Ash Wednesday February 10, 2016
The Rev. Amy Spagna
Joel 2:1 2, 12 17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b 6:10; Matthew 6:1 6, 16 21
The parish where I served in Pennsylvania is home to a large and busy soup kitchen which serves an average 150 hot lunches per day, five days a week. Our guests, as we preferred to call them, hailed mainly from the slightly run down neighborhood just 2 streets from the church building. Somehow, over the course of the 35 years the soup kitchen has been in operation, it has grown into yet another part of the parish community. Ash Wednesday was one of the three or four days out of the entire year when their belonging was placed front and center. Many would come to at least part of the noon service to, as they put it, “get their ashes.” We were always more than happy to have them participating, as long as they weren’t disruptive. Of course, that did happen from time to time, and as you might expect, it was not a happy thing for most of the “regular” parishioners to experience. We were discussing how to manage this challenge at a worship planning meeting last year when I hit on a smashing idea: what if we had a little service, just for the soup kitchen, and then made ashes available to anyone who wanted them after they’d had their lunch? The rector, in her usual sneaky way, looked over the rim of her glasses, smiled, and said, “I’ve been wanting to try this for a while now – perfect!”
And so, when the day came, out to the front steps I went. Almost immediately, I began to question what had motivated me to stand outside on a very cold day next to a giant snow pile and holding a dish of ashes. Had I put the concerns about minimizing disruptions and the discomfort some members had expressed at having to encounter “those” people ahead of our guests’ needs? Was my intent really to create something special, as a sign that we cared at least as much about our guests’ spiritual lives as we did about their having full stomachs? Or was it something else?
The question of motivation is one we should be asking today, of all days. It is not only to be asked of people who “get ashed” on street corners instead of in the context of a church service, but also of ourselves. It is made particularly important by the culture in which we find ourselves, where ever increasing demands on our time from work and school mean we have far less of it to devote to the people and places we love. As the world grows increasingly skeptical of the Church as an institution, it often seems to regard public displays of piety such as wearing ashes on one’s forehead with a high degree of suspicion. In the face of this, perhaps we too should pause for self examination. Why did we take the time to come to church today? Is it because we want to show the rest of the world just what good Christians we are? Are we afraid God will punish us for not living up to our obligations? Or is it something else?
Jesus, too, is very concerned with outward appearances and the motivations behind them, though perhaps not in the way we might think. While he does not go as far as condemning outright the visibility of certain actions, he does ask the disciples to stop and consider that doing them just to be seen is not the best thing in the long term. Religious practice in the ancient world greatly emphasized public observance, to the near exclusion of private devotions in polite conversation. Sounding a trumpet when putting money in the collection box, standing to pray on street corners and synagogues, and disfiguring one’s face while fasting were all ways to send the message to the rest of the world that you were
serious about your beliefs. Because religion just wasn’t done in private, secret meetings and those who attended were often regarded with a great deal of suspicion. The Romans’ paranoia about secret societies, particularly ones that tended to cause riots, would have been enough reason to keep evidence of one’s religious leanings out of sight.1 There was really no way to come out ahead on the issue. If you, as a Christian, practiced your piety in public, you risked being arrested for it. If you didn’t, your neighbors would think you were a bit strange, at best.
Recorded against this backdrop of growing suspicion from secular authorities, it’s little wonder Jesus gives precedence to acts done in secret and without fanfare. He is saying that what we do by way of not showing off our almsgiving, fasting, and prayer to the rest of the world is in fact quite all right. They are a private matter between us and God. No other opinion matters. Instead of commanding us to keep up with the Joneses, these words are a call to authenticity in our relationship with God. They instruct us to make sure that our intentions in fact match what we show to the world. To borrow an old cliché, we have to walk the walk and talk the talk. Simply putting on a costume and acting as if it’s really important aren’t enough – unless that costume and “as if” match what we feel at the deepest level of our being. Or as Jesus tells the disciples, don’t be like a hypocrite a stage actor who’s playing up a character for all it’s worth. Instead, be who you were created to be and just do the things you ought to, without concern for anyone other than your Father who sees in secret and who will reward you.
This does not, however, mean that we should give up our public practices. They are so much a part of who we are, both as individuals and as part of this community, that to do so would mean losing a fundamental piece of our identity. Rather, Jesus means to challenge the underlying motivations for doing them in the first place. We are asked to define our actions not in terms of the wider culture or our own self centeredness, but rather in terms of how they form the backbone of our relationship with our Creator. When faith is practiced to obtain something other than relationship with God – that is, only to be seen by others, as Matthew puts it – that faith is implicitly inauthentic. It substitutes a desire for created, finite goods such as social recognition or status for a genuine relationship with the living God.2 This is not what Jesus wants his disciples to do. It’s attention to what does matter that he’s after – for us to rend our hearts, not our garments, to work toward a place where what we do outwardly and what we feel inwardly about the faith we confess are at last congruent.
For those who choose to receive ashes today, they are indeed an outward sign of an inward grace. At the least, they communicate to the other people around us that there is something more to our interior lives than they might have thought. What those ashes are not is some sort of temporary disfigurement designed to tell the world that we’ve checked off the, “I went to church” box just for today. They speak to something more: our status as a sinner worthy of redemption, our mortal nature, and God’s gracious gift of everlasting life. As St. Paul words it, “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as
1 Diarmaid MacCullough, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 159. 2 Rodney J. Hunter, “Pastoral Perspective: Matthew 6:1 16, 16 21.” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2 (Lent through Eastertide), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 22.
sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Cor 6:10, NRSV). With that smudge, we are marked as people who are willing to at least consider the possibilities those things contain, for today and beyond. They are for all of us, no matter what our status within the community might be. What’s more, they are infinitely rich, and their reach into the core of who we are is far deeper than any sort of praise or rebuke from others can ever be.
This universality and richness were, I think, what I encountered through the soup kitchen guests last year. There was a real grace present in our interaction, as we together turned that snow pile and stone steps into a sacred space. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we said over and over again, as we prayed for each other and the tough world into which our guests were returning. Anyone walking by would easily have noticed that something else was going on there besides just the creation of time and space to mark the beginning of Lent. Reflecting on it later in the day, I was struck by how much more was present than I’d expected – especially so because some of the guests who’d asked for ashes and a blessing found it very difficult to interact with any sort of institution or authority figure.
By accepting God’s unconventional invitation to stand with a foot on each side of the dividing line between the safety of the church building and the not so safe space of the neighborhood beyond, we all took the risk of encountering something which put us all firmly outside of our comfort zones. In doing so, we came to embody the message that there is something more we all have to offer each other than just the hard reality of being poor in this country, or the comforting message that God will provide an infinite number of second chances if asked. If there is any season of the church year when we are asked to live into that truth, Lent is it. As the Presiding Bishop noted in his latest video message just the other day, “... it is a season of making a renewed commitment to participate and be a part of Jesus’ movement in this world.”3
This is the invitation of invitations, to the party of all parties – won’t you join me?
3 The Right Rev. Michael B. Curry, “Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s Message for Lent 2016.” http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2016/02/08/presiding bishop michael currys message for lent 2016/ .