(Early) Sermon for Ash Wednesday
February 22, 2017
“Sermon Design and Delivery” course
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you fast, do not look gloomy, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, annoint your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
“Do not be like the hypocrites,” Jesus warns us in our gospel text for today. Unfortunately, it seems like there’s plenty of hypocrisy to go around these days – especially if you’re attuned to what’s happening in our country’s political discourse. Politicians and public figures claim to be pro-life, while adamantly supporting the death penalty and opposing gun regulation, despite tens of thousands of gun-related deaths annually. Others claim to be advocates for a quality public education system while proposing plans to dismantle the entire Department of Education. Still others are doing everything in their power to slam the door on refugees and other immigrants seeking safety and opportunity, while ignoring their own families’ personal – and recent – histories of immigration. Hypocrisy is the bread and butter of our world.
But all this is actually nothing new in our history. In fact, earlier this week, our country very quietly observed the 75th anniversary of a monumental act of hypocrisy. On February 19, 1942, a Democratic president signed Executive Order 9066, allowing the military to “exclude” 120,000 people from their homes, simply because they were of Japanese descent. This was done in the name of “national security,” but the lack of similarly strong actions against German and Italian immigrants showed this prejudice for what it was. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free….” just, you know, as long as they’re not Japanese.
Actor and activist George Takei was sent to one of these internment camps with his family when he was just a child. He was just five years old when his parents woke him very early one morning and hurriedly packed the few belongings they were allowed to carry. He remembers sitting in the living room of their Los Angeles house with his younger brother and sister, and watching as soldiers with rifles and bayonets came stomping up their driveway. They were forced from their home at gunpoint and taken to the stables at the local racetrack. His family of five was crammed into a single horse stall for their living space.. The family was then relocated hundreds of miles away from their home to an internment camp in the swamps of Arkansas. It was four years before they were allowed to return to their home in Los Angeles, and by that time, the life they had built was gone.
It took the US government more than 20 years to apologize for all the lives they uprooted and destroyed.
Takei and his family and others like them were victims of hypocrisy at a national level. But I also find myself wondering about hypocrisy happening at the personal level. I wonder about the stories of the people who were not rounded up and forced into camps. Who were the people who watched their neighbors being dragged away by agents of their own government? What did they feel? Did they speak out against this injustice or take to the streets in protest? Or did they decide that it was worth it to imprison these “others” so that they might feel safe?
I especially wonder about what part my own ancestors may or may not have played in this terrible history. They were teachers and farmers living several hundred miles away in rural Nebraska and Iowa, the children and grandchildren of German immigrants. What did they think? Did they relate to the children and grandchildren of Japanese immigrants being persecuted half a country away? Did they speak out in protest? The fact that no such stories have been handed down in my family probably tells me all I need to know.
I’m haunted by this thought, by the memory of our country’s mistreatment of Japanese-Americans and by my own family’s probable complicity in it. It’s especially poignant, since our country seems like it’s preparing to repeat this terrible chapter of American history, replacing Japanese-Americans with Mexicans and Muslims.
I wonder whether I will do any better than they did. I’d be kidding myself if I insisted that I’m less hypocritical than they were. History is literally repeating itself around us, but I still focus diligently on my homework, worried about getting good grades and a good seminary education, staying up until the wee hours of the morning trying to perfect a good sermon for class. I stand on the street corner in front of the deportation center and pray loudly where others may see me, while all across the city, people without documents huddle inside their houses, living in fear of ICE agents stomping up their driveways and forcing them from their homes. They live in fear of being “relocated” to our modern equivalent of internment camps, except today we call them “detention centers” and no one gets to come home again. History is repeating itself, and I worry that I am doomed to repeat my ancestors’ mistakes.
Hypocrisy is the bread and butter of the human race. It’s a difficult pattern to escape. And so, left to our own limited devices, we continually create systems that endlessly create and recreate the same problems, the same atrocities, the same indifference, over and over again.
This is why we need the season of Lent. This season of repentance is meant to be a rude interruption in the endless human cycles of hypocrisy and self-destruction. This gospel text we read today is specifically assigned for Ash Wednesday, the liturgical day on which we acknowledge the limitations of human flesh and being. This is a day to lay aside our hypocrisy, to set down our trumpets, and to admit that we have not been able – and are not able – to live up to God’s standards. We are dust. And that is all we can ever be.
Juxtaposed with this day, then, our gospel text actually becomes really good news. Yes, we are hypocrites, fixated on the rewards of this world, but Jesus shows us that that’s not all there is. In fact, the whole reason that Jesus warns us against hypocrisy is because it is making us miss our opportunity to be part of something better. The hypocrisy and pride that keep us preoccupied with getting ahead in this world keep us from striving after the kind of rewards that can come only from God. While we repeat the same stories over and over again, Jesus says to us that God is inviting us to live into a different, more life-giving narrative. And Jesus is teaching us the way to do it.
We are dust, and we will return to dust, but we don’t have to keep repeating the mistakes of our ancestors. We can learn from the past and use that knowledge to interrupt the destructive cycles of the present.
We are dust, and we will return to dust, but that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. In this text, we see that God has given us the chance to be more. God offers us grace that breaks the endless cycles of history and transcends the limitations of our human flesh.
We are dust and we will return to dust, but through Christ this dust has been reconciled and redeemed, and through the Holy Spirit we have been transformed for participation in the work of restoration in our world. We have been freed to live into a new story; we now have the chance to break out of this cycle of dust — will we take it?