“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.”
So begins Jesus in this Gospel lesson that we hear every Ash Wednesday, and when I hear Jesus say it this year, I find myself thinking, “No, I think I’d like a little more public piety, please!”
Maybe it’s just my age showing. I’m now a year into this “grandpa” zone but there are trends and tendencies in the world that I grow weary of. I long for, well not things as they once were so much, as for how I once perceived them to be.
Maybe a little practicing of public piety was not such a bad thing.
I think that to myself when the latest hot new music sensation hits the stage in their various stages of undress. Body contorted, accentuating the sexual, wisps of sheer fabric barely covering the essentials, suggestive looks, wagging tongues, pouting lips.
“We could do with a little more public piety.” I find myself murmuring under my breath.
The messages sent by this youth obsessed, over-sexualized culture are not ones that lead to life. They lead to excess, and the pushing of boundaries, and to levels of dissatisfaction with body image and type and talent that seem to be never ending.
Maybe a little public piety, some restraint, some different modeling would be in order, would correct this seemingly never ending spiral.
I flip through the television channels and I’m assaulted by the latest round of violence. Zombies come at me, teen angst vampires creep in the night, along with other things that go bump and will not die. The Nazi’s are back. Corrupt politicians and corrupted soldiers and intelligence offices lurk under the civilized seams of every city. “Blacklist” blood bathes abound until I come across an oldies channel and an episode of “Highway to Heaven” or “Touched by an Angel” and I think to myself, “We could do with a little more public piety.”
We could do with some public displays of people who were simple, or where God was intimately engaged in the everyday struggles of life, reaching out to us. The messages sent by so many shows these days seems to be get your own gun and make it a bigger one, because you are on your own son.
We could do with a little public piety, a display of what it looks like to believe that God is directing your every move, and that God is wholeheartedly in your corner and on your side and because of that you can do no wrong.
Something like that, that is just what this weary world needs right now.
And then in my stumbling through the television channels I happen on a report about ISIS. And I think to myself, ooops!
I flip through the channels and I see film clips of the March on Selma and see the KKK lined up, self-assured in their belief, and ready to make their public display of piety, and again I think to myself, Oooops!
I missed the most important part of Jesus’ phrase. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them;”
That is when piety has no power, when it is done simply as a show. Whether are a Pharisee, or a Terrorist, or a “goody two shoes;” pious actions done simply as a show for others, or to somehow influence others, or to impose our will and standards or mores on others do not transform.
They don’t transform others.
But more importantly, those pious public actions don’t transform you.
And so, we do this strange thing tonight, this act of public piety, of ashes on the forehead, but we don’t do it for show, and we don’t do it to make any kind of public statement, and we certainly don’t do it because it’s the hot, cool, “in” thing to do.
No, we do it as a reminder.
The smudge goes on where the waters of baptism flowed, reminding us that while washed and clean in God’s eyes, sin still has the power to mar us, and mark us, and mess us up.
The smudge goes on in the shape of the cross, tracing where the oil of anointing once proclaimed that we were “sealed with the cross of Christ and marked by the Holy Spirit forever!”
And, that is still true!
But the smudge of ash upon that cross on our forehead reminds us that though marked and sealed, we are still capable of doing evil when we forget who and whose we are.
The ash goes on to remind us that we dust, and to dust we shall return. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, little less than God, but that “little less” is huge! And so we mark ourselves with ash to remind ourselves of our own limitation, lest we think that by our own public displays of righteousness, or rectitude we could fix this world ourselves and shape it to our own liking. We could at least make it, well let’s see….
At least simpler.
“Beware of practicing your piety before others, in order to be seen by them.” Jesus warns, and with good reason. We are ever tempted to think that we have all the answers.
We are ever tempted to believe that our will is the one that must be done.
The temptation before us ever is to act as if our visions for mission, or for this world, or for what should and should not happen are the right ones and if only we could impose OUR will, things would be better, perfect, as they should be.
We mark ourselves with Ash this night, to remind ourselves above all, that we are not God, and that we do indeed need a savior, and most often we need particularly someone who will save us from ourselves.
That’s what I need to see, my own face reflected back as I flip the channels, ash marked.
It’s not more public piety that this world needs, but rather it is a savior, and that Savior is Jesus. The Ash upon my forehead reminds me that the savior this world is certainly not me and my will imposed upon it.