During Advent we visited the church of friends of ours for a musical celebration. We had to get there pretty early to ensure we found good seats, and then had a long lag sitting in the pews. We chatted with our friends getting caught up on their lives. At some point, my friend handed me a laminated card that was in the pew. “What do you think of this,” she asked.
I looked down and read the card. Written in typed print were the words,“I made my donation online.” I looked up confused.
“It’s for the offering plate,” she said. It took a couple of moments before it dawned on me that those who set up their regular giving online could toss that card in the basket when it came around to have something to place in the basket. My friend said, “They did it because some parishioners didn’t want others round and behind them to think they were cheap or shirking their responsibility in supporting the church.” I was a bit stunned, and I could tell my friends didn’t like it either.
“Beware of practicing your piety in front of others in order to be seen by them,” Jesus proclaims, “for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
Now before you think this is a sermon in which I proclaim who is being hypocritical and who is not, a reminder that in this Sermon on the Mount Jesus will also tell his hearers, “How can you say to your brothers or sisters, ‘Let me take that speck out of your eye,’ while there is still a log in your own? You hypocrites, first take the log out of your own eye and then you can see the speck in your brother or sister’s eye.” Keep your focus on your own stuff, Jesus reminds us. We’ve all got plenty to tend to in our own lives without worrying how someone else practices their religious devotion.
Additionally, as a priest I can see the precariousness of reading statements from the Gospel about how one is to practice their piety in secret on the very day we gather together corporately to have ashes smeared on our foreheads. In fact this conundrum came up on the General Ordination Exams one of the years I was in seminary. The question asked, “If Jesus commands us to not to look dismal or disfigure our appearance while fasting, why would we put a mark on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday? Aren’t we doing something that means we have received our reward?”
I think it comes down to a few simple questions: Why are you here? What is Lent about? What do you hope these 40 days will do in regards to your relationship with God?
What is the focus of your spiritual life?
First, even though I didn’t take the GOEs the year that question was asked, here’s my response. “It depends. If a parishioner is feeling like he is getting extra points with God or hopes to be noticed by others because of an ash cross on his forehead, then he should wash it off immediately following the service. If, however, a parishioner is worried about how others will respond to her due to the ashes on her forehead, she should leave them on. Our reward is based less on our outward appearance and more on the condition of our heart. Don’t disfigure yourself to be noticed, Jesus says, don’t pray in public to impress others, don’t even store up treasures here in this life. Rather make your pious acts between you and God, keep them secret. Don’t use them as a means to belittle others who aren’t doing them, rather use them as a way to draw closer to God.
“The ash cross inscribed on our forehead reminds us that we are mortal, that we do not have the power to control our lives even though we fully believe the contrary. We must depend on God and God’s mercy all the days of our life. We come together to mark the beginning of these 40 days in the wilderness each year to intentionally affirm before God our desire to become more fully the people God calls us to be as followers of Christ.”
It’s not about us. It’s about our connection to Jesus, and deepening our relationship with him, and following him as the Lord of our life.
So we come today to remember that in the end we are nothing more than dust. Each of us messes up. Each one of us commits acts that separate us from God and one another. We sin. And God longs for us to seek reconciliation both with God and others in order that we might live our lives with an abundant fullness of grace. That’s why we aren’t to store up treasures here on earth, because they too are simply dust. Rather, Jesus teaches us, store up treasures in heaven. Focus on the goodness in others. Proclaim the good news of Jesus in word and deed. Do the hard work of seeing where you’ve made it too much about yourself. Take stock of where you have been and where you are going, and then seek out change.
We do this during the sacred season of Lent so that our celebration at the joy of Christ’s resurrection may also be a time to celebrate the transformation his resurrection has had on our lives too. In order for that joy to be completely realized, we must begin with the truth. We are only dust. Yet even so, we are also deeply loved by God. And God wants nothing more for us than to experience a fullness of life that can only be found when our acts of devotion—even our very lives—focus not on us, but on the Almighty. May we allow the power of Christ’s resurrection to work in our hearts this Lent bringing us closer to God. Amen.