Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 17, 2010 Matt 6:1-6,16-21 “Mark of the Work”

We’ve been in the process of calling a new vicar here at Saint Middle School and that's gotten me thinking about how we evaluate candidates, and which ones seem just a little bit, um, scary. You know the type I’m talking about. You may have been to those kind of services, or you’ve seen these folks on television… you know the person I’m talking about, the charismatic preacher who wows the crowd. He waves his arms around, sings loudly, tells you everything you’re doing wrong, and that you’ve been doing wrong for the past decade, or even your whole life…

…and then he prays. Stands there, clenches his eyes shut. Bows his head. Raises his hands up and hunches his shoulders. And then he prays, out loud, sometimes very loudly…demanding Jesus do something.

I talk about this style of preacher and I’m afraid I get pretty sarcastic. They seem to be all about the external trappings of ministry. Folks at the Alban Institute, an organization that studies congregations and provides consulting services to those that are troubled or in the midst of change, calls this type of pastor the “42 Long.” The outward trappings – height and build – make them attractive, and they often are socko preachers…but they also may believe that their physical attractiveness means that they don’t need to have the inner spiritual life that makes for a true pastor. Another colleague of mine refers to the Episcopal version of this type as “6, 40, 2.5, gold.” A guy who is six feet tall, about 40 years old, nice wife, 2.5 kids and a golden retriever. An archetype that is often very attractive when you’re looking for a new pastor…but that’s not all you should be looking at when you seek a new leader of the flock.

Now I’m not saying that such a candidate should be suspect, simply because of appearances. What I’m saying is that outward appearance is not the prime measure of a good pastor. And for the record, I’m not telling you this because I’m female, 5’2”, well over forty, and own two neurotic cats instead of the golden retriever. Honestly, I’m not…

But I think it is important to know what the mark of a good priest is, just as it is important to know what the mark of a faithful Christian is.

Our gospel this evening suggests that outward trappings should not get in the way of the search for the truly spiritual, in a search for a new pastor, or for that matter, in our personal search to find a deeper relationship with God.

The description in Matthew sounds almost like a caricature: sounding a trumpet before you put a donation in the alms box, making ugly faces showing how much you are suffering if you’re fasting, standing on the street corner so that everyone sees you when you’re praying.

No, we don’t do that. We’re not that caricature. But if we worry about what others think about how we worship, how we have a conversation with God, we are on the edge of the caricature. If we think of a donation that will make us look good, rather than thinking of the good it will do for God’s work, then we are on the edge of the caricature.

It is so easy to fall into that trap. We become so focused on the outward appearance of piety, of personal holiness, that we forget that pious acts are supposed to be about a deeper, more vulnerable conversation with God. And how can we be vulnerable if we are worried about what other people think of us and how we “do” church?

On this Ash Wednesday, let’s think about how we evaluate candidates for our new vicar. Are we impressed by outward appearances? Are we impressed by academic credentials? Are we impressed by snazzy flashy sermons? Or are we looking for someone who has a deep and strong spiritual life, who prays not only in church with all of us, but alone, who listens for God’s voice in the work rather than choosing to do what would be self-aggrandizing?

It is easier to see the sins of others, the ego, the stubbornness, the worry about what others think…and as we continue the process of seeking a new vicar, I have no doubt that the Search Committee will be able to sort out the good candidates from those who only have the outward appearance of being good.

But the challenge of Ash Wednesday, and of all of Lent, is to hold a mirror up to our own faces and look really clearly and honestly at what we see. Where is our own ego, our own stubbornness, our own overactive concern about what others think of us? Where is our own willingness to discard our prayer life when life gets too busy? Where is our own inability to trust in God’s love, to speak with God in prayer honestly, not trying to hide all our flaws?

We talk about the ashes of this evening’s service as a reminder of our own mortality – ashes to ashes, dust to dust – but we might also think of them as the product of burning away the practices in our own spiritual lives that get in the way of our relationship with God. We mark our heads tonight not only to remind ourselves of our own limited time on earth, but also to remind us of our mortal flaws, and the work we will do during this holy season of Lent. May we bow our heads and pray that we may be refined, cleansed, purified, in this season and always. May the mark on our foreheads be more than mere dust – may it be the glow that comes from a steadfast dialogue with the God who loves us so much that he sent his Son as a living sacrifice for us.


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