Our church is interesting in that we come from a variety of traditions. Many of us grew up Baptist, some American Baptist and some of us were other brands of Baptist, but we also have folks whose heritage is Methodist or Lutheran or Catholic or United Church of Christ or nondenominational or something else, or maybe the family you grew up in didn’t go to church. Today is the first Sunday in Lent, and because we come from different traditions, we may all have different backgrounds and experiences when it comes to Lent.
I grew up in a Southern Baptist church. There was a large Catholic community in Evansville, mostly German Catholic, and Lent seemed very much a Catholic thing. I remember that in high school, Catholic students got out of school so they could go to Ash Wednesday services, which I guess was one argument for being Catholic. At the time I certainly did not foresee that Ash Wednesday would one day be a part of my own religious experience in a Baptist church.
I have come to appreciate Lent as an important time in the life of the church and in my own life, a time for reflection on my faith and a time when worship takes on a different and more introspective tone. It is a time for heightened focus on spiritual disciplines, and one of those disciplines that a lot of people have traditionally followed is to give something up for Lent. The idea is that you give up a small pleasure or indulgence as a sacrifice and offer that to God, or you give up a bad habit or some behavior that allows you to live more in the way that God intends.
Maybe you give up ice cream or Coca-Cola, or maybe you give up your favorite electronic gadget for a few hours each day so that you can actually be present with the people around you.
It can seem trivial, and there are those who certainly do trivialize it. I had a friend who would give up watermelon for Lent. Which was not hard to do. Or you might choose to give up Brussels sprouts or liver or running marathons or watching soap operas, any of which would be pretty easy for me.
Rather than giving something up, another approach is to take something on for Lent – maybe a spiritual practice like greater attention to prayer or Bible reading or serving others, or maybe an exercise program. The point is not to be legalistic about it, but to take this time as an opportunity for focusing on our spiritual lives and making changes - which is basically what repentance means – to turn around, to change direction.
This year, in our worship during this season of Lent, we are going to think about this idea of giving something up with the very creative theme of “Give it Up.” (I thought of that all by myself.) We won’t be talking about giving up chocolate or wine or red meat, although you can certainly do those things if you would like. Instead we’ll be thinking about ways of thinking and worshiping and living that are not that helpful, whether it is Lent or any other time of year.
Our text today comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus warns about practicing our piety, or doing works of righteousness, before others – performing religious acts so that people will see you doing good and being all spiritual. Jesus mentions several instances of acting so that others will notice. There is the giving of alms so that others will know you are being generous and magnanimous. There is praying so that others will see how close to God you are. There is making a big show of fasting so that others will be wowed by the depth of your spirituality and commitment. He says, “Don’t be like the hypocrites who do these things.”
Jesus is not saying that everyone who gives or prays or fasts in public is a hypocrite, and the word hypocrite is actually a neutral word in Greek. It doesn’t have the completely negative connotation that it has for us today. The word refers to stage actors, and he is using it as a metaphor for those who do works of piety like an actor on the stage, playing to the crowd, looking for applause and approval.
Jesus is not against giving alms. He is not against offerings. He is not against prayer. He is not against fasting. He is not against spiritual disciplines and practices, whether private or public. He is speaking here about motivation.
Why do you do the things that you do? Why do you give, or pray, or do acts of service? Jesus’ observation was that there are those who do such things so that they will be seen. So that they will be esteemed. So that they will be held in high regard. I know, it’s shocking, but Jesus says that there are people will do good things just for the sake of impressing others.
Well, that was 2000 years ago. Thankfully, we have outgrown that. Thankfully, we have matured as human beings and as the Church to the point where we don’t do good things just to impress others.
Well, OK, I can think of a few examples where this still happens. And it is nice to be recognized. And most of us could use a little ego boost. OK, I can think of more than a few examples. To be honest, we aren’t really any different than the people in Jesus’ day. We still have this desire to try and impress others with how good and selfless and caring and spiritual we are. Who doesn’t want to look good and be highly thought of?
Jesus’ point is that if this is our motivation, then these acts of charity and faith are really empty. And so rather than being a compassionate act, helping others can actually be a self-serving act if we are just doing it to look good. Rather than drawing us closer to God, prayer or fasting can just be another act of self-promotion when done to impress others.
Longtime North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith died two weeks ago after a long illness. There were a lot of accolades for Coach Smith. Colleagues and former players talked about him as a great and innovative coach, but an even better person. And they really meant it.
Smith was the one who started the tradition that when you make a shot, you point to the guy who made a good pass to set you up for the shot. It’s a team game and you need to remember your teammates and have a little humility. It’s not all about you. But Smith also said that if you are just trying to get a bunch of assists, that can also be a selfish way to play.
Some of you know that Dean grew up in an American Baptist church in Kansas. His dad was for many years an usher at First Baptist Church in Topeka. Dean went to North Carolina as an assistant coach and joined a new congregation that was just getting started, the Binkley Baptist Church, which was founded with a commitment to racial equality. It is one of a very few American Baptist churches in North Carolina, where Southern Baptists dominate the religious landscape.
