Based on the Gospel lection for Ash Wednesday – Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Ash Wednesday (photo credit: kirkinthehills.org)

Ash Wednesday (photo credit: kirkinthehills.org)

Here’s the question I want you to ponder upon today (or to return to throughout the Lenten season): Is pretending always a bad thing? Think about that for a moment and let that kind of remain in the background as we consider Jesus’ words this day. Is pretending always a bad thing?

Have you ever found yourself really wishing you could use a proverbial Family Feud ‘X’ whenever you see someone say something or do something with disguised motives? Perhaps you have a really good “Nonsense Radar” or something of the kind. You know what I would really like to do? I would like to have an endless supply of batteries and carry around with me one of those buzzers from the board game ‘Taboo!’ so that whenever I encountered someone being fake or pretending, I could push the button and say, “Quit that pretentious nonsense!”

But what I think would happen if I could use the Family Feud ‘X’ or the buzzer from ‘Taboo!’ would be that I would discover the joke is on me as much as it is on everyone else. Jesus would go on to say in this beloved sermon delivered on a mountain that we will be judged by the same standard which we use to judge others. If I’m brutally honest with myself I think I’d discover that the buzzer would be used as much on me as anyone else.

What is it about hypocrisy that sets Jesus off so badly? The same thing that makes us sick to our stomach when we encounter it (particularly in others or whenever we are the victim of it) – just how ‘fake’ it all is. Hypocrisy is counted among the top reasons that some people say they will never take part in a church – too many hypocrites! Too much “play-acting” and pretending to do the right thing while not really seeking to be transformed on the inside through the process. And that is the real difference. I think we would all agree, in theory, that the goal of following Christ is to grow in such a way that what we do on the outside matches who we are on the inside and that both inside and out, we are focused on the God who sees as much what we do when no one is looking as what we do when everyone is looking.

Jesus brings up three practices of piety – fasting, praying, alms-giving – and doesn’t really exhort us to do these things. Rather, he assumes that we will do these things. I’m convicted of this reality – that we are caught up in a livelihood of consumerism, busy-ness, and hoarding up treasures to such a degree that it is a challenge to actually even do the things that Jesus assumes we will do – fast, pray, and give. But Jesus’ message is less on the action, as that is a given, and more on the manner in which the action is done. That is, what matters is the motive. And that brings me back to the question asked at the beginning – Is pretending always a bad thing? Now our initial reaction may be to think, “Of course all pretention is bad! All pretending is really fake!” But to be a little bit contrary, I’d like to suggest, “Not necessarily!” Please don’t mistake this as a defense of hypocrisy, but do hear me saying that I believe that not all pretending is hypocritical. C. S. Lewis has a chapter in his classic work Mere Christianity devoted to this very idea, entitled ‘Let’s Pretend.’ Lewis wrote, “Even on the human level, you know, there are two kinds of pretending. There is a bad kind, where the pretense is there instead of the real thing; as when a man pretends he is going to help you instead of really helping you. But there is also a good kind, where the pretense leads up to the real thing.”

What matters, again, is the motive. Who is your audience? NOT IF, BUT WHEN you practice these disciplines – fasting, praying, giving – what end are you seeking? Theologian Douglas Hare says it this way: “The practitioner who pretends to be seeking to glorify God but in fact is intent only on seeking self-glory is a hypocrite.” What matters is motive!

But here is where the good form of pretending comes into play; when it, as Lewis put it, leads up to the real thing. He would go on and say, “When you are not feeling particularly friendly but know you ought to be, the best thing you can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a nicer person than you actually are. And in a few minutes, as we have all noticed, you will be really feeling friendlier than you were.”

