Ash Wednesday Sermon:
Why Are You Doing That? A sermon for Lent/AshWednesday
(Mat 6:1-8, 16-18),
by David Rogne
A French priest
says it actually happened to him. An armed robber accosted him on a dark back
street in Paris and demanded his wallet. As the priest opened his coat to reach
for the wallet, the thief caught sight of the clerical collar for the first time
and immediately apologized: "Never mind, Father, I didn't realize you were a
priest - I'll be on my way." The priest was relieved, of course, and good
naturedly offered the man a cigar. "No, thank you, Father," said the robber;
"Iím giving up smoking for Lent."
man hadn't gotten the whole message on what the Christian faith was about. But
then again, this story reflects a truth about modern society; itís amazing how
people can rationalize some pretty hefty sins while holding on to a social
begins for us this week, has historically been a time for Christians to exercise
their spiritual muscles. Sometimes, the spiritual exercise is little more than
making a temporary sacrifice of something that is not crucial to one's life.
Sometimes, one really intends to get serious about one's spiritual development,
only to discover that while strengthening one characteristic of Christian life,
another has gotten out of hand.
In the scripture
that was read this morning Jesus focuses on several desirable spiritual
activities, but he also issues a warning. I invite you to look at those
activities with me so that our own spiritual growth may be guided by what Jesus
had to say.
One of the
activities Jesus mentions is prayer. I expect most of us have a high estimate
of prayer. Even if we seldom pray, or feel we do a poor job when we do pray,
most of us would probably like to improve this part of our spiritual life.
Leslie Weatherhead, the British writer of so many books on prayer, describes the
effect of prayer on his life.
"I talk to God
first thing in the morning. When I finish, I feel as clean as if I had just had
a good bath; rested, as if I had just awakened out of a sound sleep; satisfied,
as if I had just eaten a good meal; inspired, as if I had just listened to the
greatest music; challenged, as if I had just heard a battle call; and
strengthened as if I had a new burst of energy and health."
of prayer may have been far less satisfying than his, but somehow we believe
that prayer has that kind of potential, and that if we were more faithful in
prayer, our experiences could be just like his. And perhaps they could be.
But even while
encouraging prayer, Jesus offers a warning about how we go about it. Don't make
a spectacle out of it, he says. Not much likelihood of that among us, is there?
At one of our congregational gatherings we did an informal poll and discovered
that our congregants as a whole are scared to death of being called upon to pray
catch us parading our praying on a street corner. Therefore, does this warning
hold any meaning for us? What Jesus is getting at here is our involvement in any
religious expression that isn't authentic. We may share in saying the Lord's
Prayer, and, because we have mouthed the words, we feel we have prayed. But, I
wonder, do you think that when Jesus gave that pattern for prayer he intended
that it should be used for all time after that as a replacement for personal
expressions of faith?
children were at home we passed around the responsibility of saying grace at
meals. Even though we tried to avoid rote prayers, I noticed that there was a
boring sameness to what any one of us, myself included, might say. I heard
about one little boy who was urged to say his bedtime prayers while his mother
listened. She was surprised to hear him start telling the story of Goldilocks
and The Three Bears. When his mother asked what he was doing, he said he
thought God must be getting bored with the same old prayers, so he thought he
would entertain God with a story first! I must confess, when I hear some of the
tired old phrases that keep cropping up in my prayers, God would no doubt
appreciate it if I shared a story instead!
just become intoxicated with words. It is not without reason that Jesus warns
us about the tendency to heap up empty phrases. But we do not heed his
warning. There is still some feeling that the longer a prayer is, the more
effective it will be. At one of his city-wide evangelistic meetings,- Dwight L.
