Ash Wednesday, March 1
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
We are all social creatures.
Because we are social creatures, we care what other people think of us.
Two autobiographies that Dave and I recently listened to illustrate this well.
The first is from An Invisible Thread: by Laurie Schroff.
The author grew up in an Italian family on Long Island.
Every night Laurie and her siblings would hold their breath wondering if Dad would come home calm or fighting his demons.
If he was drunk her father would abuse her mother and brother. He would break furniture and throw whatever he could get his hands on.
If it was a bad night, and it often was, Laurie and her sister ran around the house, closing the windows and drawing the curtains so the neighbors wouldn’t hear, see, or know what was going on.
The second is from Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by JD Vance
JD’s Hillbilly culture taught him to defend the honor of his family.
If a classmate criticized his mother, it was acceptable to punch him. JD even checked this out with his grandmother. Yes, his grandmother told him, you can punch him if he is saying bad things about Mom. So punch him he did.
In JD’s upbringing, everybody knew about abuse. Nobody shut the windows. Foul language and violence were normal.
The need to prove ourselves is in all of us.
We all have a terrible fear of being nothing.
Who would we be and what would we do if it didn’t matter a hoot what others thought??
Growing up I certainly cared what others thought.
I didn’t want to be perceived as deaf and dumb, so I did my best to prove that I wasn’t.
Compensatory behavior shaped me for decades.
In tonight’s reading Matthew is very intentional with his language.
Three times—that means pay attention, this is important—we are told not to be like the hypocrites.
We are to do what we do in secret, and our God who is in secret will reward us.
Richard Rohr writes that the culture of Jesus and Matthew was based on kinship. It is an honor/shame system. We must understand this to understand the Sermon on the Mount.
One gains status, self-esteem and meaning by how one is perceived by family, friends and the local community.
One needs to be seen to be validated.
Make a big show of giving alms, fasting and praying.
Jesus presents a different path, a new way to live.
Instead of external motivation we are to take the inward path;
We are to pray, fast and give alms in secret.
External motives, seeking to please others, are not transformative but internal motives create the space for transformation.
We are to break the enmeshment of our public image and find our identity within ourselves and our relationship to the transcendent.
Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. (Joel 2:12-13)
Our clothing is exterior, our hearts are interior.
Paul states that we are ambassadors for Christ.
An ambassador’s primary allegiance is to the person he/she represents, not to his/her public image.
When we are faithful to our interior journey, to ourselves and the God we serve, we may be misunderstood.
As Paul writes,
We are treated as impostors, and yet are true;
As unknown, an yet are well known;
As dying, and see—we are alive;
As punished, and yet not killed;
As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing;
As poor, yet making many rich;
As having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (II Cor.6:8-10)
Richard Rohr states that when we no longer in bondage to the external,
Almsgiving frees us for others
Prayer frees us for God,
Fasting frees us from ourselves.
With this freedom comes transformation and the kingdom of God.
Mary Olive in her recently published book of essays, Upstream, writes that she has at least three selves.
The first self is the child she was. The child’s voice is still part of her. It will always be part of her.
The second self is the social self. This is the smiler and the doorkeeper and is fettered to a thousand notions of obligation.
The third self is the creative self. It is out of love with the ordinary and out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity. Oliver states that the third self is engaged in spiritual work.
The creative self must come first.
Mary Oliver writes:
It is six a.m. and I am working. I am absent minded, restless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be….My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all. (p.30)
Or, as Matthew puts it,
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven….for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt.6:19-20)
Mary Oliver, Upstream.
Richard Rohr, Jesus’ Plan for a New World: the Sermon on the Mount.