Matthew 6:1-6, 12-21
[Jesus said:] 1 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your God in heaven.
2 “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. Very truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and God who sees in secret will reward you.
5 “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. Very truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your God who is in secret; and your God who sees in secret will reward you.
16 “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. Very truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by God who is in secret; and God who sees in secret will reward you.
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Please pray with me this evening, church:
Holy and immortal God,
You have formed us from the dust of the earth,
and at the end of all things, we will return to that same dust.
Draw near to us as we wrestle with these truths.
Breathe life into this dust once again.
It’s certainly no Johnson Space Center…but Chicago has a pretty neat Planetarium, the Adler, and back when I lived and was serving my Internship in Chicago, the Adler hosted a Clergy Day, an entire day dedicated to the conversations between science and religion. Sidenote: I’m not sure why it ends up this way, but I took a look back at my sermons over the years, and it turns out I talk about this experience at the Adler Planetarium like every couple of years or so and it’s always on Ash Wednesday…not sure why that is, but there you go… Anyway, so at the Planetarium and one exhibit in particular captured my attention that day—this one describing what scientists know and are learning about the origins of the universe…the Big Bang. There were pictures from as far back as we could see in the universe, pictures and descriptions of some of the oldest materials found on earth…it was all really cool.
But this idea that stuck out to me was one of interconnectedness…relationship…that everything that is, everything that ever has been, and everything that ever will be has a single point of origin.
Every single one of us, every single living thing—people, plants, animals, bacteria, viruses—everything comes from a single something.
For me, it’s the clearest description I can think of to illustrate that we all are, in fact, interconnected…interwoven…”an inescapable network of mutuality, tied together in a single garment of destiny,” as the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. would say.
Last week, our own Dr. Sandra Moore, a literal rocket scientist, shared a picture on her social media of Earth as viewed through the rings of Saturn…she works at NASA so she gets all the coolest pictures, but still… That “tiny, pale blue dot”… That singular point and place on which we all live together, on which everything that has ever lived has lived on together, and on which everything that ever will live will live on together.
There is so much contained on that tiny speck. It’s completely unfathomable and so wildly beyond our ability to grasp and comprehend…everything that ever was, that is, or ever will be…all contained within that dot.
And you are not the center of it.
I guess I figure as long as we’re hearing difficult truths about our mortality on Ash Wednesday, we might as well just dispense with all the difficult truths in our lives…but it’s true…you are not the center of the universe. You aren’t called to be the center of your own universe.
But child, you are the center of God’s universe.
Lent is a season of adjusting our focus.
We tend to start off our calendar year with talk of resolutions and all of our self-improvement projects, and while I am certainly not saying that working on yourself and taking care of yourself aren’t good things—they absolutely are—Lent is a corrective lens over a hyper-focus on ourselves.
You are not the center of your own universe.
Lent refocuses our attention to God—the source of our life, the object of our worship and praise, the author of our tomorrows, and co-traveler with us throughout our life’s journey.
“Return to the Lord your God…God is gracious. And merciful. Slow—not quick—to anger. And abounding in unfailing love that you can cling to.”
One of the ways of adjusting our focus is through spiritual practices. There’s a fairly long history of faithful disciples “giving something up” for Lent. In recent years there have been movements to “take something on” or “add something to” your current habits. Whatever your personal piety and preference is, my hope is that it is something that adds something to your faith and to your life. In the litany of practices laid out by Jesus in our gospel from Matthew, Jesus’ point is not that the practices in and of themselves are bad, but rather, Jesus is encouraging you to examine your motivations, examine why you’re doing what you’re doing. When you give alms, do so without show. When you pray, keep that between you and God. When you fast, let your outward appearance reflect your inward devotion.
Spiritual practices focus our attention outside of ourselves. Use the practices of Lent as means to draw yourself deeper, not just in your own relationship with God, but in your relationship with others.
You are not the center of your own universe.
Our theme for this season of Lent is Unburden. We’re talking about the heaviness we carry around with us and how for so many in recent years it feels like we’ve drifted further and further apart from one another. It feels like we’re shouting at one another across canyons of difference and we view our neighbors as arguments to be won rather than as beloved children and siblings. We approach our relationships with clenched fists, some of us even carrying stones to be hurled at one another across these chasms.
My invitation to you the Lent is to unburden yourself, dear church.
Set down the heaviness, the weight, the stones you’re carrying around. Let your Lenten discipline draw you closer to the heart of God, and there find that the heart of God is near to your neighbor, the stranger, the dispossessed, the poor, and the marginalized.
When we return to God, we focus ourselves and place ourselves in proximity to God, and therefore in proximity to those for whom God has particular concern.
You are not the center of your own universe — in a moment we’ll confess that deep, yet difficult, truth.
But you are the center of God’s universe, dear child — let us also hear, once again, the healing balm of those beautifully truthful words, as well.
You are dust, dear mortal one, and to dust you will return.
But do not forget what God can do with dust.