February 22, 2012, Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday
February 22, 2012
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was

“When you give alms, do not let you left hand know what your right hand is doing…“Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door…“When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face…“…where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Lent can be so grim. It can be a season of “mourning for sin.” Our sin and the sin of the world. Weeping, gnashing of teeth, sack cloth. Giving up things we love and reveling in the misery, or at least feeling sanctified with the ascetic nature of our practice. And Christ’s exhortations to us in this passage from St. Matthew supports that. Not only are we directed to do all that, give alms, pray and fast, He tells us that we are to do all these good works in secret so that we do not get the satisfaction of feedback from admiring or impressed humans. The thinking is that God smiles more brightly on us when things are hard, or we are miserable in God’s name. There are another ways to look at this.

When Jesus tells us do these good things, give alms, pray, fast, He follows up with the order to store up our treasure in heaven because “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” What he is telling us is that we need to get our minds right, we need to get our priorities straight, we need to have our eyes on the right prize; and that prize is nothing less than being in right relationship with God Almighty and all those we share this life with.

It is not that often that Christ offers so clear a teaching, one with practical instructions and soteriological implications, that is the technical term for things relating to salvation. He tells us to do things this way… When you are generous, giving alms, do not publicize it, give for giving’s sake. No naming rights. When you pray, don’t show off, do it to the glory of God, not your own. When you fast, don’t look miserable, get on with your day because your private spiritual practice is just that, private, it is between you and God. And why do we do these things? To focus our attention where it is supposed to be focused; that is not on frivolous things like approval, not on worldly, profane things, but things of substance. Things of quality. Things coming from and going to God.

Well, that is what I take it to mean when Jesus tells us to store our treasures in heaven. I think we need to take His words to mean that we need to invest our energy and attention in what is right and good and beautiful in this world. Heaven on earth, the Kingdom of God. We need to work on, work for, create enduring things, edifying things, things of grace and beauty AND justice. We need to focus ourselves on things worth paying attention to, things worth dedicating energy to, to throwing our lot in with. A stand of old growth trees up in the Cascades; a patch of rich silt loam, real blackstuff like you see in the fields right below Mt. Pisgah, an institution that is doing God’s work in the world, your own vocation… these are where we store our treasure.

What we do in this world, matters. Co-equal, what we intend to do in this world matters. This is the meaning of this passage. We become our intentions. If your intentions are on Godly things, good and wholesome and life giving things, then you grow closer to God because God understands our intentions and our intentions generally lead our bodies and minds in the same direction. When we surround ourselves with things of God, things pleasing to God, we become them. Things from God are most easily recognized for their elegant, simple, enduring qualities. Surround yourself with such things and you will become them.

This Lent, immerse yourself in things that you know will please God. Surround yourself with beauty, and where it is lacking, create something beautiful. Surround yourself with outrageously alive things; a farm in spring, a river engorged with vernal run-off, children, and where life is lacking, create life. These things are not easy, they often take work, but life takes work. The good life takes a lot of work. This is the best preparation we can make for the coming dark days of Holy Week. Have a constructive Lent. AMEN