Lenten Devotional on Matthew 6:1-18
By Rev. Andy Woodworth

Here we are on Ash Wednesday, kicking off the Lenten season - and the lectionary plops us right down in the hard part of the Sermon on the Mount (not that there is an easy part). This is a season when we prepare for the mystery and sometimes unthinkable miracle of resurrection - either personally or communally - by reflecting on our humanity, our embodiedness, our relationship and connection to the earth, to dirt, to dust, to ash. And to get into this mindset some of us might be taking on some kind of fast - abstaining from something chaining our hearts or minds - or taking up a practice of generosity - giving our time to new practices, habits, awarenesses that model our new life. Shifting gears for a season to say no to some things or yes to other things is healthy and can help us get out of our spiritual ruts. But dang, Jesus - what is this stuff about the hypocrites? Are you saying we have to do all these things privately - or even secretly? 

What does this mean for us as Justice-Seeking people of faith - we who engage in so many collective actions to protest, boycott, engage, educate, advocate? So much of our work for justice is by necessity social action - it doesn’t work if we keep it a secret! We want to spark movements, to spark conversations, to have people notice what we are doing and respond - so that we can move forward into a more beloved community. 

But I think Jesus is pointing out something else that at least I need to hear as a Justice-Seeking human - that ultimately this work of pursuing justice, righteousness, beloved community for each and every creation of the Living One is not about performance, it is about motivation. Maybe it is just me - but so many times I start circling my mental drain with thoughts like: “Does this choice make me look progressive enough? How will people criticize this action or this statement - am I unaware of some justice concern and I am going to look uninformed or unenlightened?” I can get really, really down in my feels and stuck in both my thinking and in my actions when I am most concerned about what I’m doing looks like to other folks. 

In his fine book How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity by Rev. Morgan Guyton - he talks about the term hypocrites as “performers.” In Greek drama, those performing a role wore a “persona” - a mask - and were called “hypokrites” or stage actors. Jesus is cautioning against a way of performing faith or piety or (dare I say it) justice-seeking that is only surface deep, only for the appearance, only for the “likes,” retweets, attention, or approval of others. Guyton encourages a practice of authenticity and simplicity in our worship, in our fasting, in our generosity - and I would add, in our work to seek justice in our world. 

So where does this leave us? I think Jesus brings us the answer in verses 5-15 concerning prayer (thanks, Jesus!) Prayer helps us focus on our connection to the Source of Life, on our connection and solidarity with those around us, particularly the poor and those who suffer. Prayer helps us undertake the work of what Dr. King called “self purification” that was a critical step in engaging in non-violence. Prayer helps us discover the truth that God is the one who justifies our being, not the opinions of others, even others within our movement. And connection with the Eternal Heart helps us press on when haters hate and naysayers say nay. Prayer - focused attention on God’s dream for humanity and indeed all of creation - helps us focus on the goal of the restoration of all things, not on the choppy seas of public opinion. We work for justice because this is what things will be like in God’s Beloved Kindom Community, and we might as well get living like this now as practice, if nothing else. We work for justice because God has embraced us and is employing us to further God’s purposes to liberate the oppressed, to bind up the folx the world calls sinners, to bring the dead to life. Focusing on God’s radiant love in prayer seems like the best way I know to recalibrate our motivations as we prepare for the new, full, real life God is calling forth from and among all of us. May this Lent be renewing, restorative, and refocusing for us all as we prepare, as we seek justice, and as we pray. Amen.

Rev. Andy Woodworth along with Rev. Anjie Peek Woodworth serve as Co-Pastors at Neighborhood Church in Atlanta, GA.  Neighborhood Church is a Justice Seeking Congregation.