A sermon, based on Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21, preached with the people of the Episcopal Church of the Advent, Spartanburg, SC, on the occasion of the Wednesday Noon Lenten Series on the day of the Lesser Feast of William Law, April 10, 2019
“If we are to follow Christ, it must be in our common way of spending every day…liv(ing) unto God at any time or in any place…in all times and in all places.”
So wrote William Law, 18th century Church of England priest, philosopher and theologian, teacher, preacher, and mystic, in his still celebrated work, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.(1)
In commemorating the life and legacy of William Law, given his practical, daily devotion as a disciple of Jesus, it is no surprise that the appointed gospel for this day is that of Ash Wednesday. Appropriate, then, as we stand on the threshold of Palm Sunday and Holy Week that we harken back (consider it a penitential refresher!) to the beginning of our Lenten journey with Jesus.
Jesus, speaking of the cardinal spiritual disciplines of Judaism, which were adopted by the Christian church at the end of the first century – monetary charity, prayer, and fasting – warns us of an inherent danger that does not arise if we don’t practice them, but only when we do. Jesus does not say, “If,” but rather “whenever (we) give alms…pray…fast.” And the intrinsic, inescapable danger is that we, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot’s Thomas Beckett, do the right thing for the wrong reason.(2)
Our charity to demonstrate the depth of our generosity…
Our prayer to demonstrate the breadth of our spirituality…
Our fasting to demonstrate the height of our self-control.
As the temptation, sometimes unconscious, is ever-present, whenever we do this, says Jesus, we are hypocrites. From the Greek, hupocritēs, meaning, originally, actor, one who performs on stage wearing a mask; thus, over time, meaning one whose true face is concealed.
As I don’t know you and, thus, dare not speak of you, speaking always and only for myself, even when I am most charitable, I am not altogether generous. There is something in the charitable act for me, even if only the benign self-satisfaction of feeling good about myself. Therefore, when in my charity, I seek to prove to you and to myself the single-minded purity of my generosity (which, given my human nature, doesn’t and can’t exist!), then, I am neither showing you nor seeing my true face.
Now, a greater danger appears. The spiritual disciplines become tools of illusion and self-delusion; therefore, obstacles in the path toward truth and honesty over which we can stumble and break our spiritual necks. It might be saner, surely, safer, if we didn’t practice them at all!
But then we’d miss the reward. The Greek translated reward is an ancient marketplace term meaning that one receives precisely that for which one pays. Nothing more, nothing less. When I practice spiritual disciplines seeking the applause of your approval and my self-acclaim, then I have received my reward. Nothing less, nothing more.
However, spiritual disciplines, as tools of self-examination, offer another, a greater, a truer reward. A reminder of our humanness. Therefore, a reminder that we are not God and that we never can be God. Therefore, a reminder that if we, when we act as if we are other than human, other than, even at our best, always dependent, never self-sufficient, then we are actors, hypocrites.
Thank God that we need never, and only if we choose, don the masks of our own creating, our own pretending. For we, in Jesus, are free to be who God creates, redeems, and sanctifies us to be.
On Ash Wednesday, we the “Dear People of God,” were invited, “in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent.”(3)
Today, nearing Lent’s end, William Law, invites us to the disciplined observance of a holy life, following Jesus “every day…at any time…in any place…in all times and in all places.”
For the rest of our holy Lent, aye, for the rest of our holy lives, may the words of Richard of Chichester(4) be our daily song:
Day by day, day by day,
dear Lord, three things we pray:
to see thee more clearly,
love thee more dearly,
follow thee more nearly,
day by day.
(1) William Law (1686-1761); A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728) (my emphases)
(2) From T. S. Eliot’s, Murder in the Cathedral. The actual quote: “The last temptation is the greatest treason. To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
(3) Ash Wednesday Liturgy, The Book of Common Prayer, pages 264-265
(4) Richard of Chichester (1197-1253), aka Richard de Wych, Bishop of Chichester (England)