March 2, 20222 Ash Wednesday 2022  Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Lent, the season of preparation for Easter, begins today. Traditionally, Lent is marked by prayer, fasting, self-reflection, and repentance. Lent is sufficiently serious that some Christian calendars have installed a season to prepare for it. It is called Mardi Gras. Whereas Lent projects a somber, almost lugubrious mood with a theme of denial and self-discipline, Mardi Gras is just the opposite. It is a time for parades, parties, and dancing in the streets.

The celebration called Mardi Gras is, of course, big in New Orleans, but I understand it is even bigger in Rio de Janeiro. The Brazilians call their festival Rio Carnival. Most businesses in the city close for a full week. Workers are given a holiday to attend this 24-hour per day colorful gala in the city streets. Every year five million people, including 400,000 foreign visitors, prepare for Lent by attending Rio’s biggest party.

I have never experienced Mardi Gras or Rio Carnival.

Today begins Lent. We set aside the colorful bead necklaces of Mardi Gras and receive the ashen mark of the cross. We replace the samba rhythms of Rio and the jazz beat of New Orleans’ Dirty Dozen Brass Band with reminders of our finitude and the gospel call: “You are dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19); “repent, and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15).

The lectionary gospel reading for the day comes from the heart of the Sermon on the Mount. In this passage Jesus lays out a standard of behavior for three acts of piety: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.

Succinctly stated, the message is that when followers of Jesus Christ engage in these faith practices, we should do so secretly, without a trace of phoniness and without any expectation of external reward. Our acts of devotion in giving, praying, and fasting are to rise out of our commitment to Christ. These acts of piety are to be their own reward.

Matthew 6 begins, “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” (vv. 1-2).

A minister friend tells the story of an evangelism call he made on man who had been attending church. The minister stopped one Saturday morning Admittedly, an accusation can be made that the church talks too much about money. There is truth in that, but there is also a reason for it. Few things in American life are more important to us than money and the things it will buy. Money is a driving force in our politics, our governance, our family life, and our personal lives. Money is even a driving force in the business life of the church. Despite what some claim, however, it is not true that “all the church wants is our money.” Actually, our faith expects a great deal more than our money.

A Pastor went to visit an individual he knew.  When the Pastor arrived at the house, the man was working in his lawn. As the Pastor got out of his car, the man good naturedly tossed his wallet to him. “I bet you came to ask me for money. Well there it is. Take it.” The minister returned the wallet and told the man, “I didn’t come for your money. I came for your life.”  Now we Lutherans do not normally talk like that, but this is what our lives as Christians is truly all about. 

Christ gave his life for us. Everything we are and everything we have is a gift of God. When you give, give out of thanksgiving for the gift of life. “Do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do.” This is the gospel and the message is clear: “You are dust and to dust you shall return; repent, and believe the gospel.”

The word translated there as “hypocrite” is the Greek word for “actor.” An actor is one who puts on a costume and pretends to be something or someone he or she is not. The directive not to be a hypocrite is to say, “Don’t practice your faith as though you are playing a role in a movie. Don’t be the person you think will impress others. Be the person God calls you to be.”

Jesus uses the same term a few verses later. “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 might be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward” (v. 5).

To paraphrase the words of our Lord, “Don’t stand and pray in a loud voice at the street corner or around the table at the restaurant. When you pray in order to get the attention of others, you have already received your reward.” That is the message of our faith. That is the gospel and the message is clear: “You are dust and to dust you shall return; repent, and believe the gospel.”