A sermon based on Amos 5:21-27 and Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18 preached February 26th, 2017
Who are you being for Lent? That’s not the usual question we ask each other in these days just before Ash Wednesday, is it? That’s the kind of question we ask in the weeks leading up to Halloween.
Who are you going as?, we might put it. What costume are you wearing? Who will you turn into? What mask will you wear? Those are Halloween questions.
When I was in seminary, the student counsel threw a costume party in the student commons. There were other meetings going on in the building that evening, and our Dean of Students, Edna Baines, walked in wearing her pants suit and her name tag. One of the party-goers walked up to Edna, pointed to her name tag that said Edna Baines on it, and said,
Wow, you look just like her!
Who are you being for Lent? I think that’s the right question after all. Our habit is to do something during Lent. That’s what we’ve been told, anyway.
So, we ask each other: What we you doing for Lent? Or even more specifically, What are you giving up for Lent? But I think the Lenten invitation is much bigger than giving something up or taking something on. As we make our way into this first week of Lent, with Ash Wednesday in just a few days, I think this passage from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has something to speak into us. Something specific to tell us about the message at the heart of Lent. The invitation of Lent isn’t at all about doing or not doing. It’s about being. For now, let that question tumble around in the back of your mind: Who are you being for Lent?
Hypocrites, back in Jesus’ day, were play actors—performers on stage. The word had a different meaning than it does today. In any given play, there were more parts than there were actors, so at the end of a scene, the actors rushed backstage, threw off one mask and put on another, then walked back on stage as different character.
Jesus’ first lesson for His disciples in this part of the Sermon on the Mount is, when you give to the needy, when you do something for someone else, don’t make a stage play out of it. Don’t cause a scene! Keep a low profile. Don’t be so dramatic about it!
Back then, though, that wasn’t the norm. In that day, if you gave a quarter to a leper, they might throw a parade in your honor. Buy a few bricks for a new building, and they might name the whole thing after you.
Jesus stomps on the customs of His day and ours when He asks us to turn the pride parade down a notch whenever we give from our wallets or from our hearts. Practice a bit of humility. See that your giving goes unnoticed. God cheers whenever we do these sorts of things, and that’s all the attention and reward we should need.
The same should be true about prayer, Jesus says. Back then, people were cheered on for making a great show out of their prayers, if we can imagine that. The louder you prayed, and the more you contorted your face while you did it, the better. It was prayer for show! Street theatre each and every time. People cheered. I have a hard time imagining all that, but then again, I’ve flipped channels on a Sunday morning and found TV preachers doing something similar.
Jesus says prayer for show isn’t really prayer at all. It’s dead before it even hits your lips. Prayer like that never gets off the ground. As the Prophet Amos declared in our first passage for the morning, God doesn’t want to hear it. The problem with it, of course, is that none of it was authentic. Whether one gave a quarter to a blind man or said a prayer at the top of their voice out on the sidewalk, it’s not the action that makes it right or wrong, authentic or counterfeit. It’s the motive behind it. Want to give a few quarters to a poor man? That’s great, but make sure they don’t clink when they hit the bottom of the jar.
Prayer isn’t a soliloquy made for the stage, but a dialogue made for the dressing room. That’s what Jesus thinks. It’s not the action that can go wrong, it’s the disordered reason behind why we do it that usually makes a mess of things. Motive matters. It’s the over-inflated chest that needs bursting. It’s the overly-proud thoughts that sometimes come with these good deeds that need to be chased away.
I have a friend who told me the story about what happens to one of her co-workers every Ash Wednesday. She says that every other day of the year, her co-worker stays in his office and keeps to himself, but he’s a completely different person on Ash Wednesdays. Those mornings, he goes to his Catholic church before coming to work to have ashes imposed on his forehead, and he spends the rest of the day going around from one office to the next, sticking his head into each door, making sure everybody takes note of the black smudge on his face. My friend says he’s only annoying on those days. I have a sneaking suspicion that this co-worker of hers completely misses the point of Ash Wednesday. It’s this sort of look-at-me-ism, this “take note of my super abundance of piety,” this “check out how modest I am,” that gets in our way of being in real, authentic, relationship with God. God can spot insincere faith and disordered motives from lightyears away.
