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Ash Wednesday 2024


Scripture: Matthew 6;1-6; 16-21

“Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may get praise from people. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that you may give to the poor in secret. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you. “When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you. “And when you fast, don’t put on a sad face like the hypocrites. They distort their faces so people will know they are fasting. I assure you that they have their reward. When you fast, brush your hair and wash your face. Then you won’t look like you are fasting to people, but only to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them. Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Today, as we step into the solemn season of Lent, we embark on a journey of deep reflection and introspection. In my childhood, growing up as a Protestant in a predominantly Catholic country, Ash Wednesday was not part of our Methodist traditions. Yet, in Brazil, a land vibrant with the rhythms of Samba and the exuberance of Carnaval, Ash Wednesday casts a stark contrast, bringing the nation back to reality after days of festivities. It marks the end of a period where dreams take flight, where the ordinary transforms into the extraordinary, a time when the world's cares seem to vanish in the euphoria of celebration. But as a Brazilian poet insightfully notes, "Sadness never ends, but happiness – it counts its moments." This poignant reflection on the fleeting nature of hapiness captures the essence of Carnaval and, interestingly enough, resonates with our Christian practice of Lent.

In Lent, we are called to a different kind of journey – a journey into the quiet depths of our soul. It is a time to embrace stillness, silence, and contemplation. It challenges us to confront the truths of our lives, our fears, dreams, disappointments, and our genuine selves. This introspection stands in stark contrast to a world filled with noise and distractions, as it urges us to listen for God’s voice in the stillness of our hearts. Lent promises treasures of spiritual depth and understanding that far surpass our earthly experiences.

The teachings of Jesus, particularly the Beatitudes, echo this call to inner authenticity and reflection. He invites us to look beyond the superficial aspects of religious practices and to find a deeper, more meaningful engagement in our prayer, fasting, and acts of kindness. Jesus challenges us to examine the motives behind our actions, seeking incorruptible rewards and living by a divine standard that transcends worldly measures.

In our Gospel text, we find Jesus, early in his ministry, teaching his disciples about the new life they have been called to undertake. He offers some words of comfort, words that many of us have heard before: “Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who mourn… Blessed are the meek… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… Blessed are the merciful… the pure in heart, the peacemaker… You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world…” He opens his sermon with things that uplift the spirit and give hope for the future. But then Jesus takes a sharp turn and steps up to the beloved religious practices of his time. He begins to reinterpret the Laws of Moses and openly criticize the practices of the people. “Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven…. Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do… When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them… When you fast, brush your hair and wash your face...” Jesus was a bold preacher. He was not criticizing the people from “south” of the border or far away, he was speaking about and to those standing around him. His message was clear, “what you do matter, but how you do it and why you do it matters just as much.” He called his followers to check their hearts and seek to collect rewards that are incorruptible. This sounds like a simple lesson to learn. But it is difficult. This is a message that calls those who follow Jesus to live with feet firmly planted in the world and to use a different set of standards to measure and evaluate their actions. 

In the Christian community, there is a temptation to live lives that are disconnected from the realities of the world. There is a temptation to reformulate our pray and say: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be that I go up from earth and live in heaven." This type of attitude betrays the calling of Christ and God's will for the world and those created in his image. We do not pray because we are disconnected from the realities of the world or to escape them. We pray because we are a part of it. We do not fast because our bodies don’t need physical nourishment for survival. We fast to remember that God is the source of our lives and that in times of need, we grow more aware of God's presence. We do not give or serve to satisfy our egos. We do it because we recognize that all we have comes from God, therefore we share our time, talents, and resources with others—and perhaps through our gift of love, those in need of healing will experience the amazing grace and love of God we know in Jesus Christ.

Discomfort. Stillness. Silence. Reflection. Prayer. Fasting. Service. These are powerful tools for those who choose to journey in faith. This is the invitation we receive as we begin preparing ourselves to journey with Jesus to the cross and tomb. For that is the heart of the season of Lent—to prepare ourselves for a journey that leads to death and, beyond death, to new life. This is not a comfortable journey. The reality of our faith is that the baby, whose birth we celebrated just a couple of months ago, will suffer on the cross and give his all for us. But, the story does not end there. Three days later, we are taken from mourning to celebration. For God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, raises Christ, conquers death, and raises us to a new life.

This season invites us to unmask our hearts and to be honest with ourselves about our mortality, our brokenness, and our need for grace. This is not comfortable. But this is an invitation of love. This is an invitation that places the spotlight on ourselves and not others. This is an invitation to grow in knowing and loving God and ourselves. The challenge we face is that it is much easier to shift the focus to others, to create noise, to distract our attention, or to practice the showy religion Jesus warns the disciples about.

But I invite you to open yourself to the discomfort of living. I invite you return to reality and seek moments of stillness and silence for your soul. I invite you to deeply reflect on the word of God, and to spend time in prayer. I invite you to turn your focus inward, and listen attentively to the voice of the One who created you and speaks into your heart. These are things that will earn you treasures in heaven. These are things that will benefit your soul and give you strength to overcome the difficulties of life. 

Remember, you are not alone in this journey. We walk this path as a community of faith, offering support and encouragement to each other. As we follow Christ towards the cross and the empty tomb, may we find strength in silence, wisdom in reflection, and an ever-present sense of God’s love and blessings.

Amen.

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