“Lent From Ashes to Alms”
“Take heed that you do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise you have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.” Matthew 6:1-4
Intro: Many years ago I was pastor of an average church that had about 65 in Sunday morning worship. It was a church that had a sense of value from everyone knowing each other on a personal level and by calling one another by their first name. There was a senior member by the name of Bob who kept to himself mostly on Sunday morning. He did not serve on any church committee. He did not express his opinion very often. Usually not even when asked. I did notice his car at the church fairly frequently and he and I became great friends. Into my third year as pastor the man became ill with cancer and after a very a short time developed pneumonia and passed away. Everyone at his funeral expressed kind words. Things like, “He never complained about anything.” “He was always faithful to be at church every time the doors were open.” And other comments about his “being a very private person who mostly stayed to himself.”
A couple of months after his passing I was still missing our talks and just seeing him around the church. Then one day, a member of the congregation approached me about the light on the outside church sign not shining at night. I called the chairperson of the Trustees to inform him of the need to check the light. He told me that in all his years at the church he had never known the bulb to burn out and did not even know where the key was to unlock the lid to change it.
A few weeks later the clock on the wall in the sanctuary stopped working. I took the clock down and it turned out to simply be that the batteries needed changing. When it was pointed out one lady said that in all her years of coming to church she never knew the clock to stop working or the batteries to need changing.
Sometime later I noticed a hinge on one of the cabinet doors in the fellowship hall was loose. I heard many people complain about the hinge being loose but no one took time to fix it.
After several more similar incidents occurred it became more and more apparent that Bob was the one who fixed things and kept things going smoothly at the church. No one was aware of just how much Bob had done. The quiet old man who had kept mostly to himself was the one who kept the light bulbs changed, the batteries in the clock changed, the broken hinges repaired, and the list went on and on.
Today there is a plaque on the wall in the church fellowship hall that reads, “Thank you Bob Griffin for all the times your work went unnoticed, “We Appreciate You.”
Every time I think about that plaque I wonder how often people do work and service that goes unnoticed until they are gone. There is a poem that is titled, “Give Me My Flowers While I Yet Live” that says, “Whether they be real flowers or simply words of Love, give them to me while I'm here, God will give them to me above.” How often do we wait until people are gone to give them their flowers? Do you tell people how much you appreciate them while they are still living among you?
Today we are going to talk about “Lent From Ashes to Alms.” As we celebrate the Holy Season of Lent the scripture from Matthew 6:1-4 becomes more and more full of meaning. The Season of Lent is a time to reflect on how we live out discipleship in the world around us. You will hear people say it is a time to have an “Attitude of Gratitude. It is a time to reflect and repent. The author and hymn writer Johnson Oatman Jr. wrote a song based on the scripture foundation from Ephesians 1:3, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ:”
Count your blessings; name them one by one;
Count your blessings, see what God hath done.
Count your many blessings name them one by one;
Count your many blessings, see what God hath done.
Do you truly count your blessing? Do you show others just how important they are to God? Do you tell them that they matter, that they are appreciated?
On television this week I heard a discussion about the trend called “Shame Dieting and Exercising.” The premise is to point out one’s body shape with negative words and phrases that motivate the person to want to change their eating habits and start exercising.
The problem is that negative words rarely produce a positive change. Shame and negativity most often result in depression, anxiety, stress, and bitterness. When someone is trying to get you to change; had you rather them point out your flaws and weaknesses or would you be more motivated to change by words of encouragement and loving support?
There is a study that shows we overestimate our workouts. Researchers from York University in Canada asked 129 participants to walk or jog on a treadmill at speeds they felt was light, moderate, and vigorous. The study found that even after researchers fully described what counted as light, moderate, and vigorous, people still overrate their exercise levels. For example, people believed they were performing vigorous physical activity at levels that was nowhere near the test standard for a vigorous workout. Over 75 percent of the volunteers thought they had, but in reality failed to meet the requirements of a vigorous pace.
How often do we deceive ourselves into believing we are doing our very best? Or that we are giving one hundred and ten percent? That we are exceeding what is expected of us? Only to discover the truth is we are falling far short of the mark. We set the bar too low and over estimate our contributions and accomplishments. Do we sometimes have a false sense of reaching the goal?
I think one example is that during Lent people are often encouraged to do “Random Acts of Kindness.” But random sets the bar way to low. I am convinced that Jesus has set the goal to change “Random Acts of Kindness,” to “Deliberate Acts of Kindness.” We are called as believer to “Purposeful reflection and to meditate on our actions and to serve with thoughtfulness.” Not hit or miss, here or there, some random acts, but purposeful, persistent, meaningful act of kindness, repentance and giving of alms.
