Ash Wednesday: Sleight of Hand

(Note: I preached this sermon at Messiah Lutheran Church on Ash Wednesday, 2014)

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I have an incurable fascination with illusion. I grew up loving those eye-tricking drawings by M.C. Escher, the ones where the staircase is going up and down at the same time, that kind of thing. I love special effects in movies. I love stories about con men and con women. I even enjoy meeting them myself and trying to figure out what they’re doing.

But I especially enjoy sleight of hand. When I was a boy I went to see the magic show of Penn and Teller. They did a trick called “Looks Simple,” and they used it to show the audience the ways that a sleight-of-hand illusion works. You can palm an item–put it in your hand while your hand appears empty. Ditching is putting the palmed object somewhere else. Stealing it means to retrieve it, and so on. And in the end these turn out to be ways of moving an object from one hand to another hand, or to another place, without the person who watches you knowing it. The people who are really good at this are astonishing. Really, it’s some of the lowest-tech entertainment around and it is still thrilling to me every time. The illusionist appears to be acting normally, but in fact he or she is engaged in a complex fabrication that requires close coordination of right and left, mind and body.

“Whenever you give alms,” Jesus says, “do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and the 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.”

So Jesus tells his followers in this central passage of his longest sermon. It’s a beautiful passage, urging us to be forgetful of ourselves and our status before the world and to live fully for God. And it is a terrible insight into the power of the sleight of hand.

In order to understand what Jesus means here, you need to imagine your right hand as the “good” hand. Your right hand gives alms to the poor. Your right hand seeks to do good in the world. Your right hand wants to pray. Your right hand wants to be purified through fasting.

Now imagine your left hand as the “bad” hand. Your left hand wants you to keep everything for yourself. Your left hand wants you to act without any regard for others. Your left hand is heedless of God.

And the problem with religion, Jesus is saying, is that it can become a sleight of hand. It becomes a way to pass something from one hand to another. And so my selfish desire for praise starts in my left hand, but it gets moved ever so secretly to my right hand, in the form of the giving of alms or the saying of prayers. And now I’m doing something good! Nobody saw the switch, from one hand to the other. More importantly, I didn’t even see the switch myself.

Jesus calls people who do this hypocrites, meaning those who stand in judgment under their own stated morals. I have a hard time throwing the word “hypocrisy” around, partly because it could be easily thrown at me. So if you prefer, a more modern term might be “rationalization.” This is the way we give ourselves a reason for doing something we already want to do. It’s where the right hand, the good hand with good motives and godly impulses, steals a desire that began in the left hand, and makes it seem–to the world and to us–like the noblest thing in the world.

We all do this–there’s no point in pretending we don’t. I’ll mention just one example, from the book we’re reading in adult forum right now. It’s called Pastrix, by Nadia Bolz-Weber. It’s a good example of Lutheran writing because it is full of instances in which someone, usually the author, is rationalizing a very un-Christ-like behavior or attitude. When Nadia, the writer, was estranged from her childhood faith and with it from her parents, she writes that they would tell her, Nadia, come and visit us. After all, we won’t be seeing you in heaven.

Now this is a very angry, hurtful, aggressive thing to say to someone, but it’s phrased in such pious language. Oh, this is all about God and heaven and how much we want to be with you, not about how angry and confused I am by your behavior. And I’ll just slip that anger and confusion and that desire to wound you into my pious, God-fearing right hand and give it to you that way. Because I’m a good Christian person.

You see this all the time. It’s amazing how often people convince themselves that they are doing something stupid or hurtful or dangerous because God really wants them to, or they are somehow morally entitled to do it. And it’s because we want to be good. We want to be faithful. If we can’t bear to look at that desire or that motive sitting there all ugly in our left hand, we will ditch it somewhere and pick it up with the right hand.

Today we begin the journey of Lent, and as part of that journey it is my task to tell you to be better people. Change your minds, be renewed in the gift of baptism, renounce your destructive ways and open yourself to God through giving, through prayer, and through fasting. And yes, you should do all these things.

But before we commit to being good, I want us also to take a moment and commit to being bad. Commit to being honestly bad. Commit to being bad without rationalization. Commit to looking that left-handed motive straight on.

I did not earn that fifth Girl Scout cookie–I just want it. My impossible boss did not make it ok for me to get drunk today–I just want to. God isn’t calling me to leave my husband for someone else–I just want to.

Because the world is broken and we are broken, and God knows that. God heals the illness of our souls, God mends brokenness upon brokenness God forgives sin after sin. But it is much harder for us to receive God’s healing if we do not acknowledge that we are ill. It is much harder for us to be mended by God if we deny that we are broken. It is much harder for us to experience forgiveness if we do not accept that we’ve been guilty of something. God knows us through and through, but we can not know God better than we know ourselves. St. Augustine asks God in his book Confessions, “Could anything remain hidden in me, even though I did not want to confess it to you? In that case, I would only be hiding you from myself, not myself from you.”

So be bad. Because being bad opens the door to God’s goodness to us. For the ill person, fasting is a blessing. For the broken person, giving alms is godly. For the sinner, prayer is a relief. God is there in all of those things waiting to be known and seen and touched and tasted. God is in you now, in both hands, wishing to be known and seen and touched and tasted.


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