Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Confession is Good for the Soul (Matthew 6:1-6,16-21, Ash Wednesday)

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.”

On Ash Wednesday, we commit to laying aside the things in our life that would stand between us and God, so we can grow deeper in our commitment as followers of Jesus Christ.

The use of ashes as both a sign of mortality and repentance has a long history in Jewish and Christian worship.  The Old Testament kings, during times of mourning, would remove their royal robes and wear sackcloth, and cover their head with ashes or sit in the dust.  They did this as a sign of humility, mourning, and devotion, and they did so for all the people to see and to follow.

Tonight, St. Matthew’s Gospel 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.

But, even Jesus sends mixed messages.  On the one hand, Jesus has said we are the light of the world, and we ought to shine it brightly.  But on the other hand, he wants us to be careful about showing off.

What gives?  The issue here is one of motivation.  Are our religious practices aimed at receiving the praise of others, or are they offered in heartfelt praise to God?

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."  He says,"Beware of practicing your piety in front of others..."   and adds this important phrase -- namely, "... in order to be seen by them."   In other words, don’t engage in religious activity for others.  Do it for God.

Don’t treasure applause or accolades.  Don’t find your worth in pats-on-the-back and others thinking highly of you.  Who you are in the eyes of God – that’s priceless treasure, that’s what matters most, that’s where we derive our worth.

During the season of Lent, many Christians practice “giving something up.”  The point of this is to clear our hearts of those things that we are tempted to treasure more than 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 help us grow in our love of God and neighbor.

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.  We can end up very much like the Pharisees: very religious in practice while completely bankrupt in our actual relationship with God and other people.  What good does it do for us to look good in the showroom, but have nothing under the hood?

Mark Twain said, “we’re all like the moon, we have a dark side we don’t want anyone to see.” And so, we cover it up.  We conceal it.  We fashion elaborate masks for ourselves, trying to hide that dark side of ourselves.  But, to borrow from Hawthorne, “no [person], for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitudes, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.”

We can fool others, and we can even get pretty good at fooling ourselves.  But we can’t fool God.  God sees behind our masks, our screens, and knows us for who we really are, not just who we want others to believe we are.  As the Psalmist rightly wrote, “Lord you have searched me and know me.” (Psalm 139).

From an earlier part of this sermon on the mount, Jesus taught “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.  We are invited to consider whether what is happening in our heart – the very center and depth of our being – matches how we live, act, and speak on the outside.

Lent is the season for removing our masks and confessing our dependence upon God’s grace. I’ve often thought church services should be like AA meetings. An AA meeting avoids hypocrisy because upon attending you stand up and announce to all who are present, “I’m an alcoholic!” What if church services had a time where I could say, “Hi, my name is A.J., and I’m a sinner!”

There’s this cultural perception, often advanced by church folks ourselves, that church is a place for perfect people.  Not so.  I’ve talked to folks in airports and bars and waiting rooms and all sorts of places who say, “I’d like to go to church, but I’m pretty messed up, and I think it would shock the people there to have someone like me there.”

But here’s what we know – none of us comes to God because we’ve got it all together and figured out.  We come to God precisely because we don’t!  We don’t get ourselves cleaned up and put together first, we come to God because we can’t do it ourselves.

A friend of ours who is a Methodist pastor shared this story today.  She said, “The kids are out of school today and I have them with me at church for Ash Wednesday. I had to move some of Eliana’s Lincoln logs and the little house fell apart as I did. ‘I’m sorry about that,’ I muttered as I kept working.

“Later I heard her telling Brennan, ‘You can help me rebuild this. Mommy said she was sorry and that was good. But it’s still broken. It still needs to be rebuilt.’”

We are sorry, and that’s good, but we’re still broken.  We still need to be rebuilt.

I don’t come to church because I think I’m holy enough or good enough or smart enough or clever enough.  I need the church because I know I’m not, I’m a sinner in need of forgiveness, a child of God in need of God’s life-changing grace.  I need the church to help me confess the things I’m sorry for, to admit my brokenness, to seek, with God’s help, to be restored and rebuilt into the image of the God who first created me.

The church is not a museum for saints.  It is not a place for perfect people.  It’s where we take off our masks and are real and honest with God and with each other.  Tonight, when you receive the mark of the cross on your brow, we’re not doing that so people will whisper and point and say, “There goes a holy person.”  Those ashes are there to remind you to keep it real in front of God and yourself.  That you’re not a perfect person.  That you’ve got stuff – sin – you and God are still working through.  For, while it’s true that Christ died to save sinners, while it’s true that God loves us just exactly the way we are, God loves us too much to let us stay that way.

We are sorry, and that’s good, but we are still broken.  We still need to be rebuilt.

Friends, confession opens us to be what God intended all along: the living, breathing Body of Christ.  Not a museum of saints, not a perfect-peoples’ club – but the scarred, imperfect Body of Christ, reaching out with arms of love and forgiveness, building up those who are broken and bruised, because we know the depth of what we, ourselves, have been forgiven.

Confessing, confronting, and mourning our sin – symbolized by the ash you will soon wear on your forehead – is a way of setting our sin aside, resolute that sin and death will not have the last word for us.  Ash Wednesday is a time stop hiding behind a mask of having-it-all-together and lean more fully into God’s grace.  To stop concealing our sin and confront it, confess it, and move on.  To leave behind what we’ve done, and live more fully into who we are becoming.

We are sorry, we are broken, we are ready to be rebuilt.

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