"Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
"And when you fast, don't make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, who try to look pale and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I assure you, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will suspect you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in secret. And your Father, who knows all secrets, will reward you.
"Don't store up treasures here on earth, where they can be eaten by moths and get rusty, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where they will never become moth-eaten or rusty and where they will be safe from thieves. Wherever your treasure is, there your heart and thoughts will also be."-- Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Some might find it ironic that this is the reading for today when many of us are getting ready to go to church for the imposition of ashes. On the surface, it would seem that we are engaging in exactly the kind of grandstanding that Jesus is warning about. But when we have the ashes placed upon our foreheads, the purpose is to remind US that we are entering a penitential season, and that since we are ashes, it is important to live our lives in the most faithful way possible.
The other thing I am struck by is that the next thing this text provokes in me is a wish to inscribe this before the eyes of every single politician who attempts to use his or her identification as a Christian as a way to gain votes. With every election cycle, the cynical use of religious litmus tests seems to get more outrageous and less CHRISTIAN.
The latest is Rick Santorum claiming that he grudgingly will believe President Obama's statement that he is a Christian, although he will claim that Obama's theology is a "false theology" not "based upon the Bible." Franklin Graham, always know for his... incisive... comments about other people's religious beliefs, jumps in with his own doubts. Now, you don't have to love President Obama to find this kind of attack scurrilous and outrageous no matter what.
This hypocrisy is highlighted in the last section, for those who attempt to use religious affiliation to gain treasure here on Earth have set their minds on the things that perish, on the things that wither and fail and fade.
One of the great things that I always remember thanks to the season of Lent that is initiated today is to questions and examine just exactly what I treasure. Some of the things I cling to are distracting, and Lenten discipline gives me a chance to re-examine the things I hold tightly to see if they are really worthy of such anxiety. Other things in my life aren't treasured by me enough, and the call to focus during this Lenten season should help me remember this as well.
On Ash Wednesday, Christians are called not just to play the part of a better person but to actually try to BE that better person. We should not impose the ashes upon our foreheads unless we are dedicated to inscribing the true lessons of Jesus' abiding love for us on our hearts. What an amazing gift we are given, and how easy it is to lose sight of that gift in the cacophony of our lives. This is our chance to re-center ourselves, not just for forty days but for each moment. This is not a season to be endured but a gift of insight into what we really should treasure. It is in the everyday world that we live, and we need to make our faith not just a Sunday faith or a Lenten discipline but a part of a living and breathing. The Buddhists call this mindfulness, and it is such a wonderful concept.
We often talk about what we are going to give up as part of our Lenten discipline. I want to try to give up my preoccupation with my oh so noble but temporary suffering over 40 days and instead focus my attention on the incredible love shown to me from the life and the cross of Jesus as we approach it during this season. May we emerge on the other side of this season of Lent as an Easter people bringing the joyous message of Christ's love into the world for all to see. Amen.