Moody, an evangelist of another era, had invited one of the local clergy to
offer the evening prayer. After the man had droned on for fifteen minutes,
Moody sensed that he had to do something, so he stepped to the pulpit, put his
hand on the preacher, and said to the audience, "While our brother continues
his prayer, the rest of us will take our hymnals and sing hymn number
described an elaborate pastoral prayer as the "the most eloquent prayer ever
offered to a Boston audience." And that is the temptation, isn't it? To pray to
people, rather than to pray to God. Because it is so easy for our devotional
expressions to be mechanical and unthinking, Jesus calls us to sincerity. A
four-year-old was asked to say grace on behalf of his family, but he couldn't
seem to get started. Heads were bowed, hands were folded, family members
waited. "Dear God," said the boy. Then there was silence. After a while the
mother looked at him; he glanced back at her, then over to his father, then back
to his mother again. Finally he explained, "If I thank God for the broccoli,
he'll know I'm lying, won't he?" The little boy understood that God knows the
heart, and that prayer must be sincere.
seventy-five years ago James Montgomery wrote:
Prayer is the
soul's sincere desire,
unuttered or expressed,
the motion of a hidden fire
that trembles in
the breast .
Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
the falling of a
the upward glancing of an eye,
when none but
God is near.
If we pray with
the intention of impressing others, we may learn the appropriate words and do
just that - impress others. But God looks upon the heart and acknowledges
Itís the same
with alms-giving. Generosity stood first in the Jewish catalog of good works.
In fact, the word for "righteousness" in Hebrew is the same as the word for
"almsgiving." Jesus cautions us to consider the motive of what we do, including
our giving. The good that gifts accomplish is not in view here, but what giving
accomplishes in us. Sometimes we give because of guilt. Elizabeth Brinton, a
thirteen year old Girl Scout, attained some notoriety a while back by selling
11,200 boxes of Girl Scout cookies. Asked to explain her success, she said,
"You have to look people in the eye and make them feel guilty." I feel like I
must have been approached by Elizabeth several times in my life. But when I
succumb to such a sales appeal, let me not try to attribute my supply of cookies
to my great generosity. It is the result of guilt. Sometimes we give because
someone is watching. Ernest Blevins, a Sunday School teacher in a nearby
community, tells how he handed out sheets of colored paper to his class of
kindergarteners and told them to share the lone pair of scissors. One little boy
asked his neighbor "What does share mean?" Blevins heard the friend whisper
back, "Sharing is what you do when you have only one of something and the
teacher is looking."
Adults also can
be concerned about who is looking. I have a rabbi friend who tells me that his
congregation has no financial problems. "How do you accomplish that?" I asked.
"Simple," he says. "We have this big poster in the foyer of the synagogue and
it lists the names of all the contributors and how much they have given." Gifts
that are given with an eye toward who is watching will still accomplish much
good, but Jesus teaches that the giver under such circumstances already has his
reward - the praise of people.
blesses the giver, needs to be genuine. It needs to come from the heart.
William Willimon tells about a banquet he attended. The whole town was gathered
to pay homage to one of its leading citizens. One by one speakers extolled the
virtues of this prominent philanthropist: his aid for the local children's home,
his gifts which enabled the city to build a new museum, the money he had
generously given to start worthy projects. Finally, it came time for the man
himself to speak. His response was characteristically humble. "I want you to
know,1Ēhe said, "that what I have done is only what I should have done, given
the circumstances of my life. I had no hand in my birth. God placed me in a
family with great wealth and influence. This was a gift, not my doing. I could
have done none of this without God's gift. All I did was to try, in my own
small way, to be faithful to the gifts."
I close with
In his novel,
The Magnificent Obsession. Lloyd C. Douglas tells the story of a wealthy playboy
whose life is saved by a resuscitator that might otherwise have been used to
save the life of Dr. Hudson, a gifted surgeon, who dies because the machine is
not available. In time, the wealthy playboy, Robert Merrick, becomes fascinated
with the life of Dr. Hudson, for whose death Merrick now feels responsible. He
is eventually given a copy of Dr. Hudson's private journal, written in code.
When he breaks the code, Merrick begins to see Dr. Hudson as a philanthropist,
obsessed with the idea of helping people secretly. Merrick experiments with the
idea and sees how lives are changed by the secret help he offers. He becomes
aware that a "Major Personality" rewards those who serve secretly with ever
greater opportunities to be of service and to have their lives enriched. The
"Major Personality," of course, is God.
What Merrick was
discovering, Jesus had said centuries before: Let your acts of piety spring from
the heart; and God, who sees in secret, will reward you. Amen.