SERMON FOR ASH WEDNESDAY, 2014
Mathew 6:1-6, 16-21
Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the congregations and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly. And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly. Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching. – Basketball coach John WoodenI have worked in fundraising for nonprofits for many years. One of the things that is vitally important to a successful fundraising program is donor recognition. Some donors do not care about public recognition – but for many others, it is a very important component to their giving. One organization for which I worked had a different piece of jewelry for each level of giving, and the size of your gift determined the size of the type on the incision in stone at one of the hospitals or schools the organization ran. Many colleges, universities, and hospitals name buildings or wings after significant donors. The college I attended my freshman year even had plaques on some of the trees commemorating donors!
But Jesus, in tonight’s Gospel, tells us to do things differently. When we give alms, we are to give them secretly – even our left hand is not to know what our right hand is doing! Bad advice for a charity, to keep donors’ identities secret – but great advice for the givers themselves. If we are seen by others as being magnanimous, we can feel some pride in what we are doing. We can feel superior to those we help, to those we think could be giving more but aren’t, to the uncharitable. But in truth, nothing we have is our own – it’s all God’s gift to us – and so if we are able to give, it is only through God’s grace, and those who receive do so through God’s grace through our actions.It’s the same thing with prayer. We are exhorted to gather together for worship – so certainly we should be praying in public. We are called to be prayerful people. But how many of us like the notion of being seen as prayerful people? Do we pray because we need God, and cannot live good lives without it – or are we praying because we like the idea of ourselves as holy, pious people?
And then there’s fasting. We are told to be cheerful, and not to disfigure our faces, so that others know we are fasting. Which is an odd saying of Jesus to hear moments before we come up to have ashes put on our foreheads! Would we give up Diet Coke, or chocolate, or Facebook, if we didn’t get the joy of telling everyone that we’re giving those things up? Would giving up meat on Fridays be as much fun if we couldn’t complain about the fact that we were giving up meat on Fridays?Perhaps the worst thing, though, about doing these things for the praise of others – or for our own praise – is that they obscure our ability to know ourselves. We begin to believe the carefully constructed images of ourselves that we have spent time cultivating. We find our self-worth in it. And we lose the ability to see who we really are. Creatures made in the image of God, with the potential to act with the full creativity and love with which God acts. Creatures who have rebelled against God as Satan did, with the ability to act with the full malevolence and evil with which Satan acts. Broken creatures unable to put these disparate pieces of ourselves back together in a redeemed whole, no matter how much we give to charity, how much we pray, how much we fast and engage in acts of self-denial. Dust which will return to dust.
During this Lent, by all means, let us increase our almsgiving, our praying, our fasting – the three traditional penitential practices that can lead us to repentance and conversion. But let’s also spend time really looking at ourselves, going into our inner rooms and taking a look at ourselves in the mirror and learning who we are. Not who we think we are. Not who we want others to think we are. Who are we when no one is watching?Once we know and accept that, we will make room for the grace of Christ to come in, redeem us, and make us into the person God created us to be.