Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
(watch here: https://youtu.be/dSUfEIg__BU)
1“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.
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. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father 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. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But 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.
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. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so 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.
19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
We gather this evening to set out on our journey through the season of Lent. We’re setting out on a journey of both self-discovery and self-denial. It seems almost contradictory that a journey of self-discovery involves giving up something. We tend to believe that we can only find ourselves by immersing ourselves in new and exciting relationships or situations. We run away to exotic places or jump from one job to another, one relationship to another, in a futile attempt to find ourselves. If only we went to that one place or had that one job or was in a relationship with that one person, then we would fully know ourselves, or so we think. We search and search only to find the search is just as mythical as the quest for the Holy Grail or the Fountain of Youth. The truth is that there is no one place or experience that will fully reveal our true selves to us. No, we have to do the hard work of looking inside ourselves, of reflecting on ourselves. We have to do the hard work of distinguishing our needs from our wants. Believe it or not, we have far fewer needs than wants. We like to think some of our wants are needs but in actuality they aren’t needs at all. Acknowledging them as wants instead of needs is hard work. And once they’re appropriately distinguished as wants they become easier to deny. They become easier to give up because they aren’t necessary for life. They simply enhance life, no more and no less.
Jesus teaches us that we must deny ourselves in order to find ourselves. We must distinguish our needs from our wants and set about removing wants from our lives. Throughout history, many people have misinterpreted Jesus’ teaching and have denied themselves basic needs like food and water and shelter in an effort to fulfill his teaching. Eventually they died and they went to be with him for all of eternity. But remember that Jesus was fully human, fully divine. He enjoyed being human, being alive. There is great joy in living and Jesus recognized this. He is our teacher and an example for how we are to live. We, too, are to recognize the joy in living and understanding the purpose of suffering. Suffering is not without a purpose. Suffering is more than just death. Suffering is a tool to reveal God’s glory. Suffering allows for God’s grace and mercy to be revealed. If suffering should lead to death, so be it but that is not it’s ultimate purpose. No, it’s ultimate purpose is to allow God’s love to shine forth. We suffer so that God’s love might be revealed through it. Jesus wants us to know God’s love. Jesus also wants us to know the joy of living as he knew it. Suffering is only a part of life. There are other ways God’s love is revealed. Kindness, compassion, forgiveness, supportiveness…these, too, reveal God’s love. We mustn’t fixate on suffering and denying ourselves as the only ways God’s love is revealed.
By denying ourselves, we open ourselves to new understandings of ourselves. By denying ourselves, we open ourselves to allow God to fill the empty space left behind. By denying ourselves, we open ourselves to a new relationship with God…a closer, more intimate relationship. Of course, denying ourselves leads to self-discovery! In denying ourselves, we open doors to understanding and awareness of God’s love. What greater treasure is there in life than this?! Who wouldn’t want to know God’s love?! What a great gift, not only his love but an understanding and awareness of it! Talk about distinguishing needs from wants…we need His love! We need to know we are loved!
Perhaps this is why Jesus concludes his teaching about praying and fasting and giving alms in secret with a teaching on the treasures of life. He knew that in teaching about secrecy he was teaching about denial. Others’ awareness of our denial is not important. What’s important is that we simply deny ourselves throughout this season of Lent. What’s important is our awareness, not the awareness of others. What’s important is that an awareness of God’s love is the greatest treasure of all. So as we go about the next six weeks, let us deny ourselves something, anything. Let us do the hard work of self-reflection and self-distinguishing. Let us open ourselves to God and seek an awareness of his love above all other treasures.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.