3-6-19 Ash Wednesday Sermon
So in hearing this passage from Matthew, we should be clear that Matthew is NOT being critical of public worship or public displays of faith. There are times when public prayers, public worship, public acts of faith are not only acceptable, but expected. No, what Matthew is talking about here is not the act, but the intent. He’s not talking about what we do so much as for whom do we do it - who’s our intended audience.
I heard and shared a story some time ago, and at this point I forget who it was who told me the story except that it was a clergy colleague and it had happened in his church, about a man who made a great show each week about making his offering. When it came time to receive the offering, the man - who sat near the front of the sanctuary each week - waited until the offering plate was coming down his row before he very deliberately removed his checkbook from his jacket pocket, opened the checkbook, took a pen from his pocket, wrote out a check, put the pen back in his pocket, carefully removed the check from the checkbook, replaced the checkbook in his pocket, removed an envelope from the pew, neatly folded the check in half, slipped it into the envelope, licked and sealed the enveloped, and then placed it into the offering plate that the person next to him had been holding for nearly a minute at this point.
And, according to my colleague, it wasn’t like the guy was writing particularly large checks to the church, he was not a BIG giver in the church. But he made a big show ABOUT his giving and the frequency of his giving. Now I ask you, do you think this display was about his relationship to God or about how he wanted to be seen by those in the church?
Matthew’s point here is not a criticism of public displays of faith - if that football player is sincerely thanking God for his athletic gifts when he scores that touchdown and points skyward in the end zone, then good for him - it’s about what is our intent in the display, and is this really who and how we are, or are we trying to portray ourselves in such a way that presents a false image or makes a false impression.
“Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding”
Jesus was often critical of the Pharisees because he considered them hypocrites. The Greek root of the word “hypocrite” means “stage actor.”
So, when Jesus criticized the Pharisees for “liking to be seen in their long robes, and for taking the best seats in the synagogue,” he was neither criticizing their wearing of robes nor of their being present in worship - he was criticizing their intent, their reason for doing what they were doing. He’s not critical of worship, or prayer, or giving - he’s challenging us to make sure that our heart is in the right place when we say we’re serving God, and that we are, in fact, serving God and not our own ego.
“Here’s what I want you to do:” Matthew says, “Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense God’s grace.”
Sometimes in our lives, though, we just go through the motions don’t we? Sometimes we don’t always give our best effort - we, as the saying goes - “phone it in.” Sometimes that comes as a result of apathy, sometimes it’s a response born out of anger, or humiliation, or embarrassment. Sometimes the “less-than-our-best” comes from tiredness, exhaustion - physical, emotional, or even spiritual exhaustion.
My golf game is terrible if I don’t practice or play regularly. My singing voice is uneven, scratchy, and pitchy if I don’t both warm up properly and care for my throat, watching what I eat or drink before I sing. My faith gets perfunctory, routine, even tired, if I don’t make the time to develop it and grow it and care for it. That’s kind of where I had gotten before I went on leave. My prayer had become automatic - I could recite the words of my go-to “daily prayer” while thinking about something else entirely. My scripture reading, as I shared with you, had been reduced to the purpose of sermon writing only, and not in order to grow in my faith. All other spiritual disciplines I had tried were done in a half-hearted way. Some weeks, if I’m totally honest, I think I was here more because I had to be than because I wanted to be. The voice of God’s calling in my life had become so drowned out, in some ways, that I could barely hear it anymore. My faith had become as tired as both my spirit and my body.
By taking renewal leave I was able to, as Matthew wrote,
“Find a quiet, secluded place so [I wouldn’t] be tempted to role-play before God.” Or before you for that matter.
That secluded place was in my home - in my bedroom or the couch when vertigo hit me on day one, and then in my basement as I literally put my hands on every book I owned there, sorting what I thought appropriate for the church library and what I needed to keep for myself. Eventually that space expanded to the newly cleared and created nook that I had made for myself there.
