Piety in Public

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

It was back in my youth, when I worked the counter for our local McDonald’s, that I first learned that Ash Wednesday even existed. One Wednesday a year, we’d get people coming in with a smudge on their forehead. I had no idea what was going on. I was raised Southern Baptist, and we had exactly two special days: Christmas and Easter. That was it.

Finally I asked someone what was going on. It seems that there was a church service, and a priest would smear ashes on people’s foreheads (mostly Roman Catholics), people who, evidently, had been fasting all day. By the way, Southern Baptists don’t fast either. After church, because they were hungry, they’d go out and get something to east, often fast food.

It wasn’t until several years later that I encountered the Episcopal Church and finally found out what it meant. At the time I first learned about it, it seemed like just another meaningless ritual, and all we Southern Baptist kids knew the Roman Catholic Church was just chock full of those.

But it turns out it wasn’t meaningless. I learned that Ash Wednesday is the day of the year — of every year — when we take out our mortality, the knowledge that we are going to die, and look it square in the face. When the ashes are placed on our forehead with the words “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” it’s a chilling reminder that our time in this world is limited.

Confronting our own inevitable deaths is a good thing. It makes us place ourselves in our proper place in space and time, and pushes us toward understanding our proper place in relation to God.

But, as with all things that can be good, we have to be careful. In this evening’s Gospel reading we hear “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.” 

Some of the people I saw coming into that McDonald’s seemed…proud of their ashes. Like it was more of a tribal mark than a sign of penitence.

It’s the same with Lenten disciplines. We are told we are supposed to “give something up” for Lent. So we do. We give up something like chocolate, or alcohol. Sometimes it seems like we try to outdo each other in our disciplines. And we look for loopholes, like the fact that every Sunday is actually a feast day, even during Lent, so extending our discipline to Sunday is inappropriate. Great.

How does this square with “Beware of practicing your piety in public?”

Let’s face it, we American, with our huge revivals and our National Prayer Breakfasts, are really big on our performative piety.

We really look down on the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, who were really trying to do better in obeying God. But Jesus said that they would “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.” That they “ignored the weightier matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faith.”

And isn’t that exactly what we do? We love our little rules and traditions and loopholes, and we forget what really matters. We abstain from carbs, from meat, from sweets, and we ignore the plight of those less fortunate than ourselves. Lent is not about giving up some thing that we like. It’s about getting rid of the baggage that holds us back in our relationship with Christ.

This morning I saw the following tweet:

“This year the performative side of Lent that turns it into a kind of Suffering Olympics feels deeply unnecessary. If suffering is the only thing bringing you closer to God, I invite you to imagine a God who suffers for us, not one who desires us to suffer.”

My challenge to you this Lent…for all of Lent, is: let’s fast from “performative Christianity,” from the “Suffering Olympics.” We can start by not making our Lent a show for all to see and wonder at. If you have been fasting all day today, great, go straight home for me the church and eat. Don’t visit a restaurant with your ashes showing. Keep it to yourself. The same with your Lenten fast, your discipline. It’s between you and God, and it’s not a competition.

If you’d like some suggestions on how to accomplish a true Lenten fast without announcing it to the world, how about this from Pope Francis:

Fast from hurting words and say kind words.

Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.

Fast from anger and be filled with patience.

Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.

Fast from worries and have trust in God.

Fast from complaints; contemplate simplicity.

Fast from pressures and be prayerful.

Fast from bitterness; fill your hearts with joy.

Fast from selfishness and be compassionate.

Fast from grudges and be reconciled.

Fast from words. Be silent and listen.


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