Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Holy Vulnerability - Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“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 shall be also.”

A good friend of our family has worked most of his life as a crisis and police chaplain. The Rev. John Ivan Owen stands about 6’5” and weighs in well over 300 pounds. He does not have the physical ability to speak in a quiet voice and, given his physical resemblance to a refrigerator, can be an imposing figure. He wears a clerical collar anywhere he appears in public and is someone easily noticed. A few years ago, while I was still in seminary, I was driving back to Durham, North Carolina late on a Sunday night. OK, it was a little after midnight, so it was technically Monday morning. I was eager to get home, and as I passed a Maryland state trooper on Highway 301, he signaled to let me know that he noticed and appreciated the apparent urgency of my trip.

Our family friend, the Rev. John Owen, was working with the DC metro police department at the time, and when I went to appear in traffic court, he agreed to come with me for moral support. The judge was moving through the docket, and eventually called my name. As I went to stand in front of him, the Rev. John Owen came to stand with me. The judge looked down over his glasses and said, “Young man, is this your counsel?” Before I could answer, the Rev. John Owen, in his most booming preacher voice, said, “Your honor, I am here to provide spiritual support and guidance to this young man at this time. But I also remind the court that one day, we will all stand before the righteous judgment of God, and beg that in his infinite mercy, he will not hold us accountable for all our grievous transgressions against him.”

He is a man who doesn’t practice his piety quietly or privately. Then again, he doesn’t do anything quietly or privately. And it is our acts of quiet and private devotion that bring us to Ash Wednesday and this reading from St. Matthew’s Gospel. The text warns us against practicing our piety in order to be seen by others, about praying, and fasting and giving in the public eye. It encourages us to seek a life of quiet devotion pleasing to God, a life that is hidden and secret from public scrutiny. And so, our response to that is to gather here in this place, to pray long, public prayers together, and to have a distinguishing mark placed on our foreheads that clearly announces to the rest of the world that we’ve been to church tonight. Perhaps as we walk past, someone will point and whisper and say, “There goes a holy person.”

It seems to be a bit of a contradiction, doesn’t it?

There seems to be a lot of confusion as to what is the appropriate balance between public acts of worship and private acts of devotion. In fact, over the course of one sermon, this sermon on the mount that Pastor John took a look at part of on Sunday, and part of which we examine tonight, Jesus seems to contradict himself. On the one hand, Jesus has said we are the light of the world, and we ought not to hide our light, but allow it to shine brightly for the world to see. But on the other hand, he wants us to be careful about showing off.

The issue here is not the correctness or incorrectness of certain religious practices. The issue here is one of motivation. That is, what is the condition of our heart as we conduct ourselves? Jesus' words of caution are really aimed at our inner life. We need to be careful that the outward expression of our religious life is not aimed at pleasing others or receiving the praise of others. When we attend worship so that others will think we are spiritual, or give, or pray to impress someone else, then Jesus says we've gotten our reward. In other words, when our inner motivation for religious activity of any kind is anything other than wanting to be close to God, there is no spiritual gain.

Lest there be confusion, Jesus is not saying: "Don't take offerings at church," "Don't lead in public prayer," or, "Don't join in fast days." Notice carefully what he said. It wasn't, "Beware of practicing your piety in front of others..." There is a very important phrase attached -- namely, "... in order to be seen by them." It is okay to give offerings at church, lead the congregation in prayer or join in a fast day with others. The injunction is against doing these or any other religious activity to get applause, admiration or anything else from others.

Jesus challenges his followers to put their hearts in the hands of God so that their affections, longings and motivation will be aimed at growing close to God. What we treasure most will claim our affections and direct our lives. Jesus points us to that treasure that will not fade away with the values of this world. In contrast with the treasure of this world that can be stolen, spiritual treasure – our relationship with God – can not be stolen as it is locked away in the vault of the heart which is safely placed in the hands of God.

And it is this treasury of the heart, this inner place where thieves cannot break in and steal, that brings us to a popular practice among Christians during Lent. During the season of Lent, many Christians practice “giving something up.” I’m giving up peanut butter, or I’m giving up chocolate, or I’m giving up television, or I’m giving up road rage. The point of this is to clear our hearts of those things that we treasure, those things that represent a barrier to us realizing our relationship with God. When done properly, giving something up for Lent, fasting, is aimed at improving our spiritual life by focusing less time and energy and money on things that distract us from God, and spending them on things that draw us closer to God.

But many times, our motivation does not reflect this intent. Perhaps we give something up out of a sense of duty, or expectation, or because it looks good when we get together with our godly friends. In this, we end up very much like the Pharisees, to whom following the exact rule and letter of the law was more important than what the law represented. Or, we do it under the guise of self-improvement: I am going to give up fried food in order to lose weight and look better. I am going to give up smoking in order to save money. I am going to give up regularly exceeding the speed limit in order to retain my license and maintain low insurance rates.

It is not the practice itself that does or does not have intrinsic spiritual value. Our motivation, however, has everything to do with what spiritual progress we will make. On Sunday, John reminded us of this particular facet of Jesus’ teaching: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” The Bible speaks of the heart as the center of our judgment, intention, and motivation. So, when we are practicing our faith in purity of heart, in a desire to please God and draw closer to God, we see God. But, when we are practicing our faith in an impure heart, in a desire to please others or ourselves, we do not see God.

Here on Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of Lent, we as the people of God are called to self-examination, to take a look at our practices and our motivation – to take a look at the disposition of our hearts and to honestly confront the reality of our sin. While it may manifest itself in a variety of forms, sin is simply that which comes between us and God. While we must always repent – or turn – from sin, today is a day upon which we deliberately and purposefully turn away from sin and turn toward God. In a few moments, we will have the opportunity to symbolically turn from sin and turn toward God. And as we do, I ask that we each make ourselves vulnerable. I ask that we honestly search deep within ourselves, to our treasured, secret hiding place, and identify what most threatens our relationship with God. What still stands between you and God? Are you willing to give it up? Are you willing to make yourself vulnerable to God’s holiness? It’s not simply about moving God up a few notches on your priority list. It’s about making God your center – about making God your motivation, about aligning your heart with the heart of God.

Sin is real, and it must be confronted. But friends, we are reminded that sin does not have the last word, because God takes sin, transforms it with consuming fire, and marks us as his own. The sign of the cross upon your brow proclaims to the world, this person has died to sin, has died to self, has died to false motivation. It is only when we can die to these things, the things that keep us separated from God, can we find ourselves truly ready to live.

Hear the good news on this Ash Wednesday: “Behold, once you were dead in sin. But now, you are alive in me.”

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