February 18, 2015, Ash Wednesday – Holy Selfishness

To listen to this sermon, click here: 110629_001

It is a common misunderstanding that being religious, or being spiritual, or just being a good person, is all about being unselfish – by which we mean that it’s all about being kind of mean to yourself, denying yourself things that you really like or really want, always giving somebody else the biggest piece of pie or the last cookie, always taking the uncomfortable seat, always being at the end of the line. If you are uncomfortable, or hungry, or a little unhappy or unsatisfied, rejoice! Because that must mean that you are being really godly. You get an extra star in your crown when you get to heaven because you made sure your life on this earth was as unpleasant as possible. And it is easy to see where that false idea comes from, because Jesus lived a life that was full of suffering and discomfort. And because we are called to deny ourselves, and to take up our own crosses – and crosses are very uncomfortable things – and to follow in his footsteps.

Today begins our observance of Lent, and in the weeks to come we are going to remind ourselves, and meditate on, the Passion and death of Jesus. Every Friday we will walk from station to station around this room and we will call to mind the most sorrowful and terrible events of his last few days on earth: we will slowly and prayerfully contemplate the pain and the brutality, the loneliness and the rejection of those days. And in the history of the Church, there have been some who tried to follow in the steps of Christ by deliberately subjecting themselves to pain and torture and suffering, in an effort to be holy, to make themselves worthy.

But those people have missed the meaning of his Passion. Because the reason Jesus suffered and died was not to show us that pain and persecution make us better people. The reason Jesus suffered and died was to set us all free from pain and suffering and death. And because he was in pursuit of something so much better and so much more glorious than anything the world has to offer, it was worth it to him to endure the suffering in order to attain the glory.

The writer to the Hebrews wrote to us: “let us put aside everything that weighs us down, and the sin that binds us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus endured rejection, and slander, and beating, and the cross with joy, not easily, not lightly – a person would be very foolish if they could ever think that – but willingly, and more than willingly, joyfully. Because he knew that the greatest of joys lay ahead of him, the joy of pleasing his Father, the joy of sharing his life with us, the joy of putting to shame the enemy of all that he made and loves, the joy of setting in motion the healing of all that he had created.

To be like Jesus Christ is not to go out there and seek pain and loss, or even just to be brave and patient in the face of the pain and loss we can’t avoid. Christian life is a much more active and intentional sort of undertaking – and a more joyful one. To be like Jesus is to live a life of what I would call Holy Selfishness, enduring the pain and loss of the world with perfect joy, because we know that we are heading for a reward that is greater than anything the world has to offer. To be like Jesus Christ is to seek only the very best, to be satisfied with only the greatest, most perfect joy, and not to settle for anything less.

And that’s why Jesus told his disciples, that’s why he tells us, “Don’t set your hearts on the treasures of this world. All the shiny, enticing treasures of this world are going to end up rusty or moldy, they’re going to be gnawed away by pests or snatched away by robbers, until you have nothing but a pile of rubbish. Don’t waste your hearts and your lives on junk; seek the very best, real treasure that will never tarnish or fade, that is yours forever. Don’t settle on anything less.” I think one of the blessings of growing older is that we learn how little the world really has to offer us, how little the promises of the world’s rewards really satisfy us; we learn to see through the glamour and lure of the world’s goods. And hopefully we also learn to recognize real treasure.

Jesus taught a lesson about the three pillars of Jewish piety, prayer and fasting and giving alms. When we act out our godliness before other people, in these and other ways, we gain the reward of their admiration and approval. The normal, selfish person – and selfishness is totally normal, it comes naturally to all of us – glories in the immediate reward of approval. He stands in the synagogue to pray, a model of godliness; he digs deep into his pockets to donate to the good work of the Temple; he goes around, gaunt and pale, on his fast days. And he really likes it when people admire him for his religious devotion – who wouldn’t like it, really, to be a model of devotion and discipline and godliness. It’s great to be admired. It’s great, but it isn’t the best.

Holy Selfishness won’t be satisfied with the reward of human approval and admiration; Holy Selfishness holds out for the absolute greatest reward, and so all prayer and all fasting and all generosity must be for the eyes of only One – the Father, who sees into the secret depths of our hearts, who knows our intentions and our hopes and our fears, and whose reward is infinitely greater than everything else put together. We choose not to seek the warm glow our neighbor’s approval gives us, even though that feels great – because what we really, really want is the blazing glory of our Father’s loving “Well done!” Nothing less will satisfy us.

We think of Lent as a time of self-denial and solemnity and some discomfort, and it is, if we observe the practices of fasting and discipline as our brothers and sisters in the faith have shown us the way. It isn’t easy to commit ourselves to a time of prayer no matter how busy we are, or to give up something we really would have enjoyed in order to have more to share, or to drink water when we really would like a doughnut. Lent is uncomfortable. It is inconvenient. Sometimes it is even painful. But following in the footsteps of Jesus, who denied himself, and suffered, and died, the painful journey of Lent becomes a treasure hunt, because we are denying ourselves and carrying our crosses in search of the greatest of all rewards, which is the love of the Father, and the joy of living in his presence forever.

In these next 40 days, “let us put aside everything that weighs us down, and the sin that binds us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

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