Here’s my Ash Wednesday sermon from last night. Enjoy!
Sermon Text: Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21
Many of you have seen the sitcom called Community on Thursday night. It centers on the lives of a group of classmates at a community college who are in a study group together. One of the students in the group is a retired business executive played by Chevy Chase. His character’s name is Pierce. In a recent episode, Pierce is in the hospital. And because he’s angry at his friends, he leads them to believe that he’s dying. So he calls them into his hospital room, one by one, to bequeath them a parting gift before he “dies.” What he really wants to do is play mind games with them and expose their pettiness and hypocrisy. To make matters worse, he’s having the whole experience filmed for a documentary.
One of his friends is named Britta. She considers herself socially conscious, an activist, a do-gooder—someone who always puts the interests of other people ahead of her own. So she comes to his bedside, and he gives her a signed check for $10,000. The “To:” line is blank. He says, “You can make it out to the charity of your choice.” And she’s like, “Great! Thank you so much, Pierce.” As she’s leaving his room, however, he says, “Of course, you could just make it out to yourself.”
Then she begins to think about all the bills and rent and tuition and books she could pay for with $10,000. She spends the rest of the episode agonizing over the right decision. And agonizing over it publicly, since it’s all being filmed. At the end of the episode, she makes out the check to the Red Cross. But she’s not happy about her decision. As she tells the camera, “The sad thing is I would have made it out to myself, if I weren’t being filmed.”
As she is painfully aware, she ends up doing the right thing, but for the wrong reasons—and it spoils the whole thing.
It’s clear from today’s scripture from the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus would agree with her. The danger with public prayer, fasting, giving alms to poor—any act of piety we perform ostensibly out of a love for God and neighbor—is that our hearts can so easily twist it around. We easily end up making these good actions about us, rather than God. We put on a show for others. We become play-actors. Three times in this scripture, Jesus uses the word hypocrite, which literally means an actor in a play.
I was in the Holy Land at the time, but I assume that February 20th passed without incident? It was O.K.? I ask because a rock musician and blogger named Scott Brown, who is an atheist, was promoting February 20th as “A Day Without Religion.” Because he believes that religion is the root of so many problems in the world, he invited all of us religious people to join him in not practicing our religion for this particular day—in order just to see what would happen. We would see, for example, that the earth would keep rotating about its axis as usual. The sun would come out as usual. Everything would be just fine.
I don’t think many Christians took part in “A Day Without Religion”—at least not intentionally. And that’s the problem. Who on earth would possibly need to find out what a day without religion feels like? I mean, are there Christians out there right now who don’t know what it’s like not to practice their faith for a day? I wish I were that innocent!
For all I know, a day without religion for me could have been last Tuesday! See, I’ve had plenty of “days without religion.” I’ve had far too many days without prayer or worship or Bible-reading or service to my neighbor. I’ve had far too many days serving my own interests while hardly giving a thought to God or other people. I’ve had far too many days living as a practical atheist, and those are my least favorite days of all.
I don’t want to live those days anymore! I don’t want to be a hypocrite or a play-actor. I don’t want to be someone going through the motions of religion. I want to be an authentic person. I want to authentically be the person God created me to be. I want you to be able to say, “With Brent, what you see is what you get.” And, God help me, I want what you see to look a little bit like Jesus, to be at least moving in the direction of greater Christ-like love for God, for neighbor, and for myself.
And I want the person you see in me to match the person that I am all the time—even when I’m fighting Atlanta rush hour traffic; even when I’m running late for an appointment; even when I’m facing deadline pressure; even when I get criticizes; even when I’m out on the town with friends; even when I’m disappointed because my team isn’t playing well; when I’m not playing well; even when I’m alone in front of the computer; even when work isn’t going well; even when I’m sick; even when I’m lonely…
Even when no one’s looking.
Because who we are when no one’s looking is who we really are.
So who are we?
The season of Lent is an opportunity for us to answer that question honestly, and in a soul-searching way. It’s an opportunity for us to open up our lives once again to the Holy Spirit, who can help us identify areas of our lives that need to change, that need to be placed under the life-changing, merciful lordship of Jesus Christ.
You know, there is nothing inside of us that God doesn’t know about already. There is no sin we’ve committed that God doesn’t know about already. There is nothing we’ve done that God doesn’t know about already. There is nothing that we’ve left undone that God doesn’t know about already. There is no private thought that we’ve had that God doesn’t know about already. We may try to hide from other people, and hide from ourselves, but we cannot hide from God. Our lives our open books to God our Creator.
In fact, if you want to get theological about it, God created us knowing in advance the full extent of our sin, and the harm that our sins would cause. God created us anyway. And God loves us, in spite of our sin. In fact, God loves us so much that he came to us in Jesus Christ and made a way through his life, death, and resurrection for us to have reconciliation, forgiveness, and eternal life.
Hear the good news! “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
Every sin nailed to the cross. Every sin accounted for. Every sin forgiven… Amen! Can you believe this good news? Have you said “yes” to this free gift of love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness that God makes available through Christ? If you have, how will you live your life in response?