I think we would all agree that at times we find it difficult to obey the commandment of Jesus – “Love your neighbor” – particularly when our neighbor hasn’t been very lovable or we sense in them a great deal of false motives, or that hypocritical pretending that we find so repugnant. In those moments we have essentially three options – 1. We can acknowledge our own negative feelings toward them and ignore or display hurtful behavior toward them (if we take that course, the good thing is that the outer expressions and inner feelings match; that bad thing is that match will only lead to our own decay and destruction); 2. We can save face and pretend to love them by extending proverbial olive branches but be seething in anger and hatred on the inside and find other, more subversive ways to bring harm upon them by talking about them behind their backs or whatever (if we take that course, the bad thing is, to put it bluntly, we are being hypocrites – the outside doesn’t match the inside in any way whatsoever; nor is there a goal for them to ever match); or 3. We can admit in humble, private prayer, that we have a hard time loving that person but that we will open ourselves as a conduit through which God’s love will be poured out upon them through our very own actions. Let’s be honest…this is pretension. But, it is pretension of a different kind. It doesn’t secretly wish the demise of the one we find unlovable. It only wishes good upon them and transformation of ourselves. And herein we find the beauty of grace – that through good pretension we find ourselves transformed by this remarkable God who took on our flesh to transform it. If we take this course, we will discover that even if our inside and outside don’t match for the time being, one day they will, for we are allowing God’s grace to transform us.

In closing, it is what Lewis called our action of “dressing up as Christ.” He says about the Lord’s prayer, which begins with the phrase ‘Our Father’:

If you like, you are pretending. Because, of course, the moment you realize what the words mean, you realize that you are not a [child] of God. You are not a being like The Son of God, whose will and interests are at one with those of the Father: you are a bundle of self-centered fears, hopes, greeds, jealousies, and self-conceit, all doomed to death. So that, in a way, this dressing up as Christ is a piece of outrageous cheek. But the odd thing is that He has ordered us to do it…

You see what is happening. The Christ Himself, the Son of God who is a man (just like you) and God (just like His Father) is actually at your side and is already at that moment beginning to turn your pretense into reality…you are trying to catch the good infection from a Person. It is more like painting a portrait than like obeying a set of rules…The real Son of God is at your side. He is beginning to turn you into the same kind of thing as Himself. He is beginning, so to speak, to ‘inject’ His kind of life and thought, His Zoe, into you; beginning to turn the tin soldier into a live man. The part of you that does not like it is the part that is still tin.

That “part that is still tin” is part of why we use these ashes. They are a reminder of our mortality; that we all live on the edge of our own demise; that an old natural self with all its death and destruction tries to rear its ugly head. We remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return; but that Life, real Life, as we shall come to see at the end of this journey has an even more final word. But until then, let’s pretend, in the good way – let us dress up as Christ who set his face toward Jerusalem, the place of the cross.

…So begins what is perhaps the most moving, disturbing, and haunting of statements ever uttered. Per Matthew’s telling: “And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'”

Each year on Good Friday we commemorate the event which brings out the very worst and the very best of humanity. The very worst is obvious in the vitriol, the hatred, the mockery, the torture of One who told his right hand man to put away his sword yet who was tried and assailed as a terrorist. It’s too easy to distance ourselves from the crowd and it is our tendency to do so. That is part of why I think it is so easy to miss what is behind Jesus’ troublesome cry. And until we can see ourselves somewhere in the midst of this scene: either as the disciples who betrayed or scattered; or as the crowd or the soldiers who mock Jesus; or even as the One condemned by the crowds, we will miss something quite significant about what Jesus screamed.

I don’t think, as others do, that Jesus was making a theological statement about him being sin and God not being able to look at sin. That concept is frequently read into Jesus’ cry of dereliction (or forsaken-ness). The idea (from Paul in Galatians 3) that Jesus became a curse for us is seen as the backdrop for Jesus’ words rather than looking to another passage…the very one Jesus was quoting, which was a lament psalm (#22) in which the speaker is wondering where is God and why hasn’t God come to the rescue. The psalmist experiences the things Jesus experiences: being scorned, mocked, despised, ridiculed, stripped of clothes which are divided amongst the assailants. And I am among them.

…………….

As I read the psalm and I witness the worst of humanity in what is done to Jesus, my heart changes and aches, and I observe the Psalmist knows something about the character of God, that God has come to the rescue of those who cried out to and put their trust in the Lord. Surely, Jesus knows that character, too! And in that knowledge, Jesus cries what people cry when an injustice is being done: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

(credit: journeywithjesus.net)

(credit: journeywithjesus.net)

So now I see the Psalm (and Jesus’ utterance of its beginning at the cross) as a cry of the righteous innocent calling upon the faithfulness and justice of God and asking why God hasn’t come to the rescue in this case. The garments of the innocent are shredded and divided among God’s enemies all the time. Faithful people are and have been oppressed countless times in history. Many people die alone, being rejected and despised, or worse, ignored by others. Maybe Jesus, in making such a loud cry in his greatest moment of desperation, is resonating and empathizing with the suffering of ones such as these through all of time and saying, “Where are you, God?” So they (or we) are not alone in feeling abandoned by everyone, including God. That’s good.

