Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017
[sermon begins after two Bible readings]
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 “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. 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 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. 6 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. 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. 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 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; 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.
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 6:1 As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2 For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 3 We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4 but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7 truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8 in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9 as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
Piety can be heard as a judgmental word. People often use piety to mean something that is put on as a religious exaggeration, hypocritical rather than authentic. The reading from Matthew begins, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” Another way to translate the word used in Matthew for piety is righteousness. Jesus says, “Beware practicing your righteousness before others in order to be seen by them.” Jesus is critiquing the motivation for public esteem, not the acts of righteousness themselves. This is still the Jesus who’s preaching to his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount to do righteous “acts of mercy, make peace, to be transforming salt and light, to seek reconciliation, for men to treat women justly without lust, to honor marriage commitments, to practice integrity, to resist evil creatively and non-violently, and to love enemies.”  Given Jesus’ words against hypocritical piety, it can give us pause as we worship together on Ash Wednesday. But, lest you think that we are here simply practicing personal piety, think again.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes to a church that has become bogged down in leadership issues, embarrassed by the socially low, and repelled by Paul’s culturally awkward focus on Jesus’ crucifixion. He begs them to be reconciled to God on behalf of Christ. He begs them as a group, emphasizing their shared experience of enduring “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, [and] hunger.” This part of Paul’s letter highlights how the crucified Christ shapes the life of God’s people “by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.” Similarly, as baptized people, our lives become ever-more Christ-shaped through the crucified one.
Paul uses the same word for righteousness used by Matthew. But instead of the caution against parading around in our own righteousness, Paul reminds the church that they are “becoming the righteousness of God.” It’s important to note that this is not happening in what we would consider signs of success. Quite the opposite, in fact. Paul tells them:
“We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”
Paul’s speech is pure theology of the cross. Meaning, that it is exactly in the mess of things where Christ meets us. One might even say on Ash Wednesday that it is in the dustiest, death-loving corners of ourselves where Jesus says, “Yeah, I’ll meet you in that corner…that’s where God’s righteousness will begin.” We begin Lent together on Ash Wednesday because our sight is limited when we’re by ourselves. We struggle to see God’s righteousness through our failures. When we go after this by ourselves, we tend to let shame immobilize us. When we go after this together, we have a better chance at discerning God’s presence, God’s righteousness, in the midst of the mess.
One of things we’re doing together to see God’s righteousness is the daily lent devotions from the book called Free Indeed. Sold out in hard copy, there are a few left at the sanctuary entrances for you to pick up after worship and the e-book is still available online. In today’s devotion for Ash Wednesday, the question is asked, “What are you most afraid of losing?” Like I told the parents in Sunday school a few weeks ago, for me it’s my kids. For many things, I can look to God and wonder how God is going to work through whatever mess is happening. When it comes to my kids, not so much. That thing that we’re most afraid of losing? That’s the thing we’ve put in God’s place. That is our idol. Thankfully, God’s righteousness is something God does. Not us. The cross of ashes are placed on our foreheads with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This reminder is sweet relief. God is God. We are not. The world may see failure. We may see shame. But today we are reminded what God sees. God sees the world that God so loves. God sees and loves us. God sees and loves you.
The ministry of reconciliation, of bringing us back to God, begins with God’s self-sacrifice on the cross. How do we recognize our reconciliation to God and to each other? According to Paul, the evidence is in the brokenness that we endure. And, in that brokenness, the hope that the gospel brings new life through the cross. Our repentance today turns us to that cross. We hold God to God’s promise of new life even though our tendency is to choose death over life. More specifically, through the cross of Christ, God chooses life for us when we’re not inclined to choose it for ourselves. Thanks be to God and amen.
 Warren Carter, Professor of New Testament, Brite Divinity School. Commentary: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 for March 1, 2017 on WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3173
 Michael Ficke, Preacher’s Text Study on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 for Ash Wednesday on March 1, 2011.
 Brian Peterson, Professor of New Testament, Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. Commentary: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 for March 1, 2017 on WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3180
 2 Corinthians 5:4b-5
 Brian Peterson, ibid., and 2 Corinthians 5:6-7a.
 2 Corinthians 5:21
 Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave podcast for Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=594
 2 Corinthians 6:8b-10
 Javier Alanis. Free Indeed: Devotions for Lent 2017. (Augsburg: Minneapolis, 2016), Day 1. https://store.augsburgfortress.org/store/product/22245/Free-Indeed-Devotions-for-Lent-2017-Pocket-Edition
 Skinner, ibid.