Feb. 22, 2012 Ash Wednesday “Lent is about giving up chocolate”

Lent is about giving up chocolate.

For a lot of people, maybe for most people, the first thing they think of when they think of beginning the season of Lent is that it’s about giving something up, something that they really like so it is hard to give it up, because it’s  not virtuous unless it’s hard. And being virtuous is what Lenten discipline is all about, right? It’s about becoming better people by denying ourselves something we enjoy, because if we tough it out for forty days with no chocolate we will be more virtuous people at the end. It’s like an exercise program for the will, building up our virtue-muscles so we can grow stronger in resisting temptation.

But as he so often does, Jesus complicates this tidy view of things in the passage we read today. He talks about the core spiritual disciplines, prayer and giving alms and fasting, and he says it’s not enough to just do those things. It’s quite possible to pray eloquently and give generously and fast rigorously and not please God at all, because at the bottom of everything we do is that little thing called motive. Why we do what we do is at least as important as what we do. God told the prophet Samuel, “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” God will not be deceived by an outward show of virtue; he knows hypocrisy; obviously the one who created you can’t be fooled by false piety.

But here’s where we might get trapped in the game of introspection, policing ourselves to be sure we have pure motives, and it’s a slippery slope. Pure motives are like a will-o-the-wisp, those phantom lights people see in swampy places. You catch sight of them out of the corner of your eye, but as soon as you try to look directly at them they vanish. As soon as you think you are being humble, you’ve failed at humility. As soon as you perceive that you’ve been selfless in what you do, guess what- you’re caught focusing on your self, you’ve failed again. If you try to evaluate whether you’ve been generous, you find yourself measuring your generosity and you’ve lost the heart of generosity. It seems to be impossible to try to let virtue be its own reward; those pesky human failings of pride and selfishness sneak in all the cracks and ruin everything.

The good news is this – Jesus doesn’t tell us in this passage to try to be good and please God without any thought of reward. It’s completely the opposite – he’s telling us not to settle for anything less than the very best reward. Don’t be satisfied with impressing your neighbors – don’t even be satisfied with impressing yourself, and feeling good about your own actions. Don’t even let your right hand know what your left hand is doing, Jesus tells us. And your Father, who sees what is done in secret, he will reward you. Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven that last. Work for the best reward, don’t settle for less.

And we can only know what that reward is if we know who we are. We are not called to be spiritual giants, attaining righteousness by our own virtue. A few people that we know seem to come close to succeeding at that, but the rest of us are keenly aware of our faults and weaknesses, and if virtue requires inner perfection, the continuous right attitude of the heart, we’re all hopeless. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Paul wrote. And the psalmist wrote, “There is none who does good, not even one.”

But our reward is not to become impressively virtuous men and women, our reward is infinitely better. We are disciples, we are students or apprentices, of Jesus Christ, and what is the greatest reward any student could ask? What more could the apprentice of a master craftsman or musician or artist ask than to become like his or her master? The greatest reward of a disciple is to become like the teacher, and that is the reward that is being offered to us, as unthinkable as it might be. John wrote, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”

The joy and hope of being a disciple is that our teacher can work with our failures. A student who is too proud to try anything beyond his skill will never grow. A piano student that attains perfection at “Lightly Row” and stops there, afraid to try anything harder, will never be a pianist. But a student who tries to imitate the master in playing something more difficult, even though he fails miserably, and then comes back to the master for correction and instruction, then however far he has to go, that student will become, little by little, more like his master. It takes all the humility we can muster and more. Imagine learning to play the cello under YoYo Ma, sitting before him and going all out trying to imitate his playing. It would be infinitely humiliating, but it is only in becoming that vulnerable that you could allow the master to point out all that you are doing wrong, and so help you to play better, a little bit more like him.

And that’s why we give up chocolate, even if that means we spend the whole forty days wishing for a Hershey bar. That’s why we give generously, even though we catch ourselves in pride and selfishness every time we think we are going to do it right. That’s why we come to God in prayer every day, even though our prayers are so often self-seeking and lukewarm. We do these things not because we think we can become perfect by working harder, but because these are the things we see our master doing. Jesus said, “I must do the works of my Father in heaven.” And we say, “We must do the works of our master Jesus.” Because when we humble ourselves by imitating our master he is able to make us more like himself. And to be like him is the greatest reward we could receive, the only reward that can never be lost or stolen or destroyed.

In Lent, perhaps more than at any other time, we are called to come into the desert of discipline and repentance and self-denial because Jesus walked there, and in the sands of the desert it is easiest for us to see his footprints and walk in them. The spiritual disciplines of prayer and fasting and almsgiving are ways of letting go of some of the distractions of our human life, of the things that seem so desirable at first but really just end up weighing us down. But always remember – it doesn’t matter how many times we stumble and fall in our discipleship because our teacher is beside us at every moment to pick us up, to turn us back into the right way. It is the job of student to follow the teacher, but it is the job of the teacher to make sure the student succeeds. We will be like him, because we shall see him as he is.

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