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Sermon: Ash Wednesday

March 9, 2011

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

One of my favorite scenes from a movie features the great Jack Nicholson in The Departed.  Nicholson plays an Irish mob boss in Boston, and he thinks he has an informer among his crew.  The scene takes place at a small table in a smoky, dimly lit bar.  Nicholson is sitting across from Leonardo DiCaprio, who is in fact the rat in the organization, but Nicholson doesn’t know this.  He does, however, suspect everyone.  He is completely paranoid.  It is Nicholson at his best.

There is no real action in the scene.  It is five minutes of straight dialogue, and the tension keeps ratcheting up and up.  Nicholson keeps saying things like, “I smell a rat.”  He wriggles his nose and mouth like a rat.  He draws a picture of a rat on a paper placemat.  He makes references to eliminating the rat.  In those five minutes, Nicholson hits nearly every range of emotion and expression, from nearly asleep in a drunken stupor to manic and angry.  All the while, DiCaprio continues to say, “I’m not the rat,” but you can see he is getting more and more nervous.  He looks like he is going to crawl out of his skin.

Finally, the scene ends.  Nicholson seems to accept DiCaprio at his word, but the conversation ends ominously, to let us know there may yet be a reckoning.  It is a masterful performance, and the two actors pulled me into the moment so powerfully that when the scene was over, I could only plop back into the sofa, completely exhausted.

Of course, none of it was real.  No one was in danger.  These professionals were on a set with camera and sound operators, lighting people, a director.  I was watching the scene on a television in my living room.  It was all pretend.  But it was good pretend.  Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio are two really good hypocrites.

Oh yes, they’re hypocrites.  The original meaning of that Greek word “hypocrite” is “actor.”  It referred to actors on the stage.  It has come to mean something very different in our culture, in large part because of the New Testament.  In a number of passages, including this evening’s gospel lesson, Jesus said, “Don’t be like the hypocrites.”  Of course, he didn’t mean, “Don’t be a stage actor.”  Don’t pretend.  Don’t act in a way that is contrary to what you believe or feel.

In this evening’s text, Jesus is specifically referring to our acts of worship.  When you worship God, worship God.  When you give alms—which is an act of worship of our Creator—give alms in a spirit that honors God, not your own generosity.  When you pray, pray to God, not so that people around you will hear what an eloquent pray-er you are.  When you fast as a sign of repentance, fast in such a way that God will understand your heart, not so your neighbors will see how devout you are.  If you worship in a way that truly honors God, then God will see and will honor you.  If you are a hypocrite, if you act out your worship with some other motive in your heart, then you will have honored yourself.  You can’t get two rewards for your worship.  You either get it from God, or you get the reward you create for yourself.  You choose.  Jesus said that there is a heavenly treasure, and there is an earthly treasure, and the one you choose says all that needs to be said about where your heart is.

The purpose of the season of Lent is to examine our hearts.  We learn a lot about ourselves when we spend time in prayer and Bible study.  We learn a lot about who we are on the inside when we engage in acts of service, or when we give up some guilty pleasure as a sign of repentance.  Lent is a good time to assess the value of the treasures I have laid up for myself in the past year.

I’ve never been to the dog races, but I’m sure you know something about them.  The greyhounds chase a mechanical rabbit around the track.  There’s a story about one those dogs that retired from racing in the prime of its career.  It had been very successful.

One day that dog visited the track after his retirement.  The younger dogs gathered around.  They said, “Hey, what are you doing here?”

The dog said, “I’m just back to see some old friends.”

The young dogs said, “Are you still racing?”

“No, no, I’m done with that.”

The young dogs said, “Don’t you miss all the glitter and excitement of the track?”

“No.  That got boring pretty fast.”

“Well, what’s the matter?” they said.  “Did you get too old to race?”

“No, I could still give you pups a run for your money.”

“Were you losing too much?”

“No, I was doing really well, made my owner a lot of money.”

“Did you get hurt?”

“Not at all.”

“Then what?”

“I quit.”

“You quit?”

“That’s what I said.  I quit.”

The young dogs asked, “Why did you quit?”

He said, “I discovered that what I was chasing was not really a rabbit.  And I quit.  All that running, running, running, running, and what I was chasing, not even real.”  (Adapted from a story by Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, Mike Graves and Richard Ward, eds. [St. Louis: Chalice, 2001], p.106-7.)

There’s a lot of chasing we do in our lives.  And I don’t just mean people who have a job and kids.  Retired people discover they are busier than ever before.  We go, go, go, and we never stop.  But what are we chasing?  Does it have any real value?  Lent is that time to find out, find out what is that treasure that keeps us going around and around.  Is it worth it?

We can choose the reward of the grace of God our Creator as we engage in the acts of true worship, or we can choose the reward of the hypocrite, the play actor, who is reciting his lines and feigning emotion for the public.  Either way, God sees in secret.  God sees our true hearts.  God knows our true treasures.

This Lent, make it a point to find out for yourself what your true treasures are.

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