I remember, as probably everyone who ever learned to play an instrument, countless hours playing scales. Up and down they went. Each run moving to a new note and then running up another series and then another move and then another run… all within the same pattern of sharps or flats. And to be honest at the time, the notion of scales seemed completely inane. Wasn’t the point of learning an instrument so that I could make music? And I remember at one point in high school band, during a part of the year when the director had us all practice scales and then play them for a grade (those days made for sheer tedium, I tell you as every person played through the same scale, not all the brilliantly). I was to play a scale in either F#- or G ♭-major and I was not real keen on dealing with all of those sharps or flats. And a friend sitting down in the tuba section (who knew far more music theory than I did), gave me a trick. He told me I could play the scale of F- or G-major, which was far easier since I only had to deal with one sharp or one flat. Well it worked. The band director, whose ear was not able to tell the difference (thankfully it was not my wife judging the scale; she would have known). I won. The idiotic scales had been bypassed and all was well. Of course, I got an “A.”
But I only cheated myself. Later on, playing with friends who were phenomenal musicians, as I attempted jazz, I discovered the scales were essential. They were the building blocks of the music. Being familiar with the scales led to being able to string together phrases and runs that worked in the key you were given. Trying to look good for and pull a fast one over on my director short-circuited the process. The practice of playing scales is a discipline that has been around for so long because it forms musicians into being able to know how the music fits together and then they are able to turn around and make it.
That’s how disciplines work. They train us in particular habits. The modern world tells us if we get our minds around something, our bodies will follow. This idea is exactly the opposite of how most things are taught. We practice and practice and practice, training our bodies and then our minds often grasp it. Music. Athletics. Chess. And faith. Our life of faith also involves discipline. Habits and practices that lead us to understand our relationship with God more than we could by simply reading about such things.
The passage from Matthew has Jesus urging us to beware of misusing the practices and disciplines we are given. Don’t just try to look good and pious while doing them. But do them. When you pray. When you fast. When you give alms. That is the language that Jesus employs here. Here in Lent, engaging in the Lenten discipline or prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we are given means to engage God and our neighbor with distinct bodily acts. These practices are at their very core, penitential practices because they stand against much of the brokenness of the world. We give alms to ease the suffering of fellow human beings, and point to the time when God will end all suffering. We fast to stand against a world that tells us to consume as much as possible, while God encourages us to rely on him alone, partaking in what is sufficient so that all may be fed, as we know God will make happen one day. We pray to enter into a fuller relationship with the one who is author of all life, who this world says is at best absent or at worst non-existent. Prayer and worship become key in our discipline for they help bring sense to all the others. As we enter into that intimate conversation with the Almighty, we remember all that he has done; we repent of the ways we have said “no” to him; and we return to his “yes” for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Gracious God, out of your love and mercy you breathed into dust the breath of life, creating us to serve you and our neighbors. Call forth our prayers and works of mercy, and strengthen us to face our mortality with confidence in the mercy of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.