February 13, 2013 – Ash Wednesday

No recording is available for this sermon.

Shakespeare wrote: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.” And in the gospel reading today from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is using that same idea of acting. He describes three little scenes: of prayer, of giving alms, and of fasting – those three were considered the basic acts of piety, the three main acts a person would perform in order to be a faithful Jew. And he describes two ways of performing each act. There is the way of the hypocrite, who prays or gives alms or fasts like a big show so everyone can see him. And there is the way of the one who prays or gives alms or fasts in secret. And I think one way of reading this would that Jesus is saying that all those outward acts of holiness are just hypocrisy, and that God only cares about our sincere inward holiness? That sounds virtuous and right, but I think that isn’t quite what Jesus is saying.

First of all, our lives are full of performances. We wake up in the morning and we tell our husband or our wife or our children that we love them. We might not feel in love first thing in the morning before our first cup of coffee, but we act out our commitment to love the people in our lives because it is true in a deeper sense than our feelings. We smile at our next-door neighbor, sometimes because we feel happy to see them, and sometimes just because they are our neighbor and it is right to be kind to them. We go to church, sometimes because we want to be there to worship God and to be with his people, but sometimes because it’s Sunday morning and that’s what we think we should do on Sunday morning. There are so many things like these in our lives. We act according to what we think we ought to be, instead of what we are right now. Right now the truth might be that I’m a grumpy, hateful, spiteful person. But the truth I hold onto is that I am also a believer in Jesus Christ and a child of God, and it is that truth that I am acting out. And that isn’t a bad thing.

But when Jesus criticizes the hypocrites, he isn’t saying to them: “Don’t pray or give alms or fast unless you are sincere about it.” I think that’s a mistake we make a lot. We feel like hypocrites because while we are down on our knees to pray our mind wanders off and we find ourselves making a grocery list or thinking of what we ought to have said to our friend yesterday or what color we want to paint the bathroom. Or we write our tithe check and we find ourselves wishing we could use that money for something a little more fun. Or we fast and spend the day thinking about cheeseburgers. If we waited to perform our Christian duties until we were perfectly sincere, we would either have an empty church or a church full of people who were fooling themselves. Maybe worse, we’d have a church full of people focused on themselves, paralyzed by discouragement or puffed up with pride, and either way, pretty useless for the Kingdom of God.

The point that Jesus was making was not so much that we should analyze our own performance; what he wants us to do is to think about who we’re performing for. He says to us, “When you give to the needy, don’t blow trumpets to show everybody how wonderful you are so that you will be praised by them.” All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are actors, and all performances have an audience. In everything we do, we are acting before an audience, we are hoping to please someone, even if it is just ourselves. And Jesus warns us: don’t be like the hypocrites who pray their beautiful prayers or write out their big fat checks or go around with haggard faces to show how miserable they are while they’re fasting – just so that people will notice and admire them. Don’t be like that, Jesus says, because here’s the thing – they’ll get exactly what they want. They will be admired, people will look up to them and say how wonderful they are. And that is all they will get.

But you, Jesus says to us; perform all your acts of piety, as well as you are able, but do it for an audience of one. Perform for the pleasure of your Father, who sees in secret, who sees into the deepest part of your heart, perform for him alone. The scary thing about performing before God is that he sees everything – he knows your motives and your feelings; he knows perfectly well how sincere or insincere you are. You can’t possibly fool him. But the wonderful thing about performing before God is that he sees everything. He knows your motives and your feelings. He knows perfectly well how sincere or insincere you are. You don’t have to try to fool him. You just have to bring yourself to him.

This is especially important for us to think about during Lent because most of us will be more intentional than usual in doing those things we think we should do. We’ll try extra hard to be faithful in prayer. We’ll walk the Stations of the Cross or give up desserts or whatever is in our hearts to do for our Lenten discipline. And so we need to know that we do all these things for an audience of one. He knows all our wanderings of mind and he knows our daydreams about pies and cakes. He knows our coldness of heart and our stubbornness. We perform for our Father transparently, honestly, with nothing to hide, because he is the one who sees in secret. And our reward will be from him.

And here’s where the grace of God will blow us away, because the Father who sees everything, doesn’t reward us according to our outward actions. And fortunately, he doesn’t reward us according to our changeable and untrustworthy hearts either, because he knows our inner workings better than we do ourselves. The Father rewards his children according to his own good purposes for us. He called you by name, from the beginning. He adopted you as his child. He loves you, always. And throughout Lent as we grieve for our very real sinfulness, as we try and fail and try again to be disciplined; whether we bow down in shame or worship – and we will probably do both –  our Father who sees in secret will continue to love us. And that is a reward that will never rust or rot away, a reward that can never be taken from us.

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