The scripture readings for Ash Wednesday are much like those we hear in Advent. Each year, as we approach Christmas, we hear of Mary, John the Baptist, and the story of Jesus’ birth. So it is tonight. We come to the beginning of Lent and once again find Psalm 51’s plea for mercy waiting to be read and heard. Joel’s prophetic calls for the Israelites to return to God stands close by. Then, lingering at the end, there is a word from Paul for the Corinthians. Paul says: “Be reconciled to each other. For God’s sake do not receive the grace of God in vain.” A theme for the day quickly emerges. Ash Wednesday is about seeking God’s mercy and being reconciled to live among each other as people of faith. Yes, the tradition of the church tells us today is a marker of our mortality. The ashes remind us that we are dust and to dust; we shall return. However, scripture lays a course like stones through a garden path. We go from one to the next, ever mindful of our mortality and the need to listen for the Good News all around us.
On the yearly journey through grace, mercy, and the need to be reconciled; where do we end up? Ash Wednesday places us among a group of Jesus’ disciples. They are listening to him explain the cost of discipleship. Sometimes we encounter passages whose relevance to our lives feels distant. The first century is not the 21st. Jesus and his disciples lived in a world where slavery was the norm, brutality defined daily life, and the average life expectancy was 30 years. Women died much sooner, due to complications in childbirth, in the early to mid-teens. Those whom Jesus taught didn’t need reminding of their mortality. Their lives were their admonitions.
When Jesus spoke, his stories were for his listeners and disciples. He didn’t know, nor did anyone in the crowd, that one day his words would be recorded in a book called the Bible. Jesus’ words do not arrive silently in our lives. Much of what Jesus says speaks to the universal reality of the human condition. When he addresses poverty, being a good neighbor, love, and prayer; these observations are not unique to the 1st century. In this way, our world has changed very little. We see his context and its relationship to our own. It becomes clear: the Good News and the Resurrection mean more than the disciples understood or we realize on any given Sunday morning.
Jesus tells his disciples, “Be careful you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention.” That’s a verse that anyone going to a United Methodist General or Annual Conference should re-read. Why does Jesus say this? We are quite accomplished at practicing our piety in front of others in an attempt to draw attention to ourselves. Our conditioning is such that we ask, “Who will believe us and see Jesus in our lives if we’re not public with our piety. We have to stand out against the creeping cultural war and secularism.” Each year, at the beginning of Lent, we listen to these same verses. Jesus isn’t ambiguous. He says, “What we’ve come to believe about how to be religious isn’t true.” Are we asked to read them again because we’ve yet to hear them? Do we not believe Jesus?
“Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues.” He goes on. “Whenever you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and the street corners so people will see them.” Did you catch that? He said, “So people will see them.” Finally, he talks about fasting. “Don’t put on a sad face like the hypocrites. They distort their faces, so people know they are fasting.” In rapid-fire succession, Jesus outlines three ways the people around him go over the top with their public displays of piety. We don’t have synagogues, too few of us fast (me included), but we all get it what he’s saying. We pray and come to our version of the synagogue, and we’re all old enough to know what Jesus means. Jesus is talking about us, people we know, and how easy it is to become superficial about our faith.
Why are these behaviors a problem? Of all the many things Jesus could specifically address, why choose public displays of piety and religion?
Firstly, we are the religion that the world encounters. People don’t see buildings. Unless you’re offended by some styles of architecture; buildings don’t alienate people from God. Instead, they talk to other people. You may have heard the cliché, “You’re the only Bible someone may ever read.” It’s a cliché because it’s true.
Secondly, we may be the only encounter some people ever have with Christianity, Jesus, or a Methodist. We don’t want to turn people off with outlandish or exclusionary acts of faith. The behaviors that Jesus describes do more harm than good. Excessive public displays of piety, as Jesus outlines, hurt people and turn them away from the church. As we read Matthew 6, I think about the Special General Conference of the United Methodist Church. Three days of public piety, prayer, and deliberation led to pain and harm we are only beginning to realize. To the world, Methodism is just another church that hates gay people while claiming to love everyone. We know that’s not true. To those watching from the outside, we look the hypocrites Jesus is urging us not to become. Ask yourselves, “Are our public gestures and words consistent with the work of Jesus in the New Testament?” If not, then we need to rethink, retool, pray Psalm 51, and try again. If not, we need Lent more than ever.
Richard Lowell Bryant