Ash Wednesday; Year A (3/5/2014)

Texts:Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12 Psalm 51:1-17 (1) 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10 St. Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and ever-living God, you hate nothing you have made, and you forgive the sins of all who are penitent. Create in us new and honest hearts, so that, truly repenting of our sins, we may receive from you, the God of all mercy, full pardon and forgiveness through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

6.1 [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. 2 So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 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.

16 “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. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 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. 19 Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

St. Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

Piety and Privacy

Every year I am struck by the irony. In many Christian traditions worshippers gather in the early morning hours for the first Eucharist of Lent. All are invited to approach the altar where they hear these words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” While they are spoken, the sign of the cross is made on the forehead with ashes, leaving a visible proclamation of one’s piety that, in many cases, is evident for an entire day of work or running errands around town. All this takes place while the Pastor reads these words from Jesus: “Beware of practicing your piety before others…”

This year the irony seems even greater. Tomorrow, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (if the weather holds, and if people continue to stop by…), Pastor Michelle de Beauchamp, Father Chris Ditzenberger and I have plans to be available at a booth near the local King Soopers Grocery Story where neighbors (and you, if you are anywhere near Greenwood Village tomorrow!) can stop by for prayers, conversations and the disposition of ashes. Right there in the middle of the parking lot at Belleview Square. Our piety, being practiced in the public square for everyone to see.

So what gives? Why do Christians begin Lent with this display of piety, even as Jesus seems to warn against it? Or better yet: why does the church both invite us to display this symbol of brokenness on our foreheads for others to see, and to consider these words from our Lord?

It has to be understood that Jesus, in fact, is an advocate of public piety. You will remember that less than a month ago we heard him say we are to be like salt which affects the food in which it is placed; like a city on a hill which cannot be hid; like a light which shines in the darkness (because nobody lights a lamp and places it under a bushel…). No, Jesus does not warn us against public displays of piety. He warns us against practicing our piety before others in order to be seen by them. In other words, Jesus here is not so much interested in what we do as in why we do it.

There is good reason to practice our piety in public. It is our evangelical witness. We are called to share the good news with others, who are more likely to take us seriously if there are visible signs that we are taking it seriously ourselves. But these acts are for our neighbor and not for us. As soon as it shifts to where we have something to gain (Oh, I hope she noticed that… I wonder what he is thinking about me… I wish they were all as faithful as I am…) the admonitions of Jesus come into play.

So we make public proclamation of our faith for the sake of others, and we bare our soul for God in the privacy of our own homes, and in both cases we “store up for [ourselves] treasures in heaven.” Will you join us in doing so this Lent?

David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week’s Gospel:

  1. Why is Jesus concerned that his disciples not be “like the hypocrites?”
  2. How do these words compare to what he says in St. Matthew 5:13-20?
  3. How can private piety “store up treasure in heaven?”

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:

  1. When is it appropriate for my piety (my faith) to be apparent to others?
  2. What faith practices are best done in the privacy of my own home?
  3. How well have I balanced the public and private aspects of my own piety?