There, in a comfortable chair, surrounded by my books and my music, where pictures of family and friends adorn the shelves, and where reminders of my youth, my college days, and my love of both history and golf, invite and encourage me to just be me before God.
But the basement wasn’t the only space that I needed to clear in order to be real before God. There was some headspace that needed a purging as well.
When I was flat on my back, or when I could only walk while holding on to something or someone, reminders of my dependency on God and on others, especially Lynn, came roaring back in the most humbling of ways.
I couldn’t read for long or everything began spinning.
I couldn’t watch TV for long for the same reason.
If I turned my head too quickly, everything spun.
If I moved my body too quickly, I risked falling.
All I could do was exist for a while, and sleep, and as Matthew suggested, I could just “be there as simply and honestly as [I could] manage.”
And as he said, in time, “The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense God’s grace.”
And that is what began to happen for me.
So in this series my hope is that you will accept God’s invitation to simply be there, with God, “as simply and honestly as you can manage.” Each week we’ll look at different passages of scripture that invite or encourage us to slow down, to let go of something, to ease into a daily time of allowing ourselves to be aware of the presence of God’s grace in our lives. We have to lose the idea that our busyness somehow makes us worthy of God’s respect, or anyone’s respect for that matter. If you give up anything for Lent, give up that idea that God’s love, or your worth before God can be earned. Your worth to God was established well before you were born. Regardless of how you identify yourself - father, mother, spouse, brother, sister, pastor, retiree, whatever - first and foremost you are a beloved child of God, and nobody anywhere can ever take that away from you.
Ash Wednesday begins the “40 Day” season of Lent. Lent is a period in which we are called to focus on reconnecting with the God who, while we are sometimes too busy for God, is never too busy for us. There are different ways to do that, but sometimes the best way is simply to sit in our prayer chair and think about it. Some people feel uncomfortable with prayer because they think there is a right way or a wrong way to do it, that if we don’t do it just right, say just the perfect words, God won’t hear us. Rest assured, if you plant your butt in the seat with the intent to talk to God, God WILL be all ears. More than anything, God wants relationship. It’s not about what you say - or even if you SAY anything at all - it’s about making yourself available, being present to God.
Whether that time is spent trying to put words to a prayer, or whether it’s just reading a brief or favorite scripture and thinking about it, whether it’s reading a poem or psalm or hymn or other inspirational writing and reflecting on how you sense God in that - you’re praying! You’re connecting! And if on the first day you only last five minutes, well great! That’s five minutes more than you spent with God the day before, right?
Oftentimes, we get so busy doing the urgent things that we forego the important things. The urgent things are like the ringing phone, the boiling pot, or the clanging of the doorbell - they require immediate attention, even though the phone call is likely just a telemarketer and the doorbell is probably someone trying to sell you new windows for your house! They’re urgent - they scream for your attention - but they’re not important. The time you spend reconnecting - with God, with your faith, with your family - that’s important. Ash Wednesday reminds us, very graphically so, that our time on this earth is short - from dust we came and to dust we will return. The mark of the cross, as rough and uneven as it is when placed on our foreheads and made from the ashes of burned palm leaves, is a sign for all to see, but more importantly a sign for us to see when we look at ourselves, our true selves, in the mirror. This, this image, this is who we really are. It’s not a call to repentance in order to gain salvation for the next life - it’s a call to repent, to turn around THIS life, to go in a new direction and to live the wholehearted life that God so desires for you to live, if you’ll just spend time with God in order to figure out what that looks like for YOU at this stage in your life. And before you say it, or even think it, NO, you’re not too old to begin to live a new and newly connected life in God’s grace. You’re never too old, it’s never too late.
What we have to do is described so succinctly in our scripture today.
“Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense God’s grace.”
It’s not a one time event, rather, it’s a process.
Give it the time it takes, grow the time you give, open yourself to the love and grace of God in your life, and you will be the love and grace of God in the lives of others. Amen.