Returning with Grace

Crossofashes[1]

Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

And so today we arrange our schedules in order to come to church and have a dark cross of ash smeared upon our foreheads so that everyone around us can see how holy we are!

But Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”

Does anyone else see the irony here?  What’s really going on here?

Why does the church encourage us to come to church on this day along with everyone else in order to engage in a public act of piety?

For that matter—since we’re here—why does the church encourage us to fast on this day?  Did you know that?  The Episcopal Church—the mainline denomination that offers us so little direct instruction about how to live our lives—recommends that we fast on two days of the year: Ash Wednesday (today); and Good Friday.  Cf. BCP p. 17.

Again, if we follow this recommendation to fast on Ash Wednesday together, then aren’t we fasting publicly?  Aren’t we engaging publicly in an act of piety?

But doesn’t the Gospel passage fly in the face of public acts of piety?  In fact, this Gospel passage was appointed to our lectionary by church leaders.  Why would they do such a thing?  Why would they assign a text on this day (of all days of the year!) that calls us to avoid engaging in public acts of piety?  What’s really going on here?

The 2009 movie The Soloist tells the story of a Los Angeles newspaper journalist looking for a news story that will boost his public image.

He’s been a hot-shot journalist in the past, with praises sung by others in the field, etc.; but now things aren’t going so well.  Not only is the newspaper industry in decline; but also he just can’t seem to write the stories that sell anymore.

And on top of that his personal life is coming unraveled: his wife is divorcing him and his grown son is effectively estranged from him.  If only he can write a riveting story, he thinks, then he will get back in the good graces of the public eye.

So, with these motivations he sets out to find a human interest story.  After some searching he finds what he thinks is a sure winner: a Julliard-trained cellist who is now homeless.  He will befriend this homeless person and tell L. A. his story through his eyes.

Somewhere along the lines, however, the journalist’s motivations change.  Somewhere along the lines, as he gets to know the homeless cellist, he goes from using him in order to get back into the public eye’s good graces to actually wanting to help him.  Somewhere along the lines his motivation changes from self-aggrandizement to charity focused on another human being, a person who—homeless or not—deserves respect and dignity.

No longer is landing a good story his goal; but the well-being of another person.

Through a public act of piety, despite his initial motivations, this L. A. journalist is transformed.

Now, let’s talk about what motivates us for a bit.

We live in an image-conscious culture.  How you look, the clothes you wear; how you present yourself, your body language; how straight or crooked your teeth are; how much or how little hair you have; how thin or not-so-thin you are; even what kind of car you drive—all these things, like it or not, communicate a lot of information about you.

Wasn’t it some rock star that said, “You don’t know how long it takes me to make my hair look like I just rolled out of bed”?

We want to look good.  We want others to think we look good.  We want others who we think look good to like us.  And so on.

We live in a culture that continually tells us, “It’s all about you.”

But today, together, as we participate in this public act of piety, it’s actually a chance to reorient ourselves from the culture’s message.  Today, as we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” God is reminding us that it’s not about you.

Ash Wednesday is not about earthly accolades.  It’s not about what we do or don’t do.  It’s not about whether we engage in acts of piety that are public or private.  It’s not about whether anyone notices you or not, or about whether you’re communicating the right message or not.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Ash Wednesday is about repentance.  It marks the beginning of Lent, a time of special devotion, a time of personal transformation, a time of grace-filled return to our Lord Jesus Christ.

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