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Learning to Live with an Audience of One - by Rev. Bill Dickson

Ash Wednesday, 2004
Learning to Live with an Audience of One
Rev. R. William Dickson
St. John the Divine, Houston, TX

Introduction: There's a quip about public speaking which I have always found quite startling and provocative. It goes this way ? "The first thing an inexperienced novice speaker does upon being invited to speak somewhere is to inquire about the topic ?"What is it I am to talk about?"; but the first thing a really expert speaker asks is 'Who is my audience?" It is simply impossible to communicate effectively without giving some serious consideration to the matter of your audience. You dare not address a group of fourth graders as you would a group of mature adults. It would be quite wrong-headed to address a gathering of scholars the same way you would speak to a group of blue-collar workers. You cannot communicate effectively without considering your audience. I doubt that anyone who has ever spoken publicly or anyone who has ever thought carefully about the task would dispute it. It is certainly true.

But I wonder if we have given adequate consideration to the critical importance of the audience of our lives. Before whom are we really living our lives? Who is the true audience before whom our time on the stage of life is performed? In our gospel text for today Jesus suggests there are but two options, and only one is acceptable to those who would be his disciples.

But before we consider Jesus' teaching about the true audience of the life of a disciple, we must consider the apparent contradiction between our gospel text and a few verses which occurred just moments earlier in this very same sermon of Jesus ? his famous sermon on the Mount. Doesn't it just drive you nuts when you're listening closely to your preacher and he or she says one thing at one point in the sermon and then at another point in the same sermon seems to directly contradict the earlier point? Which is it? Is it this or that? Is it yes or no? Has Jesus truly contradicted Himself?

Moments earlier, those listening to this remarkable exploration of life in the kingdom heard Jesus say this,

14 "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. 15 Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

So one question we must ask and answer immediately is this ? Is it good or is it bad for our good works to be seen by men? And from the verses in chapter 5, verse 16 in particular ? "16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." .. .

we simply have to conclude that it is good for our good works to be seen by men. In fact, rendering our good works entirely invisible before the world is about as misdirected as lighting a lamp and then immediately placing it under a bushel.

We cannot conclude that Jesus' meaning is that a truly Christian piety is an invisible piety, completely hidden away from the sight of others. And yet, we want to take his other language seriously too.

So what could it mean when he states,

1 "Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

If we have ruled out the possibility that Jesus is commending an entirely invisible piety, then we are left with no other possibility than to see a problem in the intended result of a certain self-consciously, deliberately public piety, a piety we might call "theatrical piety." The problem is not in our piety being seen by men, rather the problem is in intentionally doing those pious things in order to be seen by men.

Are we speaking in riddles, or does this in fact make sense? It seems to me Jesus is telling those of us who wish to follow as his disciples and live within the power and values of the kingdom of God even now, even right here, right now -- that we need to think of our lives as lived before an audience of one ? God alone. But lives lived with that kind of intentionality, that kind of sharply focused vision, will be lives which cannot help but shine out brightly in a dark and godless culture desperate for some light.

To whom are we answerable? To whom must we ultimately give an account? Who is it that we truly serve? There is but one answer if we would be followers of Jesus ? "It is the Lord and the Lord alone whom we serve." And to live otherwise is to invite a certain spiritual vertigo into our souls.

Elab. Some of you know, many of you don't that my wife, Ginger, has been sick recently. She has had a viral infection of the throat, sinuses and ears which has made it hard for her to stand up. She has been profoundly debilitated now for several days with a horrible sense of the world teetering and tottering unpredictably this way and that. She has been experiencing intense vertigo. She did the only reasonable thing, she went to the doctor. She paid Dick Stassney a visit. Dr. Stassney of course treated Ginger very thoroughly, very carefully and as she was leaving gave her a little booklet entitled "Dizziness or Vertigo? Understanding Balance Problems." Right here on the front you see a picture of a man experiencing dizziness or vertigo, and interestingly there is a picture of a little gyro-scope within his head. Apparently his inner ear, our biological gyro-scope is malfunctioning.

Well we have a spiritual gyro-scope too. And we can make it malfunction if we forget before whom we are really living our lives. Os Guinness, in his wonderful book *The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life,* in the chapter entitled "The Audience of One" says this about our spiritual gyro-scope,

"The Puritans lived as if they had swallowed gyroscopes; we modern Christians live as if we have swallowed Gallup polls. Or as Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, "in those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society." Leaders or panderers? Gyroscope or Gallup poll? Thermostat or thermometer? Only those who practice the presence of the Audience of One can hope to attain the former and escape the latter."

Conclusion: In moments, most of you will come forward to receive the imposition of ashes. A few of you will opt out, and that is perfectly fine, a perfectly proper thing to do if for any reason that is your preference. But for those receiving ashes upon the head, in fact, even those remaining seated and observing others receiving the mark of the cross upon the head, I wish to present before your imagination a challenge, a vision, an image of what we should be doing. Perhaps you and I must confess that we have not been entirely single-hearted in our view of our lives and the proper audience of our lives. Perhaps we have allowed from time to time the clamoring voices of the world and its countless special interest lobby groups to confuse us about our real audience. Our spiritual gyroscope has quit functioning rightly. As that cross is being marked upon our heads, let us pray to God that our spiritual gyroscopes planted deep within our hearts might be set right again. We would be God-pleasers, rather than men-pleasers. We would be those who acknowledge but One God, but one audience of our lives. We would be those so enthralled with a vision of our Lord and God that "Before others we have nothing to prove, nothing to gain, nothing whatsoever to lose." God, let it be so!


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