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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-12
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
Psalm 103 or 103:8-14

“Beware of practicing your piety before others,” the Gospel says. Compare these cautions about praying and giving alms in public, with what Jesus says in Matthew 5:16, only a few verses before: “Let your light so shine before men...”

Seeming conflict, isn't there? How do we “pray and give alms in secret,” and still “let our light so shine?”

This is like that perennial Ash Wednesday debate about what to do after the service. Do you wash your face, to avoid the appearance of public piety; or leave the ashes on your forehead, as a witness, a testimony of faith?

Let’s look back a bit more carefully at those scriptures. I find that when I listen carefully, I hear an emphasis that is the same in both passages. Listen:

"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.”

“Let your light so shine before people, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

Do you hear that? In the second passage, our purpose in “letting our light shine” is not to be noticed ourselves, but so that others can see God at work in us. We are instructed to be flashlights, if you will-- not uselessly pointing back in our own faces, but lighting the path ahead of us, to the Savior.

The same is true in the Gospel for today. Jesus is not discouraging piety; far from it. He doesn’t say “if” you give alms, or pray, or fast. He says “whenever” you do them. The assumption is that these are regular acts of devotion and self discipline, performed as an expected and everyday part of the life of a disciple. However, in this passage the emphasis is not on the acts themselves, but the reasons behind them. What Jesus seems to be speaking to here is not so much action, as intent. He is less concerned about what they do, than he is why they do it.

So, there’s the question to ask: Why are we doing what we do? And for whom? If we are practicing our piety in order to be seen, in order to earn the recognition and approval of those around us, then Jesus makes the point that receiving that approval is indeed our reward. We get what we hoped for.

And you know what? That’s precisely the problem. We get what we hope for... and our human hopes are so very narrow, compared to those offered us by our gracious and loving God. When we in our short-sightedness limit ourselves to our own aspirations, we miss out on so much of the radical hope of the Gospel: that in Jesus, through the cross and death and empty tomb, our hearts will be healed, and our lives made holy, and that the whole world will truly live as God’s children-- heirs of God, and fellow heirs with Christ.

And notice the reference point, in these passages: in both cases, Jesus is directing the focus of the action, pointing them toward “our Father in Heaven.” We are to be aware both of why we are doing, and for whom. Because when it comes right down to it, none of what we do (or don’t do) in the way of liturgy, or devotion, or ministry-- none of it is about us, at all. As we are reminded at the imposition of ashes, “we are but dust, and to dust we shall return.”

As disciples, all that we do, and all that we are, is about God, and what God has done for us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

So, about those ashes...

Are they left on your forehead to bear witness to your own piety, or to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, and our own mortality? Or, are they washed off because you feel their message in your heart is enough, or because you don’t want to explain the mark to friends and coworkers?

Why do we do what we do, and for whom?


Blogger Mark said...

Hey! That's my sermon. I saw it first!

Odd how we're on the same wavelength. ;-)

February 09, 2005 9:03 AM  

Blogger Reverend Ref + said...

Good job, sis. It's always good to ask people that question.

February 10, 2005 11:47 AM  

Blogger Don said...

Excellent Ash Wednesday sermon! Thanks for sharing it.

February 11, 2005 12:37 PM  

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