But wait…he breathes his last. Did God really not rescue him? But I know he was innocent! Surely he was God’s Son! Where were you, God? Where are you, God?

In mid-January I went to a training event in Dickson, Tennessee with other young clergy in the Memphis & Tennessee Annual Conferences in the United Methodist Church. That weekend was special in that our bishop, Bill McAlilly, was present with us and led us as he began to reveal more about the missional theme of his vision for the Nashville Episcopal Area. In short, he led us in conversation that centered on two key passages that are often in view when we think of mission and evangelism: Matthew 25:31-46 and Matthew 28:16-20. It became clear as we shared with one another that it is a rare thing for a congregation to excel in both of these areas. If a local church is vital in the least, it will do well in one (the social justice ministries often associated with what is mentioned in Matthew 25, like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and so on) or the other (experiencing growth through evangelism and discipleship with an eye toward the Great Commission in Matthew 28), but typically not both.

The conversation then began to shift toward what would it look like if we didn’t divorce these two areas of mission (social justice & disciple-making) but integrated them and saw missions & evangelism as two sides of the same coin, so to speak. While we were having these conversations, at some point my mind began to wonder about those two passages and the fact that they both come toward the end of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life. Beyond the missional connection between the two passages, it wasn’t long before I began to wonder what is the literary connection between the two in Matthew? Maybe it was the long time I have spent studying the doctrine of the atonement that drew my attention to the cross and resurrection as that narrative is found between the two passages. So internally I began asking: What is the relationship between Matthew 25 & 28 and the narrative in between them? What does mission and evangelism have to do with Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection?

Let’s let that narrative sink in…what is found in between? The plotting of the chief priests to capture Jesus, the worshiping of Jesus by the woman with perfume, the disciples scandalized by Jesus’ allowance of this, Judas’ agreement to betray Jesus, preparation for and celebration of the Passover, confusion, more worship in the sharing of the bread and the cup and singing, hollow promises of faithfulness, agonizing prayer for another way, betrayal with a kiss, a battle abated, disciples scatter, a sham arraignment, ridicule, adamant denial, deep regret and a failed attempt to undo betrayal, sham trial, speechless lamb, the guilty goes free and the innocent one is condemned to die, washed hands, swayed crowds, more ridicule, beating, more ridicule, more beating, more ridicule, more ridicule, more ridicule, darkness, a cry for rescue, pause, death, a curtain torn in divine grief, earth shook, rocks split, (are those zombies?), identification of God’s Son from an unlikely source (a Roman centurion), women watching and waiting, burial, an attempt to be sure he stays buried…

cross in office

…the attempt fails – Resurrection…

Those 72+ hours between Matthew 25:31-46 & Matthew 28:16-20 are, for the community who follows the crucified and risen Lord, the most intense hours in human history. In those moments are the darkest of hours of despair that bring out the worst in humanity’s capacity to do harm. But in these moments we also find in the Human One’s actions the very best of humanity (Jesus was and is fully human, after all) and the very source of our hope. These hours proclaim that even in the midst of betrayal, sin an darkness there is Eucharist, and that on the other side of suffering and death is their defeat at the hands of Life.

So what sort of relationship or weight do those days of suffering, death and resurrection bear on the missional passages before and after the Passion narrative? Maybe in telling us that when we give food, drink or clothing to those in need or visiting the sick and imprisoned we are doing these acts of mercy to Christ himself, he was dropping a hint that it would not be long before he would be hungry, thirsty, naked, afflicted, and condemned. When disciples of Jesus do these acts of mercy, we’re ministering to the suffering & crucified Messiah who humbled and emptied himself to such a degree as to be counted among criminals. When we clothe the naked, we condemn the criminal actions of Jesus’ torturers who stripped him down and cast lots for his clothing. When we give water to the thirsty, we cease from stopping the one offering a sponge to the dying Jesus with an ounce of water to soothe his lips. When we visit the imprisoned and offer words of encouragement to them seeking to set them free from whatever holds them in bondage, we display our contempt of the fraudulent court system and trial that condemned the Innocent One to death.