If you want to give up something during the Season of Lent that is fine, but what God really wants is over the next few weeks for you to search your heart and make a decision to give yourself everyday to discipleship. To take each moment and live each moment as we make every effort to strive toward perfection and rise above mediocrity. While the season of Lent is about penitence and recognizing our flaws and sins and responding with apologies and atonements, Lent is also about maturing in our faith and growing in our sanctification and holiness. It is easy to do what is right when we gain recognition and praise. The next time you do a good deed ask yourself, “Would I still do this if no one would ever know I did it?” “Take heed that you do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise you have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.” Matthew 6:1-4
(Strong’s Concordance) The Greek word for “alms” eleémosuné means: compassionate as exercised toward the poor, benevolence, mercy, charity as to sponsor good deeds. It is closely connect to the word philanthropy. A misconception by most people is that philanthropy has to do only with people of elite wealth. That in order to be a philanthropist you must have millions or even billions of dollars in treasure and riches.
A few verse down in Matthew 6:21 says “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Most people read this text wrong. I have heard sermons about getting your heart in the right place so your treasure will follow. That is not what it says at all. Jesus said exactly the opposite. If we get our treasure in the right place, our hearts will follow. Find someone’s treasure and you will have located their hearts. “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and
steal” Matthew 6:20
What I am saying is this: Be kind and generous with whatever you have. Shower people with words of hope and support. Be a blessing by your Christian love. Encourage people with words. Be generous in your judgment of others. Err on the side of compliment and praise.
I am not talking about false flattery or buttering someone up so that you can get something back in return. No, there are two different Greek words and different meanings of the word “reward.” The first Greek word for “reward” is: “apodidomi.” This word means to give so that you can get something back. It is done for the purpose of equal exchange so that you can expect to be repaid for your actions or service. It represents an equal trade. Reward for reward.
The second Greek word for “reward” is “misthos” which is solely the reward which God bestows upon us as pay for service either good or bad. It is what we earn as our wages. For example we could say: (Romans 6:23) “The wages (or reward) of sin is death: but the gift (or reward) of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Turning ashes to alms at the right time, in the right spirit, in the right place can change the world.
In the film Shenandoah, James Stewart plays a Virginia farmer named Charlie Anderson during the Civil War. He is a recent widower. And on her deathbed, his wife made him promise to raise their seven children as “good Christians.” He tries his best to honor her request. The movie begins with an unforgettable scene, with the family seated at the dinner table. Jimmy Stewart feels compelled to honor his wife’s wishes, so he begrudgingly prays this prayer: “Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvested it. We cooked the harvest. It wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eatin’ it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel. But we thank you just the same for this food we’re about to eat. Amen.” There are Charlie Andersons in the world we live in today. How often are we just as guilty?
A marine who was deployed in Afghanistan tells the story of giving chocolate bars to children. Instead of keeping the whole bar to themselves, the child would immediately break the bar into pieces and share the pieces with their friends. The one chocolate bar was broken and the joy multiplied many times by the sharing of one child to another and another and another. Much like the bread we break is the body of Christ. As it is broken it is multiplied many times as Christ is shared by one person to another and another and another. Are we quick to collaborate and work together as a team? Are we willing to share our crumbs and broken pieces?
Lent reminds us that we come together at church as dispirited people. Our mistakes mold us. Regrets teach us. For forty days before Easter excluding Sundays because every Sunday is like a little Easter. We are tested, and tempted, our sins exposed before us. Repenting, searching for purpose and passion in our faith. This cloudy journey through the 40 days of wilderness prepares us for what happens next. At the end of Lent we will see Jesus during his last week in Jerusalem. We are in between the glorious Transfiguration of Jesus on the Mountain and the cross and the tomb of Jesus. This signifies in our own life just a flash in time, a brief moment between our own birth and our own death. Lent is therefore radically about new birth. It is an invitation to faith and to enter into a deeper appreciation of salvation. Lent is to pass through the ashes of trial and temptation and tribulation and enter into pardon, forgiveness, blessing and alms. To go from sack cloth and ashes to grave clothes covered with frankincense and myrrh. None of us have anything to do with when we are born and little to do with when we die. But it is these moments in between life and death, in between Lent and Easter that we ask does our lives have meaning? Does our faith have value? Are our hands like Jesus’ nail pierced hands reaching out to invite and encourage those who are in need? Do our feet like Jesus’ nail pierced feet take us to serve the least, the last, the lost? “Lent is From Ashes to Alms.” These are the questions that Lent imposes upon us. How do you answer the call of Lent?