Monday, February 12, 2018

Practice Your Piety In Secret

The gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday is always Matthew 6:-6, 16-21: "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them..." I've written before about the clergyman in Mobile who, believing that the world needed more visible Christians, gave the congregation permission to ignore Jesus' words and wear their ashen crosses in public. It wasn't a good sermon. No, I do not think we should wear our crosses beyond the church door. That's why we put tissue boxes in the narthex on Ash Wednesday. But that's only half of the reason I found his sermon less than inspiring. Not only is it a good idea to take Jesus at his word, I also think it's a good idea to ask what those words are all about.

Jesus did not say, "Thou shalt not practice thy piety before others." He said, "Beware..." He is alerting us to a potential problem. And, in order to benefit from Jesus' words, we need to understand the problem itself--not just the symptom. Notice that Jesus does not say, "Beware of practicing your piety before others," and then stop right there. He gave a reason: "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them." And there's the real issue. Are we practicing our piety in front of others in order that we might be seen by them? Or are we motivated by something else?

There is nothing wrong with fasting. There is nothing wrong with praying. There is nothing wrong with wearing sackcloth and ashes. But why do we do those things? Are they to show others how holy we are? Or are they to strengthen our relationship with God--our "Father who sees in secret?"

Lent is a time of renewal. It is a time to purify our piety. Our prayers, our practices, and our worship are refined so that they may be pleasing to God. The problem is that we have a tendency to do all of those things for show. Our habits have become empty. Over time, all habits lose touch with their foundation. Lent is a time to rediscover the reason for our piety--because practicing our piety has the power to deepen our connection with God. When we strip away all the pretense and shut the door and pray to our Father who is in secret, we find what has been missing in our public performance of prayer.

Is it ok to wear an ashen cross throughout the day on Ash Wednesday? In theory, yes. If someone could wear that cross not so that anyone else would notice it but only so that she or he could internalize the mortality that we have proclaimed in worship that day, then there's nothing wrong with it. But that's not possible. (Sorry, Tony Reali.) Even if we mean to wear it in secret, there is a part of us--our broken, human selves--that cannot wear it without wanting others to see it, to notice it, to give us credit for it. And then we've lost the whole purpose of Lent right as it gets started.

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