"Who sees in secret"-Sermon for Ash Wednesday, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21:
To leave our ashes on or to not leave our ashes on…tis the question. Now, as our Ash Wednesday service is in the evening at St. Julian’s, unless you are headed out to dinner or making some other stop on the way home tonight, this may not be such a relevant question. But honestly, I have asked this question of myself over the years. That is following an Ash Wednesday Service should I wear my ashes out into the world, as a sign that I am a follower of Jesus. That I am among those who are beginning to live into a special season of devotion that we know as Lent in preparation for the celebration of Jesus glorious resurrection that comes in about 7-weeks’ time. The ashes serving as a witness, if you will, that I am a Christian in an age when fewer and fewer people are claiming any sort of faith tradition. The ashes providing the opportunity to witness to my faith that God is real and that love wins…that though we are made of dust our lives are eternal and rest in the hands of a loving God. Make no mistake, the choice to wear our ashes out in the world makes a statement that our lives are not ours alone. And, doing so can act as some sort of invitation to others to ask me about my faith or just ask what that strange smudge mark on my forehead is…providing me the opportunity to, as Peter says, make an account of the faith that is alive in me. And perhaps ashes are even a bit more eye catching or dramatic than say wearing a cross necklace or the like…providing a special opportunity on this day to step out boldly with my faith into the public square…something we Episcopalians, in general, are not all that comfortable doing…if honest.
But, at the very same time, especially in the context of Jesus’ own teaching today in our Gospel lesson from Matthew…which is the reading we hear every single year at our Ash Wednesday Service…perhaps we should scrub those ashes off our foreheads just as soon as we get to our cars. For Jesus says, “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, he continues, in greater detail, saying, “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Now, one could glean from this, that Jesus would prefer us to, again, not wear our ashes in public…for following Jesus and his way of love is first and foremost a matter of the heart…a way of being…a choice of how we order our lives…how we spend our time and money…where we place our hope…how we care for a serve those around us…those we love and those who desperately need us…and not…and not something to parade around before others. For even if surely not our intention, we certainly do not want any outward appearance of our faith to be perceived as self-righteous…or to create distance or build any sort of barriers between ourselves and those who look, love, live and believe differently than we do.
Now, here’s the thing, I have actually set before us a false choice. Meaning that one choice is right and one is wrong…to in a sense pit the two options against each other. For whatever we do with our ashes after worship is really not the most important question…or that which Jesus is most concerned about. You see, it is important to note that in our Gospel lesson today Jesus is speaking to an audience who are all religious and who live among those who are all religious…they are all, or almost all, likely Jewish. Thus, Jesus is not primarily concerned with his audiences’ fundamental beliefs or the need to convert others to his particular brand of religion…nor do I believe he is overly concerned with their authentic expressions of piety…that is the outward appearances and practices of their faith. Applied to us that might include things like wearing a cross, or a clergy person wearing a collar, or wearing a shirt with your church’s name or your favorite bible verse on it, or praying before a meal at a restaurant, or ending a conversation with God bless you, or wearing our ashes out in the world on this special day. Instead, I believe what Jesus is most concerned with is what stands behind all the choices we make around our own piety. That is Jesus is concerned first and foremost with who we actually are…with the content of our character…with what lives within the deep well of our souls. For Jesus does not just say, “Beware of practicing your piety before others”… but “beware of practicing you piety before others…in order to be seen by them.” In other words, when your faith becomes all about you…when it is a feather in your own cap…when you think your faith somehow makes you superior to any other person…then, my friends, we got a problem. For the whole God seeing in secret thing is really all about God knowing our hearts. God seeing through all the facades…seeing through all the justifications…seeing through all the armor we wrap ourselves in to feel strong, safe and self-sufficient…to really see into the invisible places of our lives…to really see the very core of what makes us who we really are.
And, friends, this is the very purpose of our Ash Wednesday service. For the ashes and dust are to remind us that, at the beginning and end of all things, we humans are all the same. We are all made up of the same stuff…we all live by grace alone…we are all fully dependent on God’s love for purpose, meaning and eternal life...me as much as you…and you as much as me. And in coming to that glorious revelation, we are free to stop comparing ourselves to others to determine our worth. We are free from the original sin of trying to recreate one another in our own image. We are free from the constant need to judge…others and ourselves. We are free to let all of that yuck go and, instead, look inward…to self-examine…to do the good soul work of finding God’s life within us and then partner with that love to be and become ourselves the very person God created us to be when God breathed life into the dust from which we were first made. If we really care about participating with God in the resurrection of this world into the beloved community of which God dreams, the work always begins with ourselves…on the inside…the continued conversion of our own hearts and minds into the very image of love. It is for this work that the Season of Lent exists that we begin together even now.
You see, when we enter any space or place…especially when we share it with others…friends or strangers…our presence and what accompanies our presence profoundly impacts that space and those with whom we share it. So, what do we bring with us? Our physical appearance does make a statement, with or without ashes or other similar symbols of our faith, but way more so, it is what you can’t see that we bring with us that matters the most…our authenticity, our kindness, our joy, our openness, our expressions, our words…these have the ability to transform the tiny world we inhabit…and all who we inhabit it with in any particular moment in time…for good and for God. And, you are more wonderful and impactful and important and powerful than you could ever know.
My Physics Professor brother-in-law would remind us that there are countless atoms within any visible speck of dust…and each unseen atom is full of almost limitless power. As we move around in our lives and as we interact with others, the most important question is how are we continuously shaping such great power, the power of love that was at the beginning and created all things, as it exists in our own lives for good and for God…that we might be among those who bring hope and energy and joy to the world and the people around us. And, this work, that we commit to in the Season of Lent, always begins, again, in the unseen places that make up who we are…on the inside…in our own hearts and minds.
Over time, I have come to conclusion that, just speaking for myself, I should wear my ashes out into the world. But if I am to do so, what must accompany it is a person striving for authenticity…a person who humbly acknowledges God’s life and love in the other…a person who leads with kindness…quick to smile and happy to help. And, that, my friends, will always be a matter of the heart…the unseen life of the Spirit that lives within us. Thus, our willingness to work on that…a willingness to shape the unimaginable power of love that lives in us more and more for good and for God…for the very life of the world…that is and will always be…the most important question. Amen.