SUNDAY SERMON: No ashes, no excuses

Rev. Stephen Baldwin

OT: Genesis 9.8-17

NT: Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21

Ash Wednesday is the most honest day in the whole year, for it is the day we confront the basic truth of our existence: We are made of dust, and to dust we shall one day return. That’s what I really loved about our Wednesday service–getting to have that conversation in worship.

Garrison Keilor tells the story of going to a funeral in Minnesota. After the graveside, following the final committal of the body, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” the priest turned to the gathered family and friends. He said, “Now that we have honored our beloved friend, pray for the one among us who will be next. It may be you or the person beside you or the person behind you. Whoever it might be, let us pray that their journey into eternity might be peaceful and joyful.”

As they left the cemetery, the murmurs began immediately. “How dare he say such a thing,” they said to one another, stunned by the priest’s words. Truth can be disarming. It can enrage us, especially when we do not want to hear it.

When we’re young an invincible and the world is at our fingertips, it’s easy to live in denial of our own mortality. But as we grow older, the honesty of Ash Wednesday becomes harder to resist. We are dust. Beloved dust. But still dust, and to dust we shall return.

That realization changes the way we live. It teaches us humility, and humble people live to serve rather than to be served. It teaches us grace, and gracious people build each other up instead of tearing each other down.

In Matthew 6.1, Jesus says to the dust, “Beware of practicing your piety (righteousness) before others in order to be seen by them.” He then goes on to talk about three specific Christian practices which people did regularly and could be helpful or harmful depending on the circumstances. You’re not just dust yet, so help me name them: Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

We know what prayer is, right? Communicating with God. Talking and listening, right? But did you know that fasting and almsgiving are both forms of prayer? Fasting is refraining from eating for a certain time period. We don’t do it much anymore, except when our doctor makes us before a test or a surgery. But people used to do it in order to grow closer to God. Their hunger reminded them to rely on God in prayer. Similarly, Christians used to give alms, or what we might call tithes and offerings because it was a form of prayer. They showed God their seriousness about helping the poor by giving to them through the church.

So what’s Jesus upset about? Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving? No, he thinks those are useful Christian practices. He’s not mad about what people are doing; he’s mad about how they’re doing it. Like a child who says to an adult, “You told me not to throw a tantrum; why do you get to?” Jesus is pointing out that people are not practicing what they preach. They are praying and fasting and giving alms not as acts of prayer to God but in order to show others how faithful they are.

Rodger tells the story of a drunk man coming into the choir room just before church one day and saying, “You all aren’t the hypocrite kind of Christians are you?” That’s the name Jesus calls those who pray in order to be seen. Hypocrites. The man who holds the record for the shortest term in the choir probably called us hypocrites because he thought we didn’t practice what we preach. And we don’t always! If you don’t want to go to a church full of hypocrites, then you better not go to any church.

But that’s not what Jesus meant. In Greek, hypocrite is a term for stage actors. They wore masks so as to hide their true identity and play a part. So when Jesus chastises his followers, he isn’t merely accusing them of not praying correctly. His criticism is much more severe. He accuses them of playing people of faith as if actors on a stage rather than being people of faith in every moment of life, especially those quiet moments when no one is watching except God.

Just as Jesus critiqued spiritual disciplines in his day and time, I imagine he would have plenty to say about ours today. Do we still pray to be seen praying? Do we give to be seen giving? Do we do good in order to be seen as good people? Certainly not always, but we certainly do. Today’s consumer mentality marks the paths our brains follow, causing us to ever ask, “What do I get out of it?”

Jesus had a word for that. Hypocrite. When we undertake a practice of faith, such as prayer, for personal gain then we have by definition failed to grasp the basic idea behind the practice. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are all means by which the church teaches and reminds us to look beyond ourselves to our Creator and to our fellow human beings. So if we do them for personal gain in order to gain something, then we are like those Greek actors wearing masks and merely playing a role on a stage. Spiritual disciplines were not created to be self-serving; when done right, they are God-serving.

This is the time of year most folks give something up for Lent, as that has become a popular spiritual practice. The problem is that it’s usually self-serving. Instead, I challenge you to store up treasures in heaven this Lent. Start a new spiritual discipline to honor God. Join a small group. Find a new way to pray.

There’s only one condition. No masks allowed. You’ve got to come as you. Beloved dust of God. There will be no judgments. No ashes. No excuses. Just you as you, and together us as us, honoring God simply because God deserves it. Amen.

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