“Known and Unknown” (February 10, 2016: Ash Wednesday)

This sermon was preached on February 10, 2016, Ash Wednesday, during the Ascension Episcopal School–Sugar Mill Pond Campus 2016 Mission Trip at the Chapel of Casa Christo Redenter in Aguas Buenos, Puerto Rico.

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Readings: II Corinthians 5.20b-6.10; Psalm 103.8-14; Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Out of all the Priests that I have worked with, Father Andrew Mead, my mentor from my days in New York, has had the greatest impact. One of our most important conversations together occurred on an October evening while walking together to his Park Avenue apartment from Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue for a chili dinner. While we were walking, Father Mead asked, “Brandt, what do you feel God is calling you to do as a Priest?” I had it all planned out: “After graduation from seminary, I’m going to go back to Alabama, fulfill my required two years of service in [the Diocese of] Alabama, then go to graduate school, get a Ph.D. in American religious history, and teach in a seminary or college theology/religious studies department.” “That’s all well and good, Brandt,” Father Mead replied, “but what about the parish?” “I have nothing against parish ministry,” I said back, “but I fell called to be a Scholar-Priest.” “But even the great Scholar-Priests also served in parishes,” said Father Mead. “Parish ministry is important. It is important that you be on the frontlines with your fellow clergy. Don’t ever forget the frontlines.”

I mention this story because it goes right along with what Jesus is counseling us against in our readings and because for me at the time, it wasn’t about Jesus, but about me. I wanted to be one of the most well known Scholar-Priests and Anglican Church historians of my generation. I wanted notoriety and prestige. What Father Mead was telling me that October evening was that if you are going into this vocation with the mindset of becoming known, making it about yourself and not Jesus, then you have failed before you have began. Throughout that last year in New York before becoming ordained, Father Mead showed me what being a Priest of the Church really meant. It meant being with and among the people, doing the hard things, walking with the people not just during the good time but also during the hardest moments of their lives. Father Mead was a man who not only talked the talk but also walked the walk and because of his example, my priorities and perceptions of the ordained vocation changed for the better. Thanks to Father Mead, I am no longer content stationing myself solely in a lecture hall; I love parish ministry, being with all of you, and on the frontlines for Jesus.

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them…” Jesus is saying to us today, Ash Wednesday. In our Gospel from Saint Matthew, Jesus is literally likening those who “look gloomy like the hypocrites” and “disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others” to actors on a stage. In other words, these people are literally putting on a show, producing fiction, make-believe and it is getting them nowhere. They think that by doing good works alone, doing the things that one is “supposed to do,” all will be well. But it won’t. All won’t be well because their hearts are not in it. They are putting their hopes upon earthly treasures, things “where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.” In the end, all of the notoriety and prestige won’t mean anything and will be worthless. Their works, all for the sake of being noticed, will not save them.

Those of the way of Jesus do not worry about whether or not people notice them for their good works, not seeking to have attention drawn to them. “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Those of the way of Jesus do works of mercy, say their prayers, and seek relationship with God and others out of the simple desire to be closer to Him and experience a foretaste of God’s Kingdom. Because their works come from the genuineness of their hearts, these are the ones whom Jesus says, “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” If everybody doesn’t know that you did something kind for someone else, it’s OK. If you never get recognized and rewarded for good deeds done, believe me, it’s OK. Everybody may not know, but God will know and that is all that matters. As long as God knows that your heart is in the right place, then that is all that is needed. Great will your treasure—eternal life with God—be in Heaven.

We know what Jesus says to be true because He Himself not only talked the talk but also walked the walk. “…Whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”[1] [Hold up crucifix in front of congregation] Because this right here was not an act; definitely not make-believe. This right here was REAL scourging, REAL pain, REAL suffering. Jesus REALLY hung on a cross for the sake of all of us. This is how much He loves you. Through the cross, Jesus loved and served us by dying and saving us from sin, death, and eternal damnation.

As we begin today the season of Lent, we are being invited by God to draw closer to Him, putting things into the right perspective. The ashes that you will momentarily receive are not meant to show off how pious you are—that is not the point. Rather, they are meant to remind each and every one of us that this side of life is short and temporary and that all of us will return to the earth. The ashes remind us of our own human frailty and the need to depend on Jesus who is able to save, redeem, and heal us. How will you live your life? For yourself, seeking personal fame and glory, which won’t mean a thing in the end? Or for God, seeking after His righteousness, regardless of whether or not notoriety comes, which will mean everything in the end? “We are ambassadors for Christ,” Saint Paul says, “God making his appeal through us.”[2] Let us not be so consumed about ourselves but about others, just as Jesus did for us, becoming reconciled to them through the love and mercy of Almighty God.

I wish you all a blessed and holy Lent.

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

[1] Matthew 20.27-28 (English Standard Version)

[2] II Corinthians 5.20 (English Standard Version)

Published by Brandt Montgomery

I am a Priest and boarding school chaplain in the Episcopal Church (USA).

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