And maybe in telling us to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them, Jesus is pointing back to what was just before as the content of what it looks like to live like genuine disciples of his. That is, when we are baptized into Christ, we are united with Christ in his suffering, death and resurrection, and lay claim to hope that sin and death’s defeat has been guaranteed in our own lives and for the world. That is, the closer we draw near to Jesus, the more we are genuine disciples who do not betray, slumber, scatter, or deny, but who follow near and are willing to be counted among the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, condemned just as Jesus was. That is, that genuine disciples are not afraid to cry out to God when we feel most deserted by the world, by our friends, and even by the God Jesus called Father, too. And that this movement would be so radical that the world could not stamp it out, but that people of all nations would be drawn to the sacrificial love that is willing to forgive those who betray, scatter, deny, and even those who condemn. And in that, we’re given a most blessed promise…that God’s presence in Christ will be with us as we embark on that mission.

And to me, these are the sorts of things that distinguishes a community who follows a crucified and risen Lord from a mere charity organization who just wants to be kind to others or a country club who just wants to increase in size. The narrative in between centers our missional life in that we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection.

Last year saw perhaps the most poetic placement of Palm Sunday: it fell on April Fools’ Day. Remember? I remember it because it was the one opportunity I was given to preach on a Sunday morning at Nicholasville UMC in Kentucky. But even more so, I remember because of the irony of celebrating the fool in all of us on a day when the people in Jerusalem fell for the right person but had the wrong expectations of him. Or, as my friend Phil Tallon said it, “Today we celebrate Jesus saying April Fools to Israel’s militaristic messianic conceptions.”

Those are the thoughts that dwelt on my mind this morning as I stepped outside to burn the palm fronds used in last year’s Palm Sunday festivities at Liberty & Post Oak that were graciously handed down to me from my predecessor, Joey Reed.

Last year's palms = this year's ashes

Last year’s palms = this year’s ashes

Until last year, I wasn’t aware of the longstanding tradition of burning the previous year’s palm leaves to be imposed during the Ash Wednesday service of the following year. But when I discovered it, and found out I was being sent to Liberty & Post Oak, asking for these was one of the first things I did in my correspondence with Joey prior to moving here. Nicholasville had a practice where they had burnt sheets of paper from the previous year in a ceremony where the congregation was invited to write down their struggles, pains, sins, and so on, and nail them to the cross on Good Friday. There are a few good ways that can convey significant meaning for the community that practices these ceremonies and services.

I wanted this one, at least for this year, because of Palm Sunday’s alignment with April Fools’ Day last year. Each year on that day we cry aloud, “Hosanna in the highest!” But as the rest of that week unfolds, we discover anew that Jesus saves us in the highest only because he descended to the lowest…and that went even deeper than riding a donkey, which the crowds thought was humbling enough for a conquering deliverer. But like us, Jesus too went to the dust and tasted death with us. “…and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” as St. Paul would later write.

Many of my friends are aware that I am a fan of the musical band Mumford & Sons. They released an album in 2012 called ‘Babel,’ which won the Album of the Year on the Grammy Awards. Upon my first couple of times listening through the album, I was drawn toward the song ‘Lovers’ Eyes,’ unsure of what story or concepts were behind his writing of the lyrics. But after listening and reading through the lyrics a few times, he is telling a powerful story reflecting on the past and even expresses a repentant spirit when he writes, “Should you shake my ash to the wind, Lord forget all of my sins; well, let me die where I lie.” Those lyrics have played over and over in my mind as I’ve prepared for this Ash Wednesday, dwelling upon the themes of forgiveness, repentance, self-denial, and death, which will continue to play all throughout this Lenten season.

Lord, forget and forgive all of my sins, including those of false presumptions thinking I knew better than you how you should save the world (and me). I will “Remember that [I am] dust and to dust [I] shall return.”