To air out the house, remove the storm windows and clean them really good to store them away until next year, and put in the screens so the fresh air from outside can come in. We need to take out the rugs and beat out the dust, and straighten up our rooms, and closets. Spring cleaning is the time to remove the winter clothes and bring out the spring/summer attire. We need to straighten up the attic and the basements.
Now it may seem a little early for me to be talking about spring cleaning, I mean after all the gopher did just pop out of the hole last week, so we still have 5 more weeks until Spring is here, but today, Ash Wednesday, as we begin our Lenten trek, it is time for us to think about our personal spring cleaning. Also the word Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon word Lenten which means spring. Most of the time spring cleaning is done in a day, or a weekend, and it may stretch out into a week, but we have 40 days to work on our spring cleaning, to get us started.
We can start the process of sweeping out our hearts and our minds. As the candidates for baptism in the early church would have done in this time, learning about the faith into which they were going to be baptized. Cleansed from the thoughts of the world, and drowned in the life giving words of the faith. A 40 day trek of catechetical training or for us a 40 day trek in looking more at our selves and cleaning out the cobwebs in our attics and basements, our minds and our hearts, our guts. We can see the biblical meaning behind the 40 days, in the 40 days of Jesus’ fast at the beginning of his ministry, Moses stayed on Mount Sinai 40 days, the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, and Elijah’s 40 day fast on the way to the mountain of God.
And as in all spring cleanings, it is not good enough to dust around the things on the shelf, or push them to one side or the other to do the dusting. We need to remove all of the items and clean each on individually, and then the shelf. And before we think we are through and put the things back on the shelf, we need to also move the shelf and sweep and dust behind it. We need to make sure the dust and dirt of winter are gone, and the wonderful spring time smell can over take us. We can not just rearrange items in our houses when we do spring cleaning to keep from having to clean a part of the house, and in our personal spring cleaning we can not just rearrange our lives to suit our own needs. We need to allow the cleansing waters role over our lives and allow the one who made us new, and claimed us as his children, arrange our lives as he wants it to be arranged.
Jesus kind of gives us an outline for how our lives should be arranged through our gospel text for today. He discusses acts of righteousness, or piety as our text says. First off though. Jesus does not say these are things we should be doing, he does not spend any time saying that Alms giving, praying and fasting are necessary things for our faith. Why is that? Because he expects that as faithfully practicing Jews, these things are being done. And as faithfully practicing Christians, these are things that are happening. So we are to gives Alms, which is giving over and above the tithe that was expected in the worship practice of Jesus’ day. And we are to pray, this is more than just when you feel like praying, Jesus is referring here to the pray offices, or specified times of pray that were required in the Jewish faith practices, and we are to Fast, to go without something. All of these practices are meant to be done in piety towards God, and not so that others give you praise because of what you are doing. The question of having public verses private faith is not is what at stake here; rather it is where the heart truly lies. Are these acts being done out of righteousness, or piety the translators have chose to render the word, or are these acts being done so we individually receive the praise. Jesus never condemns these faith practices, but condemns the motives that are behind the faith practice. Are we in our lives storing up treasure where moth and rust and thieves can destroy what we are trying to save? Or are we storing our treasure in heaven, where nothing can destroy? Where are our hearts?
As we start this years Lenten journey. Let us sweep out our hearts, let’s clean out the cobwebs, let’s move everything out and let our lives be arranged by the one who created us. Remember the words to Jeremiah in Chapter 1 verse 5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” We are all named and claimed by God in our baptism, in our burial in the water, and our rising to new life. Lent is a time of reflection on our baptism, our dying to self, and allowing the one who knew us before we were born to claim us as his own.
As we receive the sign of the cross on our foreheads this evening, and here the words, “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” remember our mortality, and remember that ashes can suggest cleansing and renewal. Ashes can be used as a cleansing agent in the absence of soap, and tonight we can think of them as a reminder of our baptism. Water both stifles and refreshes, drowns and makes alive. So the ashes also remind us of our mortality, and of the renewal we have in cleaning out our lives and allowing God to have control.
As we go through our spring cleaning, let us remain faithful disciples of Jesus in the world. And go countercultural to our times, by being transformed through God’s claim on our lives, and our embracing the words “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Society wants us to think we are worth it, and we should not think about our mortality. We need to live for the day, and reach for the golden ring. Yet if we can live in the understanding of our mortality, and the fact that we are worth it, we are worth the death of our savior, to the one who claimed us as his children, inheritors of his kingdom, then we truly have begun our spring cleaning. We can live in the understanding or mortality, knowing the cross of Christ puts sin to death, and live in the promise Christ will raise us out of the ashes of our death to eternal life with him.
So remember you are dust and to dust you shall return, and get you broom and let’s do some cleaning. Amen