Sermon: Snow Covered New Life

Jesus said: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell 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 done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever 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 whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store 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 your heart will be also.”

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

My sermon from Ash Wednesday (February 14, 2024) on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.


So on the left side of my driveway, right next to the road, is a piece of my property I don’t know what to do with. It’s home to a telephone pole, a stop sign, dead crabgrass, and whenever it rains, all the exposed soil floats down into the roadway. Every Spring and Summer, I dream up some new plant or decoration to put there before giving up and buying another bag of black mulch to throw on top. It’s a space that doesn’t feel like it has much life and yet, two weeks ago, I noticed a tiny bit of green trying to break through. I assumed that it must be a weed since the weather was still mostly cloudy and cold. But on closer inspection, that one little bit of green was actually surrounded by half-a-dozen more plants. It seems my wife, late last year, decided on her own to plant a few bulbs in a place where only dead crabgrass grows. Those little plants decided, on their own, to take a chance and germinate even though most nights were still a bit below freezing. The buds didn’t grow fast but they became bigger and brighter especially when, last weekend, the temperature broke 50. It seemed, for a few bright sunny days, the risk they took to start the next chapter in their lives might pay off. But when I left for church today, all that life was buried under a mountain of snow, dirt, ice, and grime created by a snowplow. 

I’ll admit Ash Wednesday on Valentine’s Day is always a bit weird. We, in theory, are supposed to be focused on love and romance while, at the same time, spend the day walking around with an ashen cross etched on our foreheads. It’s the kind of day when the memes are endless and I can justify to myself handing out candy hearts with the words “repent” written on them. But this day can also be very hard. Valentine’s Day has a way of implying the love in our most intimate relationships should resemble the ending of every rom com ever written. And if it doesn’t, then we must be worth less than we actually are. Valentine’s Day, in my experience, rarely reminds us how much we’re loved; it often reinforces all the ways we are alone. And if that’s not enough, Ash Wednesday comes along and reminds us of our mortality. There’s a way both of these celebrations can feel as if they’re primarily focused on some kind of end, with Ash Wednesday keeping our eyes on the end of life and Valentine’s Day hoping to end our seeking of any relationship by finding “the One.” But I wonder if, like bulbs bursting forth despite the threat of snow, Ash Wednesday is less about the end and more about how, in Christ, our life has already begun. 

Now Matthew, in his version of Jesus’ life, bookended Jesus’ public ministry with two long very long sermons. The first one, starting in chapter 5, is known as the sermon on the mount while the last one, starting in chapter 24, appeared right before his arrest, trial, and death. These two sermons serve like Jesus’ statement of purpose – putting into words what it’s like when God’s kingdom comes near. And so after beginning the sermon of the mount by pointing out how God often values the people we don’t, Jesus then moved into a section dominated by a word whose pronunciation is as harsh as its definition. That harshness, I think, invites us to focus on every one of Jesus’ “don’ts” and wonder what parts of our own practices of faith would Jesus say “don’t” to? That kind of self-reflection can be healthy when done with honesty and an incredible amount of vulnerability. But it can also bury us in despair when we notice how much of our identity is defined by what others say. We can also, if we’re not careful, turn Jesus’ list of “don’ts” into a kind of checklist that we use to spiritually harm others while patting ourselves on the back. In our desire to not be a hypocrite, we turn Jesus’ list of “don’ts” into an end in themselves. Our life with God, then, becomes defined by a checklist of faithfulness or morality that is never quite big enough to speak into all the grime, dirt, joys, and sorrows life brings. That kind of life might not be trying to earn God’s love but it stops living as if God’s love can be so much more. And that’s why, I think,  Jesus didn’t let his words at this part of sermon on the mountain only be a series of “don’ts.” He kept going, throwing in a “when” that assumes the faith practices of life, such as the sharing of money, praying in public and in private, and living as if we already have enough, will not be seen as the end of faith but as its beginning. Faith is a gift from God we “do” – and the “do” is always more than simply avoiding the “don’ts.” The faith Jesus imagines is a faith that reorients our priorities away from ourselves and towards the priorities of God. And while that might seem a pretty big ask to do, in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ life – that priority is always grounded in mercy. It’s a kind of mercy that doesn’t seek attention but gives it to those who feel unworthy and alone. It’s a kind of mercy that doesn’t demand power but empowers those pushed aside. And it’s a mercy that does ask our story to end with a rom-com ending but trusts that, with Jesus, we are already part of a story that will never end. 

The vibe for Ash Wednesday on Valentine’s Day will always be weird. It’s a day when we remember endings while giving one another flowers that have already bloomed. But today is also meant to be a kind of a beginning. It’s the beginning of the season of Lent when we spend forty days and six Sundays marching to a Friday we paradoxically call good. Today is the beginning of our yearly reminder that faith and love is an active and living thing; moving us away from our priorities and towards a way of being in the world that finds its purpose in what God has already prioritized. Ash Wednesday on Valentine’s Day is an opportunity to be honest about ourselves, our wants, our joys, our needs, and our sorrows, as we remember how – in Christ – another chapter for us and our world has already begun. This is a moment when we admit that life often buries us in snow, grime, and dirt right when it feels like we are about to bloom. And yet because of your baptism, your faith, and your identity as a child of God – your time with Jesus has only just begun.