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Go Big or Go Home

This is the homily I shared with the people of St. Timothy Lutheran Church for Ash Wednesday. The gospel text was Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
The first time I heard the expression, “Go big or go home,” was my senior year of seminary. A dear friend mentioned how during a children’s sermon at her internship site, when she was talking with the kids about how God wants all of us, this young man explained it as “Go big or go home!” It really struck all of us who heard my classmate relate this story.

Today’s gospel lesson is like two bookends with a bunch of information between them. The first verse is the first bookend. Then Jesus talks specifically about different faith practices and how they should and should not be practiced. Finally, the second bookend surround the words in between with the final verse regarding the treasure of our hearts.

Before Jesus gets into the nuts and bolts of various aspects of piety, in the first verse he spells out the gist of the entire teaching, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…” This is the first bookend of our gospel for today. 

Jesus seems to go into a lot of detail about what we are and aren’t to do when it comes to our piety, warning against false public piety—and this on the one day of the year that we leave worship with a visible smudge on our foreheads, reminding everyone we see that we’ve been to church. Do you ever wonder what you should do – wipe the ashes off before stepping outside and going back to work or elsewhere? Do we leave them on only to have the cashier at the grocery store say, “You’ve got something on your forehead”?

Jesus is not telling us to refrain from public piety. The issue at hand is the why, not the what. Why do you pray in public? Why do you give alms? Why do you fast? If you’re trying to prove what a faithful Christian you are by these acts, then it’s nothing but hypocrisy. But, if praying before you eat a meal in a restaurant is something you do because that is part of your faith, a practice you always participate in, then of course, bow your head and pray. 

As the season of Lent begins each year, God invites us to take on three great disciplines: prayer, fasting (and that doesn’t just have to be from certain foods) and alms-giving. Fasting is to symbolize turning from self-indulgence to care for our neighbors and relying on God. Our acts of piety always come as a response to God’s gifts. These disciplines can show us other treasures that come from God alone. To increase our giving to the poor, to increase our attention to prayer and to decrease our focus on the self,: the idea is that such disciplines open us up to God and to our neighbor. 

Essentially, Jesus is saying, “Go big or go home.” 

The last few words of today’s gospel are the second bookend of the gospel reading, summing up what God is really looking for. Matthew writes, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.” And that’s after Jesus has talked about our earthly treasures. 

After all, our God is a God of relationship. Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote, 

Our journey is in the desert. Following Christ, we leave our false oasis of instant gratification, indulgence of every whim and stuff—lots and lots of stuff…In our diabetic coma of self-absorption, we are at times vaguely, silently aware that we have gorged [ourselves] on the promises of the American Dream and are left hungry.

Our desperate need for engagement with God is satisfied when God is sought in candor and simplicity, just the way we are. I was watching an older tv show the other night on Netflix. Two of the main characters obviously are interested in each other. Both have had relationships with other people. But then, at one point, the man says to the woman regarding his feelings for her and his dedication to their relationship, “I’m all in.” This is the response God longs to hear from us.


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