Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. (Matt. 6:20)
Everybody knows that Lent is a time of reflection, repentance, prayer, study, fasting and almsgiving. But why do we do this? The Episcopal answer is often, “Because we’ve always done it that way.”
So, let’s ask another question. Why do we keep doing this? Or more precisely, what’s the point?
In today’s Gospel (Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21), Jesus warns us not to treat these spiritual practices like a Spiritual Rewards Program.
Some credit card companies encourage customers to use their cards by offering rewards points. With each purchase you accumulate points that can be exchanged for flights or hotel rooms or cash once you have reached a minimum threshold of accumulated points.
You use the card in order to get something you want in return. Jesus clearly warns us against praying or almsgiving to win the praise of other people as if our spiritual practices were a kind of spiritual rewards program.
This is hardly news. We all know that Jesus is not interested in phony piety. Your heart has to be in the right place.
Going to church on Sunday to impress your boss or to please your girlfriend misses the central point.
Giving alms to the poor all the while thinking that your social position or material comforts or career success makes you better than them is equally misguided.
Doing the right thing morally, or making a habit of pious spiritual practices, so that other people will think highly of us or so that we can get ahead socially or politically or even economically is a waste of our time.
Jesus is more than uninterested. To borrow a phrase from Anne Lamott, “It makes Jesus want to drink gin right out of the cat dish.”
What some people seem to miss is that Jesus is not interested in a spiritual rewards program at all. Even with God.
Jesus says, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” (Matt. 6:20) But he does not mean, “Score some points with God.”
Some Christians pray and give alms and study the Bible because they think that they are accumulating points with God by doing it. In fact, they have been taught that this is exactly what discipleship looks like.
They believe that they are accumulating points with God in his spiritual rewards program. If they don’t reach the bonus threshold, they will not get what they want.
What a misconception! On two counts:
First, they make God just a means to some end that they want: blessings in this life, a more enlightened or tranquil soul, or paradise in the next life. Strictly speaking, they are idol worshippers and don’t even know it. They worship the idol of earthly blessings or personal growth or eternal bliss. If they could get these things but God would be out of the picture, that would be fine by them.
Second, this is just not how grace works. Jesus has already died for us on the Cross. We are already recipients of perfect love and unmerited mercy. There are no points to accumulate.
So if there are no points to accumulate, why go to all this trouble?
Jesus is not telling us that spiritual practices will win us big rewards when we get to heaven. Instead, he is telling us that spiritual practices help us to treasure the only thing that will make this life really worth living.
God already loves us. The only challenge left to those of us who follow Jesus is to love God back and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
That’s right, the Summary of the Law reminds us of the goal of our entire existence: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt. 22:37-39)
Our spiritual practices do not prove to God that we love him and each other more than ourselves or anything else. We might successfully fool one of our neighbors, but God is pretty clear that we have a long way to go on this score.
When Jesus says, “Your Father who sees in secret,” he means that the Father sees not only what we do and say on the outside. As we read in 1 Samuel, “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (16:7)
God sees the heart. He sees our intentions and our motives. He sees the thoughts we keep from others and even the ones we try to keep from ourselves.
We are forever giving our heart and soul and mind to something less than God when only God will do.
We slip into thinking that success or material comfort or sex appeal or notoriety or entertainment or physical pleasure will make life worth living, give us the sense that all is right with the world, or just fill that nagging emptiness.
We give our hearts to our career and other’s opinions of us and even to sporting events ahead of God.
We know better. We just need help getting our focus back. Remembering who is really worthy of our hearts. Again and again.
Spiritual practices are just that: practice at loving God and loving neighbor.
We have all heard that practice makes perfect. But this is the remarkable thing about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
God is not waiting for us to prove that we love him perfectly by praying just so or by spending this or that amount of time in Bible study or even serving at the homeless shelter just enough times. This is not one more way to win points with God.
God knows that our spiritual practices will not make us perfect. Ever. He loves us just the way we are. And He loves us too much to leave us the way we are.
God has done for us what we can never do for ourselves. On the Cross, Jesus has loved the Father perfectly by obeying him unto death. And he has loved us perfectly by dying for us when we didn’t deserve it.
Jesus has accumulated an infinite number of points with the Father. And he has given them to you and to me.
We receive the reward for what Jesus has done. Our spiritual practices this Lent—and throughout the year—do not win us any points from God. There are no more points to win.
All our praying and studying and fasting and almsgiving merely keep our wandering hearts focused on who is really worthy of the hearts that Jesus has already redeemed.
This sermon was preached Ash Wednesday, February 22, 2012, at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Shreveport, La.