God's World is not a Stage

A Homily for Ash Wednesday

Once upon a time, I played for the President. My high school band was the only one chosen to perform for President Lyndon Baines Johnson when he came to town. And I, the trumpet player whom our band director had just chosen "first chair," I was the only one who got to be interviewed by the local newspaper. Ah, yes, I was featured in that news-breaking story, with my picture front and center! For days I thought about what to wear. And what to say. And how I got to play for the president.

The morning of my big interview I arose from sleep, turned on the bathroom light and looked in the mirror to admire my good-looking self. To my horror, there was a brand, new pimple staring back at me, a blemish the size and shade of a ruby, right smack dab on my cheek. Do what I might, I couldn't cover it up. My picture was in the paper alright, pimple and all. And when it came time for my new best friend, LBJ, to drive by, while our band stood on the street and played "Hail to the Chief," it was the biggest non-event of my life. Our special time with the President of the United States? The performance of a lifetime, my brush with greatness? Here's how great it was: a presidential motorcade whizzes by, and the band plays on. It was all over before I could say "George Washington."

Jesus said, "Do not sound a trumpet before you" (Matthew 6:2). When I was a teenager, even if Jesus had said that directly to me, I probably would have sounded my trumpet anyway! And Jesus, in this, the Gospel passage we hear each Ash Wednesday of our lives, is speaking directly to his adolescent disciples, the guys whom one teacher of preaching likes to call "The Knucklehead Club." Jesus was teaching them how to follow him, and if you're wondering what's missing, what's in the nine verses left out of our lesson from Matthew's sixth chapter, it's the Lord's Prayer, along with these re-inforcing words: "If you do not forgive others, neither will (God) forgive your trespasses" (6:15). Even the disciples needed to be taught how not to be like people who are pleased to play for presidents.

"Whenever you give alms . . . whenever you pray . . . whenever you fast," Jesus says to his disciples, "do NOT be like" . . . whom? The "hypocrites." The word we translate "hypocrite" comes from the Greek word that means "actor." Do not put on an act, do not call attention to yourself, do not pretend or deceive, Jesus might have said. Eugene Peterson puts Matthew's words this way: "Don't make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won't be applauding" (6:1, The Message). The one thing you do not want to do, Jesus says, is to act like you are giving, fasting or praying, when you really aren't. If you want to follow me, the one thing you don't want to be, Jesus teaches his disciples, both then and today, is a hypocrite.

And yet . . . what's the one thing that people down through the ages say about Christians? What's the one thing that people of all ages, especially young people today, say about why they don't want to go to church? I don't go to church, people say, because they're all a bunch of hypocrites! Well, I want to say, thank God WE'RE not!! (:-) Thank God we were good and came to church today! Thank God we'll leave here with those ashes on our foreheads, so people can see us and say, Just look at them, will you? Now, there go some real Christians! (Or are they really thinking, The REAL reason they have ashes on their foreheads is because they need to change their adolescent, hypocritical minds?)

Sisters and brothers, it is so easy to be a hypocrite. And Christians do not have a corner on the market of hypocrisy. But we who come to church today or any other day, we always have more to learn about how our creed does not match our deeds, how our orthodoxy, the right way to believe, needs to go hand in glove with our orthopraxis, the right way to act—and all this, in the name of Jesus.

So . . . why are you here today? Are you here just to "get your ashes"? Or are you also here to consider some old, familiar words said at funerals, words we will hear when those ashes are placed on our foreheads: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return"? Have you come here today to consider your own hypocrisy, your own humanity, your own lack of humility, your own mortality? Are you here today to reflect on this question: When I die, what will my legacy be?

Shakespeare said that all the world is a stage (As You Like It). But God's world is not a stage, a place for play acting. God's world is not about what we do for show, to show off. God's world is more about what we do, as Jesus says six times in our Gospel today, "in secret." We can find God today, waiting for us here in this public act of worship. But if we are ready, willing and able, later today and tomorrow and for the rest of our lives, we can also find God waiting for us in all those private, secret places—at home in our rooms, in our homerooms and classrooms and workrooms, even in our boardrooms. God is at home, waiting for us, waiting within us, if would just stop, look and listen. If only we would pay attention—to the spark of the Divine in us, that actually brought us hypocrites here today, some of us kicking and screaming, so that we could stop being so adolescent and start looking more like adults, more like people who want to grow up and leave a legacy of which we will be proud.

And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that it's hard to grow up. In a culture that seems to scream adolescence, in a world that seems to reward bad, even outrageous behavior, in a church that is full of recovering hypocrites like you and me, it is very hard to grow up into what the writer of the letter to the Ephesians describes as "the full stature of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13). But we are encouraged by still other words we've heard today, from St. Paul: "Be reconciled to God . . . in Christ, (let us) be the righteousness of God . . . See, now is the day of salvation!" (I Corinthians 5:20, 6:2).

Dear friends in Christ, this is indeed the day the Lord has made, made for you and for me. This is the day to ask God's forgiveness, to start all over, to wash our faces with ashes and then to wash them again, over and over, until all our hypocrisy, by the day of our death, is washed away by the God who loves us and forgives us. This is the day when we put away our trumpets, because God is waiting here for us, to forgive us and love us and help us live a less hypocritical, a more holy Lent, a more holy life. This is the day when we begin to leave the legacy we really want to leave, with the help, grace and mercy of God.

Thanks be to God. AMEN.

—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
February 22, 2012