Reflections on Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1-7)


Jesus takes all the fun out of being religious, self-righteous, and Christian.    He’s such a wet blanket. Don’t those three go together?  How else are people going to know we are Christians unless we dress alike, pray in public, make grand displays of our faith in the public sphere, and invoke God in every conversation?  Has Jesus not been to the evangelism seminar I attended?  He needs to offer coffee, small groups, and a service for men who don’t wish to tuck their shirts in.   Get with it Jesus.  You’re killing mainstream Protestantism.

Really, public piety and showing off your religiosity define American Christianity.  I know they don’t but you’ve got to be honest, even on our best days, it’s hard to tell them apart.  Just take a look at the suggested New Testament reading for Ash Wednesday.

“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. 2“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.”  Matthew 6:1-7

If we can’t practice our piety in public to be seen by others, how are we going to recruit (sorry, I mean evangelize) others to join our churches?  Public practices of piety are our stock in trade.  We would collapse and die without publicity.  We give evangelism awards and pat each other on the back for cookie sales.  Those are public displays of piety.  We brand everything, from disaster relief ministries to youth events.  We have idolized the corporations and corporate practices that are bankrupting our communities.  Yes, we’re giving to the poor but these giving actions are preceded by the trumpet sound of car magnets, t-shirts, and official name badges.  We don’t call “practicing our piety before others”; we’ve cleaned it up and use the term “witnessing”.  What are we witnessing to; our ability to look no different than mid-level workers at IBM or Microsoft?

After nearly 20 years of full time parish ministry, I own no church t-shirts or polo shirts with a cross and flame logo.  Why?  Because, I think they are form of obnoxious public piety, drawing attention to what we do, how well we think we do it, and attention for the wrong reasons.  I enjoy the opportunity to tell our story with words.  I don’t want my clothes to speak for or against me.  That’s just one example of how modern Methodism is running afoul of Jesus’ idea of being faithful in public.   I can’t imagine him wearing a polo shirt with any kind of logo.  I do see him working with such ambiguity and anonymity, his closest friends and advisers wonder, “What does he really do each day?”

Everyone prays differently.  Cokesbury’s spring catalog is dominated by books on different methods of prayer.  I think Jesus says:  don’t use your prayer time to make other people uncomfortable.  Just as he says don’t make a big deal out of what you do (focus instead on the how-Jesus is big on methodology), the way you communicate to God is intensely personal.  Do what’s right for you but don’t weird other people out with your words or actions when you pray.  Don’t be a spectacle.  Public spectacles are narcissistic displays of ego.  Who is your audience when you talk to God?  Here’s a thought:  give God the privacy and time God deserves.  Keep your password protected, like you would any sensitive communication.

Religious people love clichés.  Jesus has heard them all.  Be a better speaker and writer by using fewer clichés.  The same thing goes for prayers.  I know it feels fun, especially when you get on a roll and the “father gods, we just want tos, and hosannas” start to roll off your tongue.  Maybe Jesus is burnt out on hearing so many repeated phrases.  Try saying what’s on your mind.  It doesn’t make you any holier, more religious, or smarter.  In fact, it may do just the opposite.

Have a Blessed Lent.