As we are learning together about "Engaging God in Our Daily Life," we depend on creative, applicable and transformative messages about how God is involved in each and every day of our lives. Our sermons are common between our Sunday services and are presented in ways that accentuate the various styles of worship we experience at St. John's.

Sermon from Ash Wednesday

Because of the weather conditions in Spartanburg, evening worship was cancelled for Ash Wednesday. Pastor Emily's sermon, the first in a series on Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, is below.

“Do not be like the hypocrites,” Jesus tells us, not once, not twice, but three times. Do not be like the hypocrites. We know that this is a good teaching, that these are words that give life, but it is so hard for us to do. Even for St. Paul, this was nearly impossible. “I do not do the good that I want,” he writes, “but the evil I do not want is what I do.” If Paul, the outspoken preacher of our faith, the one who spent his life traveling, preaching the good news, and writing letters that became Scripture, couldn’t keep himself on track, of course the rest of us struggle.

We hear this, too, as one of the reasons people give for not going to church. “It’s just full of hypocrites,” they say. As one of the pastors in my campus ministry said, “Of course the church is full of hypocrites. The only two options are hypocrisy and being proud of your sin. Hypocrisy at least realizes that there is a better way, even if it can’t follow it.”

It’s not that we mean to be hypocrites. It just happens. We love our family members, but they’re also the ones closest at hand to receive a harsh word that just flies out of our mouths. We try not to speak ill of others, but sometimes our annoyance gets the best of us. We really do want to eat better, but then we see our favorite thing on the menu. Our best intentions go out the window so easily. Our willpower just can’t be strong enough for all of the things we want and need to do.

The solution to our hypocrisy is discipline. It’s a set of practices that allow for change to happen within us. Through the Spiritual disciplines, we are making room in our lives for God to unite the inner person and the outer one.

The people that Jesus points out, the hypocrites, aren’t doing anything wrong as such. They are praying, fasting, and giving alms. But their reasons are wrong. They are doing it for their own gain, to show other people how good they are. Because these reasons aren’t love, God doesn’t give them the credit they want. Their outsides look good, but their insides aren’t right. They haven’t been transformed by God into new creations.

The idea of discipline isn’t, I hope, going to be a shock to many of you. Discipline is something we do when we have a long term goal. It’s how we separate what we want right now from what we want in the future. We discipline our financial lives when we save up for a house or a car rather than getting something small today. Athletes train their bodies by getting up and exercising even when they aren’t in the mood for it. Students discipline their minds by reading and math problems, by learning to think in new patterns. In this season of Lent, we will be learning more about how our spirits can be disciplined.

This isn’t impossible and it isn’t meant to induce guilt. God is in us, calling us to deeper relationship with him. God wants to transform us. We are all beginners at this, even when we’ve been at it for years. There is always room to grow and there always will be until we see God face to face.

This Lent, we’ll be looking at ways to connect the dots between what we do and who we are. We’ll study six of the disciplines discussed in Celebration of Discipline, a book by Richard Foster. In our Bible Studies on Wednesday, we’ll look at the other 6. We’ll also dig deeper into these things in one of our Sunday School classes, though all of our Sunday options help us know Christ better.


There are a couple of things we need to be aware of as we dig into these things. First, disciplines are not laws. They are opportunities, but they cannot be mandated because that’s not how love works. You can’t command love and you can’t command these disciplines. More importantly, they are means to an end, not ends in themselves. Prayer is good because it leads us to Christ. Fasting is good because it leads us to Christ. The end goal is always Jesus.

Prayer is the discipline set before us today. It is the backbone of the Christian life. When we are alone, we pray. When we are together, we pray. The connection to God is why we exist and how we are sustained. Foster writes that “prayer brings us into the deepest and highest work of the human spirit” because prayer is life-creating and life-changing.

There are many ways of praying. All ways of being together with God for the purpose of being with God are good, just as there are no wrong ways to be together with a spouse or a friend. Seriousness and silliness are fine. Silence is fine and so is speech. As long as the goal is making room to listen to and speak to God, prayers are good prayers.

One important type of prayer is praying, or interceding, for others. It requires the confidence that God listens to us and that the world can be changed. If we believe that there is no hope, we see talking with God as a waste of our time. But if we believe that God can and will change things (according to his will and in his time), then prayer becomes crucial for us as we care for one another.

In praying for one another, a few steps can be helpful. We begin by listening for God, letting ourselves tune in to the Holy Spirit the way a radio tunes in a station. We focus our minds, letting the people for whom we need to pray come clearly into focus. Sometimes, God will even suggest someone we didn’t have in mind when we sat down! We look upon those people with compassion and love and we pray for them.

Sometimes, structures can be a real help to us, especially as we are learning to pray. Structures train our minds, help us remember what is important. The five-finger prayer that is featured in today’s prayer station in the parlor is one such structure. Another is ACTS, Adoration-Confession-Thanksgiving-Supplication. One that we don’t often think of as an outline is the Lord’s Prayer. By praying each petition slowly and separately, adding in our own concerns and hopes, we remember the ways that Jesus teaches us to pray and the things that God holds dear.

At other times, structures might get in the way. Sometimes, just sitting in the presence of God is all we need. Sometimes, it’s all we can do. That’s fine, too. Prayer doesn’t need to be complicated. Ultimately, it is the conversation between Lover and Beloved.

From time to time, we will find that we do not have a sense of God’s presence when we pray. These dry times may be a sign that we need to change our method of prayer. They may be a sign that we have more to learn about connecting with God. It can be easy to fear when God seems silent; such times may be no more than a lost connection. Remember that God wants to hear from us, that it is God who is teaching us to talk with him.

Prayer grounds us in our relationship with God and connects us, through God, to one another and the whole world. It is not a retreat from the real world, but a strong connection with the highest reality. As we come together to pray and as we sit apart lifting our hearts to God, we trust that the God who sees in secret rewards us with attention and love.

Through all the disciplines, we make room in our lives to be attentive to God. God graciously responds by transforming us from the inside out. The hypocrisy that plagues our lives is able to change, slowly but surely, into a unity of joy and love. God’s great desire for us is love. Love toward him, love from him, and love toward and from each other. Let us love one another as Christ has loved us.


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