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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."

Obviously, that 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 etiquette.

Lent, which 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."

Our experiences 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 publicly. 

You wouldn't 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?

When our 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!

Sometimes we 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 eighty-six.."

Someone once 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.

One hundred 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 tear,

                                             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 sincerity.

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. 

Giving that 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 this. 

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.