Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Psalm 51:1-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Like the hypocrites.

That is, don’t be like the hypocrites.  Also, don’t like them either as it seems as though the majority of Jesus’ warnings and teaching are about how we could be mistaken for a hypocrite.  So it’s pretty clear that a hypocrite is something we should avoid being, looking like, or acting similar to.  But what exactly is a hypocrite, anyway?  

Typically we in our 21st century education, we would say that a hypocrite is someone who says one thing but does another, someone who isn’t consistent in their actions and words, someone who contradicts what they say by what they do.  Basically, it’s someone who is just super annoying and you’d just rather not. 

But is that what Jesus meant for his 1st century listeners to understand?  While the actual implied or vernacular meaning of the word in biblical times is inconclusive, the hard definition of a hypocrite in the original Greek is a stage actor, the character who wears the mask to hides their true identity from the audience.  And after hearing that definition, we’d say ok, we get that metaphor, and it makes sense.

So in that light then, it would seem that in this text for today, the same text we get every year for Ash Wednesday, Jesus tells us not to put on a flashy show when we do good things, because that is what the hypocrites do.  Don’t try to draw attention to your own good deeds, because that is what the stage actors who wear masks do.  Don’t expect recognition or reward for being religious and/or charitable, because that is what those who hide their true selves from the world do and they gain nothing from it.

But… really?  I mean, how can we hide the good things that we do?  Or our spirituality and faith?  Or even our charitable donations, when the government asks for proof of those donations like every year.  They’re good things and people often notice them.  Sure, we don’t have to announce it, but is getting recognition for things we have done really that bad?  We teach our kids to appreciate the work of others and to say thank you and all that, but we aren’t supposed to accept it when we are appreciated?  We are taught by society that we should get what we deserve in terms of equal rights and equal pay, but is Jesus saying that we’re offside with that?  We work hard in our respective fields and we claim what we’ve worked for, be it a salary, a fair grade, or any kind of recognition for that work, but is Jesus now saying that such behaviour is hypocritical?

Now that doesn’t seem to make any sense.  I mean, if it did, wouldn’t that mean we are contradicting ourselves when we tell our kids to appreciate others when we refuse appreciation ourselves?  So to avoid being a hypocrite, we are to be a hypocrite?

But then I wonder if Jesus is talking about a different kind of hypocrisy.  In that he isn’t saying that we shouldn’t get any recognition for what we are doing, but perhaps we are using what we are do as a mask to cover up who we really are.  In doing so, we hide our true selves, and put this fictitious foot forward and we hope the world sees us as something we are not.  I don’t think this means that we shouldn’t be doing things like praying, relying on God, or giving alms, but I think what Jesus is saying here is that those things, while good and all, don’t actually save us.  The recognition we get from our peers in doing such good works, that actually doesn’t save us.  The fact that we can look like really good humans in spite of what we really are thinking or wanting to do, definitely doesn’t save us.

This past week some horrific news dropped about Canada’s beloved Jean Vanier.  If by slim chance you don’t know what I’m talking about, the late Jean Vanier is the founder of L’Arche, an international organisation that helps and houses those with disabilities, and an organisation that our congregation has somewhat of a partnership with. Well, an independent investigation found that Jean Vanier had sexually abused at least 6 women within the organisation.  Now, I should say that I don’t know the exact details of the case, as the news site I was reading wanted me to pay them to see the whole story, but I got enough bits and pieces from other sources to have my heart drop.

This man was seen as a saint.  He was known and beloved by many.  Thought to be a gentle soul, a keen theologian, and born with a servant’s heart, this news, to say the least, came as a shock to all.  This just goes to show that even the greatest among us are flawed.  Even the best and brightest can fail.  Even the most saintly have sin, and they can be revealed.

And this is what I think Jesus is talking about.  A hypocrite as Jesus refers to isn’t someone who just says one thing and does another.  Nor is a hypocrite in Jesus’ eyes someone who just hopes to gain recognition for their good deeds and generosity.  A hypocrite, according to Jesus, isn’t even one who hides behind a mask and reads their lines in a play. 

But a hypocrite is someone who thinks that their good works will save them.  A hypocrite is one who believes that they are defined by what they can do and how they can contribute.  A hypocrite, according to Jesus, is one who thinks that everyone is fooled by the masks they wear, perhaps even fooling themselves, hiding away their sinful nature behind a disguise of good deeds and accolades. 

They might believe that their good works and recognition are enough.  They might believe that they are not in need of a Saviour because of it.  They might even believe that they are above dust, and to dust they most certainly shall not return to.

And this is the thing.  This is what today, Ash Wednesday reminds us of.  This is what this whole season of Lent is about.  We are dust, and to dust we shall return.  Our actions, our deeds, our good works won’t change that one bit. 

But even in that, even in our brokenness and sinfulness, even in our imperfection and impurity, even in our dustiness and ashiness, God reaches God’s hand out to us, and saves us by a grace that goes beyond all understanding. 

So it doesn’t matter how good you think you are, it doesn’t matter how good you actually are, it doesn’t matter how good you make others think you are, we are all fallen creatures, we are all bound to the same human condition of sin, we are all in need of God’s saving grace and redeeming forgiveness.  And just our luck, God offers this freely to us, so much so that we needn’t rely on our own strength, our own discipline to do what is right, or our own generosity to make us saints.  For God’s grace is big enough to cover us, all of us, our entire and whole being, iniquities and atrocities and all, and can love us back into community, into relationship, and as the eternal body of Christ.

For we are but dust and to dust we shall return.  We are given tools on how to appropriately spend our limited time here, not in order to be saved, but because we are saved by God’s own amazing grace.

As we begin this season of Lent, may we take off the masks that hide who we are and embrace our dual nature of sinner and saint, and rejoice that unto us a Saviour has been given.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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