Robert Seymour was Smith’s pastor for 30 years before retiring and at age 90 he is now Minister Emeritus at the church. Seymour encouraged Smith to recruit the best black player he could find to integrate the basketball team, and he did. In 1967 Smith signed Charlie Scott, the first black player in the ACC and maybe the first at any public university in the south. For Smith, this was a defining moral issue and a matter of faith.
After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed Congress, Rev. Seymour, Coach Smith, and a black theology student walked into the best restaurant in town, called The Pines, which had been strictly segregated, and asked to be served.
“When they saw Dean, they realized they had no choice,” Rev. Seymour said. The opening of a historically segregated restaurant signaled a major change in the history of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Veteran sportswriter John Feinstein interviewed Coach Smith a number of years ago. When he asked Smith to tell him more about that night, Smith shot him an angry look. “Who told you about that?” he asked. “Reverend Seymour,” Feinstein said. Smith said, “I wish he hadn’t done that.” Feinstein asked, “Why? You should be proud of doing something like that.”
Feinstein wrote, “He leaned forward in his chair and in a very quiet voice said something I’ve never forgotten: “You should never be proud of doing what’s right. You should just do what’s right.”
Now, I never rooted for North Carolina, at least not until Harrison Barnes started playing for them, but I always had great respect for Dean Smith. He got what Jesus was saying.
It is easy to live our lives in a constant effort to impress. Jesus seemed completely indifferent to the need to impress others. At times of his greatest popularity, he would tell some baffling parable that would leave people scratching their heads, or launch into a difficult and demanding teaching, or just walk away and move on to another town. Impressing people was not his mission.
When we live to impress, even to impress others with how good and kind and loving and faithful we are, we can leave our true selves behind. If impressing others is our motive, our goodness is not worth much. To paraphrase Paul just a bit, if our purpose is to impress, then our actions are like a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.
Now this business of impressing people can be hard because sometimes the situation demands that we try to impress somebody. You need a good grade so you need to impress the professor, or you want to get tenure so it is imperative that you impress your senior colleagues. You want a job so you need to be impressive at the interview, or you maybe you just want to impress that special person. The culture kind of forces us to try to impress people in certain situations. That’s just the way it is, right?
But more often than we would care to admit, the desire to impress others motivates our lives. This desire to impress people impacts the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the technology we embrace, the careers we choose, the people we associate with. If we aren’t careful, trying too hard to impress others can wind up being a way of letting others make choices for us.
The quest to impress others can be very elusive. Cars rust. Fashion changes. Technology advances. And the purchases that impressed your neighbor yesterday are not so impressive today. It takes a constant effort to be impressive. And the same can be true of our spiritual lives. We can try to impress others – to what end?
Just thinking here, for a minute… public acts of piety and good works - how often are these done just “for show?” (which is very close to the literal Greek meaning of hypocrite).
What about prayer in the legislature or before Congress? (I’m just raising the question.) When I was in Rotary club in Illinois, we opened each meeting with prayer, which made me a bit uncomfortable at times, to be honest – and the funny thing was, the least religious people in the group were the ones who would have a had a problem with not praying – to them, it wouldn’t have looked good.
Jesus says not to let others know how generous you are, not to do good so that others can see you doing it. Well, where do we draw the line? If you go to a performance or if you receive a magazine or newsletter from your college or from some community group, there will often be a list of donors in the publication. Friends who give $100, Sustainers who give $500, Founders who give $1000 or more – is this what Jesus is talking about?
Printing names of donors can be a way of encouraging folks to contribute and recognizing those who support the organization. Or for the donor, it might be a way of trying to impress others with your goodness and generosity. It all depends on motivation.
Some of you were here for our Ash Wednesday service as we received ashes on our foreheads, signs of our mortality and sinfulness and of our desire to follow Jesus. The ashes can be a powerful symbol of faith. Or they can be a way to show off your spirituality. It all depends on your motivation.
A trend has developed just in the last year or so in which apparently a good number of people go to Ash Wednesday services, take a picture of themselves – a selfie - and send it out over social media with the hashtag #ashtag. They have found a way to turn a spiritual act into an opportunity to impress.
But the fact is, we live in a different world than first-century Palestine. There aren’t many people praying on street corners, and if there were, they would definitely not be impressing others. Today, we may be more tempted to cover up our faith than to flaunt it.
In the current issue of Christian Century, U.S. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware writes about why he went to seminary. He was in law school at Yale when a fellow student encouraged him to take a class at the divinity school, which he said would change his life. He took the class, and it did. He wound up pursuing both a law degree and a divinity degree. But when he enrolled at the divinity school, it alienated some of his friends in law school. They were a very progressive group that welcomed everyone – except, as it turned out, people of faith. His friends (who were maybe not very good friends) questioned how an intelligent person could be religious. They were very unimpressed.
Living to impress others, in the end, is no way to live. Vernon Howard wrote, “The need to impress others causes half the world’s woes.” I don’t know if he was overstating it or not, but I know that if we would just give up the need to impress other people, the world would be a better place.
I look out at this congregation and I have to say, I see a lot of impressive people. I look at our community and there are so many wonderful, talented, caring – impressive – individuals. And the thing is, people are far more impressive when they just go about their lives, being themselves, than when they are trying to impress, trying to earn praise.
Maybe that American Baptist leader Dean Smith said it best. “You should never be proud of doing what’s right. You should just do what’s right.” Amen.