an ash wednesday homily
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
We come together today to mark our entrance into the season of Lent, the season of penitence and fasting. Our entrance into this season is marked with a somber reminder of our own mortality, a constant desire to seek forgiveness for the sins of our lives, a sense that we are making an inward turn to reflect on self in order to grow into the call that God asks us to live into in our lives. We mark this entrance with a Gospel that instructs us to take care as we enter this season. This Gospel instructs us in a particular way in order to emphasize an important piece of our faith formation: that our faith formation is centered upon our personal, private journeys with God, definitely supplemented, watered, and given room to grow in the public worship that we enjoy together, but ultimately deeply personal and deeply private as we enter into conversation with God about the very foundations of our understanding. This season of Lent, a season focused on penitence, fasting, and preparation is uniquely appropriate for our own personal examinations of faith, belief, our spirituality and the relationships that we have with our neighbor, with God, and importantly, with our own selves.
Jesus warns of practicing piety “in order to be seen.” This is not a rebuke on praying in public. It is not a rebuke on being a faithful person who people recognize as a faithful person through the actions of their life. It is a rebuke on piety for the sake of piety. It is a rebuke on lifting up the importance of the piety without doing the foundational work that can only be done between you and God. When Jesus warns against sounding trumpets or praying out loud in the synagogue or on the street corner, Jesus is warning us against drawing attention to ourselves in order to make ourselves look better, feel more important, receive higher praise from those who observe us, because it throws up a barrier between you and God, rather than opening a channel between you and the Father.
When you put a cross necklace on, do you do it for the purpose of reminding yourself of your faith and the need to be in constant communication with God or do you do it to draw people’s attention to your own piety?
Is the customized license plate or bumper sticker with Bible verse or declaration of judgment done to deepen your faith and relationship with God, or is its purpose to declare to the world that you are better, more holy, more righteous?
When politicians declare their faith in public, from the stump speeches on the campaign trail to the nationally televised debates, do they do so because they are preaching the Good News, or do they do so because they are using others’ faith as a tool to garner attention and votes to better their political capital?
When I put on this collar every day, I have to ask myself if I am doing it as a sign of my own personal piety, or am I doing it as a sign of my openness and availability to sit and listen to the heart of someone that needs a kind ear. When you get ashes today and go back out into the world, you are being asked this same question. Does the mark on your forehead signify to you a promise to enter into this season ready to do the hard work of listening deeply to God, in whatever form he or she may come into your life, or do you seek out this mark because it is what you are supposed to do, so that others may not judge you for not having it. It is perfectly ok if the answer is the latter and not the former. It is perfectly ok because this is a moment to recognize that, to seek repentance for it, and to prepare yourself to enter into this season of life anew, ready to restart your journey with God.
When we practice the piety of our faith “in order to be seen” we are inviting others to praise us for the sake of being praised. Not only does this not serve to deepen our relationship with God, but it actively serves to harm our relationship with God. It is quite hard to hear the voice of God when your impression of yourself, and the faint praise you receive, drown out the still small voice deep within our hearts. When we practice the piety of our faith “in order to be seen” we are telling others and we are telling God that our treasure lies in the praise and adulation (or at the very least the attention) of others, and when our treasure lies in the attention of others, our heart can only be fed through that vicious cycle. And it is a vicious cycle because it forces us to fight harder and harder for attention, to make grander attempts at garnering others’ attention, because it will never fill the hole we have in our hearts that can only be filled when we turn to God and listen to that voice which can only be found in the deeply personal, quiet conversations we hold in our hearts.
However, we must be careful that we don’t swing too far the other way either. Jesus tells us to “not look dismal” when we fast, when we enter into the periods of reflection, penitence, forgiveness seeking. The purpose of penitence, the purpose of introspection, the purpose of profoundly personal conversations with God, is not to bring to the fore how terrible and awful we are. And, it is certainly not intended for us to show the world how terrible and awful we are. The true purpose of penitence, introspection, forgiveness seeking is to find your authentic self with God. It is in authenticity that we find our deeper selves. It is in authenticity that we find our deeper connection to God.
When we put forth our authentic selves into the world, it does not draw loud attention to us for the sake of drawing attention, nor does it hold our piety, our holiness, higher than any other person’s. Instead, finding our authentic self and reflecting that self to the world looks like the person who lends a hand to a fallen stranger and then slips away unknown. Sharing our authentic self and reflecting that self to the world looks like preparing a warm meal for a family grieving the loss of a loved one. Sharing our authentic self and reflecting that self to the world looks like each and every one of us that has helped a friend, a stranger, a neighbor, a loved one, in a time of need, not because we wanted their praise but because it was simply the right thing to do.
It is in finding our authentic selves that we truly connect to the profound reality that is a life lived in Christ. In connecting to this profound reality, we become fully aware of how we are to share this Good News with the world. We find our authentic selves because we strip away the material and artificial trappings of this earthly plane, reaching instead for the true and authentic treasures of faith, hope, and love. Lent affords us the opportunity to strip away all of the junk in our lives and recenter our focus on our relationship with God, seeking penitence, knowing that through God we will find forgiveness, and through forgiveness we will find ourselves once more.