A Sermon on Matthew 6:19-21 and Isaiah 58:1-12
By Rev. Elizabeth Meador Strobel
At Trinity Presbyterian Church
On February 25, 2020 – Ash Wednesday (A)
Matthew 6:19-21 - Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Isaiah 58:1-12 - Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgements, they delight to draw near to God. ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’ Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
Today, as we do on every Ash Wednesday, we gather to remind each other of a simple truth: we are mortal. That means our lives are short, and are dependent on fragile and fallible bodies. One day, for all of us, our bodies will stop working and we will die. We were created from the dust of the earth, and one day these bodies will return to dust. We are mortal.
We don’t like to dwell on this; we think that death is sad, and talking about it is morbid. Fair enough. But here’s what I want to tell you this evening: our mortality matters. It encapsulates our entire lives, and it matters to God. Mortality matters so much that Christ himself took on mortality and followed it to the cross…for us. Mortality matters.
There’s a thread of Christian thought that says our mortal life doesn’t really matter. “Earth is not my home” is the slogan; or, perhaps “I’m just visiting.” The idea is that we are to be more spiritual than physical beings; that our eternal souls matter and our temporary bodies do not. This thinking turns to passages like Matthew 6 – “do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth…but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” If that’s the case, then, earthly things must not be very important. I get it. But I don’t think it’s true.
Because I turn to passages like Isaiah and hear God caring deeply about our earthly, mortal lives. God’s people are called rebellious and sinful, even though God says “day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways.” God’s people are fasting in the perfect religious ways – Isaiah says they are humble, bowed down, wearing sackcloth and ashes.
BUT…but, they are ignoring the mortal lives of the people around them. There are people among the Israelites who are homeless, hungry, naked, even arguing. Their mortal, physical needs are unmet. And so God looks at the people’s very holy religious habits and says:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Because here’s the thing: God has created these mortal bodies and called them good. God has placed us on earth not just to visit, but for a purpose. God sees the needs of people around us and says through Isaiah “fast later, feed the hungry now.”
Then, God says, we will experience heaven on earth. Our light will break forth like the dawn, God will be the guard behind us and the guide before us, and we will be like a spring whose waters never fail. In other words, in helping each other meet earthly needs, we will create treasures on earth that are heavenly – treasures of children who are full of healthy food, of homeless people who have places to sleep, of sick people who have good medical care, of oppressed people welcomed like family, of marginalized people embraced like siblings. That is not a treasure that moths or rust will consume – those things are of heaven. The fast that God chooses gives dignity to our mortal needs, but also brings us all closer to the Divine.
Beloved, your life matters. Your health, your emotional needs, your relationships, your resources – they all matter. They matter so much so that God chose to become human, to live and die as a mortal and to conquer death for us forever. Because while we will all die, Death doesn’t get the last word for us mortals. We remember that we are mortal on Ash Wednesday because on Easter Morning, death loses its ultimate power over even us.
So, my friends, you are mortal. It’s a hard truth, and I tear up every year putting ashes on your heads and reminding you of that fact. But beloved, our mortality has been created, blessed, and inhabited by God. Don’t let anyone tell you that this life we embody is a distraction. Our lives are a gift from God. So, you are mortal, you will die. But we have the privilege of caring for each other on the journey, and at the very end…Death is the one who truly dies. Thanks be to God. Amen.