Have you ever seen an actor ask, “What’s my motivation?” Usually it’s in a comedy movie, poking fun at various actors who take their craft a bit too seriously. The particular acting strategy that uses this is called method acting, and method acting is particularly well known for asking the actors to get into the mind of the character and try to understand the psychological motivations behind what they are doing.

Now, you might be wondering why I’m talking about acting during Ash Wednesday, particularly when the Gospel reading seems to be all about hypocrisy.

The reason for it, is that in Matthew’s gospel, the word that is translated as “hypocrites” is actually the word for “stage actors.” … That’s right. “Stage Actors.”

You can see the link between stage actors and hypocrites if you look at what hypocrites do. A hypocrite will look you in the eye and tell you the one thing that they consider to be their highest priority in life, and they will speak with passion about how to accomplish these things, they will adamantly profess that others must hold their lives to the same standards as what they profess, and they will judge those who fail to do so. … All while they do the exact opposite of what they profess so passionately and loudly.

In essence, they are acting. They are getting into the mind of someone who truly believes, and they are professing what they think needs to be professed, but they are only acting. And when the audience is gone, when the audience is no longer watching, then they do as they please. And usually directly contrary to what they profess to be true.

And as long as they don’t get caught, then, as the Gospel says, “they have received their reward.” If it is the accolades and praise of people they want, then as long as they are able to keep up the front, they will have received what they were looking for. If what they are trying to do is to “look good,” and if they have managed it, then by all means, let them rejoice in “looking good.”

But this is neither the purpose of Lent, nor the desire of God for our lives. This passage in the Gospel of Matthew tells us that what we do, we ought to do in secret. Not for the accolades of others, but for the Father, who sees in secret, and who will reward us.

In other words, we are to ask, “What’s my motivation?” 

We are to turn our judgements not outward, but inward, and question ourselves and why we do the things we do. Are we motivated more by the trappings of this world? Or are we motivated by those things that bring about the Kingdom of God in this world? That is, are we motivated by power, control, wealth and prestige? Or are we motivated by the Good News of Christ, and the joys of our salvation?

Now. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that any of the things of this world are inherently wrong or sinful. Not at all. It is the direction of our hearts that Jesus is concerned about. This Gospel passage today comes at the tail end of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus says things like, ‘You have heard it said … but I say to you.” And in each case he takes away the dichotomy of right and wrong, and presents us with another option. Rather than doing things out of the fear of punishment, we are to do them from a place of compassion, and a love for God and our neighbors – whether or not we receive any recognition for what we do.

In other words, we are to ask, “What’s my motivation?”

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. We spend this season of penitence seeking to understand ourselves in the light of God’s mercy and grace, and what our response to that mercy and grace should be.

The traditional display of repentance in the Old Testament was to wear sackcloth and put ashes on one’s head. It was an outward display that said: “I have sinned, and I am attempting to repent of my wrong, and to adjust the motivation of my heart.”

As we come forward today to receive our ashes, if we recognize that some of our motivations in life have missed the mark of loving God and our neighbor, let us repent and seek restoration with God and our neighbor, remembering that when we do, God is faithful and just, and will forgive us of all our sins.

[This sermon was delivered at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Wickenburg, AZ on February 14, 2024.]

About Michael

Mike was called to be the Vicar of St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Wickenburg, AZ, and started this call on February 1, 2024. Before taking a call as clergy, Mike worked in IT for almost 25 years, variously working as a back- and front-end web developer, database developer and manager, and as a business analyst. If he's not engaged in the work of the church, you can find him on a motorcycle, enjoying the ride, or training for an upcoming BikeMS ride. Mike holds a Bachelor of Arts in Classical History from Seattle Pacific University, and a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary. He attended Sewanee School of Theology for a year of Anglican Studies in the Fall of 2022, and graduated in May of 2023. Mike was ordained as a Transitional Deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona on January 20th, 2024, and will be ordained to the priesthood on July 27, 2024.

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