Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Perfect Makes Practice--Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21

The church is, by nature, hypcritical. One of our greatest moments of hypocrisy occurs with the Imposition of Ashes on Ash Wednesday.

On this day, we receive the mark of the cross on our foreheads in ash from the palms of last year. This is a highly visible piety. This public piety preceeds the text from Matthew where Jesus cautions his follows to be aware of practicing public piety .

Acts of piety are common to people of faith. They are spiritual disciplines that shape human activity. The caution related to piety is two fold: First, we must be cautious of what we think piety may accomplish for us. A member of the church approached me with a question. She told me she had placed her house on the market. A friend shared with her that a statue of St. Joseph should be buried on the property to facilitate the sale. She did so, but in the process of mowing her yard, she mulched the statue with her mower. Her concern, "Pastor, what does that mean?" I said, "The house will sell by the end of the week." To my shock, it did. Second, we must be cautious in assuming that a spiritual discipline that is good for me is good for all people. While there are cautions related to performing acts of piety, these actions can be spritual disciplines that shape Christian character.

If acts of piety, righteous deeds, can be beneficial, what is the caution that Jesus brings to his followers? The caution is phrased this way, "Beware of practicing your peity before others in order to be seen by them. We must understand, from this text in Matthew, that Jesus is cautioning people about acts of peity that are performed publicly. Public acts of piety were not limited to the Jews of Jesus' day. In verse 7of this text from Matthew, Jesus continues, "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." Those outside the Jewish faith also engaged in acts of public piety. Professor Carey, in his book Sinners, writes, "For most people, the point of religion was Pietas, the appropriate service to the gods which insured a harmonious relationship with the powerful forces of life." When Christian's refused "to worship the imperial gods", they created a dilemma for the community. "...people looked to the gods for blessing and security." For some to opt out of that practice would place the region at risk. Thus, this caution to beware of practicing one's piety before others is a caution to engage in an act that seeks to placate the gods and control one's setting. To do so publicy makes one's spiritual practice a superstition.

The language of reward is used in this text. The reward of public acknowledgment and the reward of God. Two separate words are used when speaking of reward.

When speaking of the reward of public acknowledgment, one is hearing about a wage that is paid to a worker. It is about receiving a benefit from the outcome of one's work. The reward is promised in anticipation of the action being performed. Another member of the parish tells me that every day, when she gets into her car, she says a short prayer before starting the engine and beginning her trip. One day, as she strapped on her seat belt, she remembered an item she left in her apartment. Quickly, she retrieved the object, jumped back in the car, started the ignition, and took off without her prayer. Another driver ran a stop sign that day and totalled her car. "Pastor, is God punishing me for not praying.?" We may laugh at the naievete. But, what do you do to hold your life together? Even in the good days, do you find yourself bracing for the collapse?

When speaking of the reward of God, one is hearing about returning to one's original place. The reward is based on God giving up what is God's own to restore another, and pay off a debt. The children's song is "Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posy, ashes, ashes, we all fall down." The song comes from the time of the bubonic plague. The first sign of the plague was a spot on the skin, a rose colored spot with a dark circle around it. With thousands of people dying, it was not uncommon to see people carrying flowers as gifts for the bereaved. Bodies were burnt in an effort to handle the number of corpses and handle the disease. And, as the plague struck, people would collapse in the street. Ashes, in biblical times, were a sign of a person gone astray. Confronted with that wandering, the person is called to repent. The repentance included a change of clothes and showering oneself with ashes. The ashes were the spiritual practice that conveyed the yearning to be restored. The ashes this day are our yearning. The yearning begins with our failure. The yearning is filled with our need. The yearning is infiltrated with our despair. The yearning is only satisfied by God. Once dead to sin, we rise to new life, not through our own acts but through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Through Jesus, God returns to us. God restores us, not through the reward of what we have accomplished, but through the restoration of forgiveness. God, who is perfect, changes the way we exist and the way we act.

We live in a practice makes perfect world. Years ago, I announced on Ash Wednesday, that people could come forward to receive the sign of the cross on their foreheads. I pronounced the "h" in forehead. Neil, a lovable curmudgoen, corrected me after worship. The "h" is silent. To this day, and today included, I find myself haunted by the desire to say the word correctly. We are by nature bound to strive for perfection and burdened with our failure. Then, that which is useful to achieve perfection is attractive. Hypocritical in nature, the church sells its soul to be useful. We become the snake oil salesmen of the new age, hocking spiritual practices that bring peace, contentment, alleviate stress, and help us control our lives. We are in a ministry of self-validation. As a consequence, our message is, "To be happy, be like us." I know what goes on in the secret places of my heart. I do not wish upon you to be like me. Trust me, there is no hope to be found in you being liked by me, or being like me. For in the end, if my actions make me who I am, I am horrified with that identity. Mission rooted in self-validation is not God inspired, but consumes others for the sake of feeling whole.

Perfect makes practice. God changes things. We go out into the world for a different reason. We go out into the world to have God relationships with others. These moments are not, "This is what you need to do," but, "This is what God is doing in the world." I want to introduce you to God. Now, I will get out of the way. This is hard work, work that God makes possibile for us. In Hebrews 12, we read, "God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yeilds the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

Hypocrites all, through the grace of God and God's perfection, Perfect makes practice.

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