Salem Lutheran Church

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Practice for Change

So have you been watching the Olympics? They can be addictive. Aside from hockey, though, I really don’t know anything about most of the winter sports. Although, I may know nothing about these sports, I still marvel at the abilities of those athletes. Did you see Mirai Nagasu? She is the first American female to land a triple axel in the Olympics. I get dizzy just thinking about doing such an action. And what about Red Gerard? A 17 year-old snowboarder, who said he never really thought about winning in the Olympics, yet, he won the first gold medal for the US in these Winter Olympics. These are just two of the athletes that we have already heard so much about and although they are all in very different sports, there is one thing they all have in common. They all practice, practice, practice.

Not one of them just showed up at the Olympic trials and said, “Hey, I want to be on the Olympic Team.” Each of these athletes has spent countless hours over countless years practicing what they do, so that they could some day be the best and so that some day they could receive their reward. But practicing isn’t fun, and in fact most athletes will tell you they don’t like to practice, but they do it, because they know it is what will make them better. Last fall, early in the NFL season, I was listening to one of the Chiefs’ players being interviewed, I can't remember which player it was, but the interviewer was asking him about preparing for games and the workouts and this player said, “You know, to be honest, I hate practice, but I love to play the game and so I know if I don’t practice everyday, I can’t play, so I practice.”

And you know, the same is true for us in our Christian faith. We need to practice our faith and Lent is a season that challenges us to keep practicing our faith. As we begin the Season of Lent on this Ash Wednesday, we are reminded of our own mortality: “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” Yet, we know that ashes and dust will not be the end of our story. The season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, but it ends with Easter. It begins with ashes, but it ends with resurrection and the promise of eternal life.

In today’s scripture passage from Matthew 6, Jesus calls attention to three acts of piety that Jesus says we must continue to practice and in doing so they will draw us into a closer relationship with God. Each of these acts of devotion calls for us to give up something. Yet, notice that Jesus also promises that when we practice these acts of piety, God will reward us. We will receive something in return. Like the athletes who when they practice receive the reward of playing in the game or participating in the Olympic, we too get a reward as we practice our faith.

Jesus lifts up three acts of faith that he challenges us tonight to practice during this Lenten Season. It is important for us to notice a couple of things here. First, Jesus isn’t suggesting that we should only give alms, pray and fast during certain times. No, he is saying that we need to be intentional about practicing these Christian habits all the time. Secondly notice that Jesus does not say, “if you give alms,” “if you pray,” or “if you fast.” No, he says “when…” There is no doubt here that Jesus fully expects his followers, that is you and me, to do these things.

But, as he instructs his followers to practice their faith, he also gives us a stern warning: “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.” In other words, avoid making a spectacle of your devotion and calling attention to yourself. Now this might seem a little contradictory as earlier in this same story, Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven”(Matthew 5:16). So which is it, do we want people to see us practicing our faith or not? Well, we need to notice the distinct difference in what Jesus is teaching. Jesus says, we do not want to do things in order bring glory for themselves, that would make us hypocrites. On the other hand, Jesus does say that when we show our devotion before others, it needs to be done for the purpose of bringing glory to God.

So, when we “give alms, that is giving a voluntary offering for the poor, this act ought to be done because we have compassion for the poor and gratitude to God. So, one way we could give extra alms in Lent is to fast from something, i.e. candy, or buying our Starbucks’s drinks, and then use that money we save to give to the poor in some way.

The second act of piety or devotion Jesus mentions is prayer. Prayer, too, ought to be a regular part of our lives as Christians, yet during the season of Lent maybe we ought to spend more time in prayer. Jesus said, “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” This is not about secret prayer, but instead an invitation to distance ourselves from the distractions of our everyday lives and spend time alone with God. Our challenge is to find that place where we can go to spend time with God “in secret”? That secret place might be your kitchen table before everyone comes to eat, or it may be on your couch.

The third act of devotion that Jesus challenges us to continue to practice is fasting, literally the act of going without food or drink. In our tradition it may be the least practiced of these three acts of devotion and I would suggest the least understood. The act of fasting is first and foremost meant to give glory to God. I often here this time of year people say, “I am giving up candy, or ...” And when I ask why, the answer usually has to do with a health reason. Now, don’t get me wrong, if you need to give up candy, or coffee to better your heath, definitely do it. But this is not practicing our faith. When we fast for Lent, as a spiritual discipline, we ought to do so as a reminder of who God is and all God does for us. It is done to give Glory to God. If you feel called to observe fasting during the season of Lent, one idea is to give up one meal each week. You may want to take the time you would have spent preparing and eating that meal to pray, read your Bible or visit with someone.

Lent is that Season that is intended to prepare us for change. As we journey toward the cross on Good Friday, we are called to spend these 40 days preparing our selves and our faith community for new life. But to be fully prepared for that change, for that new life, we are challenged today to begin practicing our faith.

For those Olympic athletes the reward of all their practice is the Olympics and maybe even a medal. For other athletes it is the reward of playing in the game and hopefully winning a championship. But for Christians, our reward is already given to us, eternal life with God.

Practice our piety opens us to knowing we have received God’s blessings. Jesus calls us to show compassion and share our resources with the poor, to spend time in prayer with God, and to fasting so we might better learn to trust God’s sustaining presence in our lives. As we begin this season of Lent, I invite you to consider these spiritual practices, and to open your heart to the blessings God has for you and begin practicing your faith daily. Amen.


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