If these stage-almsgivers and performance-prayers from Jesus’ day and ours are the height of hypocrisy, then who might we look to as a model of its opposite, authenticity or genuineness? My thoughts go first to John the Baptist. John the Baptist’s whole life can be seen as a prelude to Jesus’ life. His entire existence and vocation was nothing more than an opening act for Jesus. John was no stage actor, he was a roadie for Jesus. He pointed the way. John was a street sign, a direction-giver, a lamppost to light the way to Jesus. And when Jesus came on the scene, John took his curtain call. He bowed out.
comes the One more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.
In turn, Jesus spent His entire ministry as a street sign, pointing past Himself to God. Jesus was the light of the world who revealed God, the Way itself who gave way to God. And in the end, and all along, it was the cross Jesus was hung upon that pointed the way to the power of God.
All this should tell us that the first sign of authentic Christian living is humility. Pastor Max Lucado said as much.
True humility is not thinking lowly of yourself, but thinking accurately of yourself.
When we’re full of ourselves, there’s no space left for God to fill. But when we empty ourselves, God has a vessel He can use.
Living a life of Christian authenticity means forever and always pointing beyond ourselves and toward Jesus. There’s the desire to be noticed, and then there’s the desire to be known. Our desire to be known by God and to have others know God should be much bigger than our desire to be noticed. Every day and always, we must let go of ourselves more and more, so that Christ might be displayed in us more and more. This is what it is to live an authentic Christian life.
At the heart of this passage is the question of motivation. Those religious people who, in Jesus’ day and ours too, make a show of their piety—who love to point out to others how faithful they are—who pray for applause, aren’t so much interested in the holiness of God, as they are in their own holiness.
The truth of the matter is that our actions can be both hidden and revealing. We can live our faith out loud without making a show of it. We can live and speak in such a way that we reveal to others—family, friends, neighbors, strangers, and enemies alike—the God who wants to be Lord of our live and theirs. We can give voice to our faith, speak to others about, and live it out in public without making a spectacle of it all. As long as all the glory points away from ourselves and toward Christ. Our faith is authentic when we’re willing to get out of the way and point the way to Jesus.
Wednesday marks the first day of Lent. And we start by marking ourselves with ash. If it’s understood rightly, that smudge of ash placed upon our foreheads will make us disappear.
Lent is a 40-day disappearing act. A 40-day pointing away from ourselves and toward God. But it’s really no act at all. Throughout these 40 days, we are invited to tell the truth about ourselves: that we are a people called toward a cross. Called away from ourselves and toward a more Christ-like life. And in the Christ-like life, the cross is central. All of Lent is a journey of body, mind, heart, and soul toward the cross. That’s the way of Jesus. Crossward.
This Lent, you and I are invited to live into the Christward and Crossward life. To trade our motivation that so often points toward ourselves for one that points toward Jesus. To undergo a motivation transplant.
Part of what those performance-pray-ers from our passage got wrong was that they were so much more concerned about how their words sounded than with what their words meant. Can we relate to that? If we’re asked to pray aloud in front of others, doesn’t that become our first concern—let’s try to make it impressive-sounding. What should be our true motive for prayer? Should it be to make them sound good? Or is it to stay in conversation, and share space, with the God who made us? Prayer that’s a part of authentic Christian living is always truthful, stuttering, down and dirty conversation with God, never slick performance art. The same goes for how we give. It’s never for show, but always for God.
So, who are you being for Lent? I’m not interested in what you plan to do for Lent. I’m interested in who you want to be for Lent. How about being authentic for Lent? How about living in such a way that every single one of our words, our actions, our relationships is a way that points not to self but to Jesus. Crossward.
How about living in such a way that when people see us, they recognize Jesus and say to themselves,
Wow! You look just like Him!
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!