Sermon for Ash Wednesday
17 February 2010
By Sharyn Hall
Recently I saw a bumper sticker, which made me stop and think. It read: SPIRITUAL PEOPLE INSPIRE ME. RELIGIOUS PEOPLE SCARE ME. I thought to myself, what am I? Do I inspire people or do I scare people? Does my clergy collar remind people to think of God in their lives, or does my clergy collar turn people off? This is an important question for me as a clergy person, and it is an important question for you as people whose relationship with God is important in your lives. First of all, I object to the implication that being spiritual is good, being religious is bad, and the two are mutually exclusive.
Being spiritual seems to be popular these days. It can be a way in which people say they are connected to God without membership in a religion. Or some people say they are spiritual in a way of their own making without any reference to God at all. For them, being spiritual is open-ended, no strings attached, and being religious is the antithesis of being spiritual. Being religious is placing God in a box, in a set of doctrines which define the nature of God and which determine the acceptable rules for living. Being religious is being judgmental, exclusive, self-righteous and self-centred.
If this attitude is so pervasive in our society that it is advertised on a bumper sticker, then the Christian Church should take note. If we were to ask people outside our doors for their view of the church, what would they say? They might talk about our very public bickering over scripture and doctrines. They might mention that Christians are split into so many splinters that the Christian Church has no clear relationship with God. They might say that the church is irrelevant to life today and will soon be extinct.
A recent article in the Globe and Mail had the headline, “Anglican Church facing the threat of extinction.” Based on declining figures of Anglican membership, our church is dying and will be gone in fifty years. We are not the only Christian denomination in this situation. Why would a spiritual person wish to join a dying church? People outside the church learn about life in the church from the media. Sadly, most of the stories they read are about scandals, sexual abuse and church people who break every commandment. The impression is that religious people are hypocrites, that religious people create a façade of being righteous to be seen as superior to others.
This is the warning of Jesus to his disciples in our passage from the gospel of Matthew. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…as the hypocrites do.” The Greek word translated here as ‘hypocrites’ is more accurately translated as ‘stage actors’. Stage acting can be a noble profession, but it does involve hiding your real self behind a projected false image.
The religious people in this gospel passage are announcing to the public that they are righteous, when in truth, their actions are insincere. They are not worshipping God. They are seeking their own glory. They are not serving others to fulfill God’s will. They are pretending to be charitable to win the admiration of others.
We cannot count how many times this warning of Jesus has been read or proclaimed in churches for centuries, and yet people who claim to be religious can fall into the same self-righteous trap. What can we do to avoid this human weakness? The prophet Joel says to repent and return to the Lord. St. Paul tells us to be reconciled to God: “…putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way.” St. Paul lists the changes and chances of life, the hardships and the joys, which face the servants of God who can and will persevere.
On this Ash Wednesday, we are reminded to beware of the temptation to be religious like the hypocrites and to beware of practicing our piety for our own glory. For in being false to others, we may prevent them from coming to a true relationship with God. On this Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that a spiritual life calls for an honest relationship with God in our secret hearts, and our Father who sees in secret will reward us, not with treasures or glory, but with patience and mercy and great kindness. Amen.