Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus, who loves us and frees us from our sin.  Amen.

Beware of practicing your piety before others…

I’m not sure that a lot of us think about our own piety very often these days.  What are those things that you do, those beliefs that you hold, the rituals that you revere that create a strong connection to the divine.?  It could be coming to worship. Or worshiping in a particular way. Removing your hat in the Sanctuary. Praying before meals. Praying before every meal even those in restaurants.  Making the sign of the cross. Genuflecting before you enter the pew. These are but a few pious acts. Matthew’s gospel reading for today lists a few more. Giving alms. Public prayer.  Fasting.  

It’s an odd thing that we read almost always read this text from Matthew’s gospel on Ash Wednesday a day that is quite literally marked with public piety.  After all, in short order, many of you will leave this place with dirty foreheads, a public symbol of piety if there ever was one. So it’s strange that we begin the season of Lent with a gospel text that warns against practicing your piety in front of others.

Except that’s not actually what Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before others…”

He says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness in front of others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

That, my friends, is a whole different ball game.

Oh, man, do we practice our righteousness in front of others.  

Don’t believe me?  Spend a minute on Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn.  Still not convinced? Dig out some Christmas cards you received a few months ago.  Still doubt it? Think about what you share with your friends, your family, co-workers.

We are so good at pretending like we have it all together.  We are so good at keeping up appearances. We are so good at deluding ourselves into believing that everything is okay and if it’s not right now then we can just try and a little bit harder get it all sorted out by next week.

We practice a kind of righteousness that tries to convince ourselves and the world around us that life is good and grand and practically perfect in every way, just don’t look too closely or you will see how desperately we are trying to hold it all together.

Beware of practicing your righteousness in front of others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

Why do we do it?  Why do we pretend?  Why don’t we come clean, be honest, be transparent, tell the truth?

Why don’t we admit that life in this world seems incredibly fragile?  Why don’t acknowledge that some times the bad days outnumber the good?  Why won’t we just tell the truth when people ask us how we’re doing? Why won’t we tell them, you’re afraid, you’re sick, your heart is broken, you’re broke, you don’t know how you’ll make it until tomorrow?  Why won’t we share that we’re not sure how we made it to today? Why can’t we say, “I don’t know?” Why do we always have to pretend as though we have all the answers?

What’s the reward we receive for playing this game?  A few extra likes on social media? A promotion? A few more acquaintances that aren’t really true friends? 

Whatever it is, Jesus says we’ve already received it.  There’s nothing more to come. Whatever you get from practicing this kind of self-righteousness is all you’re gonna get.  So enjoy it while it lasts, because when it’s gone, it’s gone.

This week I came across something on twitter that I’ve been wrestling with, because I really love part of it and the other part I pretty fundamentally disagree with.

It went like this.

When something important in your life ends, it’s like a monument has burned.  Stop sifting: there’s no reconstructing it from ash. Stand in the space and see it — burnt black as it may be — as a site for building.  There’s room for something else now — what? You decide. Keep moving.

All that is important in our lives ends, and it ends in ashes.  This is the stark, painful and inescapable reality of being human.  It all ends. We cannot build anything from the ashes of what is left.  Today we are reminded, that all we have and all we are is dust.  

There is all kinds of room for something new on the other side of dust and ashes, but we don’t get to decide.  We are that the mercy of the one who has gotten pretty good at making things out of nothing. We are at the mercy of the one who brings life out of death.  We are at the mercy of Jesus who experiences the nothingness of the cross so that we can live fully in the new life that blooms out of the dust and ash of death.

I want to close with a poem by Jan Richardson that Mary shared with staff yesterday.  It was a reminder for me why I need and love this day and lent. It was a reminder for me of where my hope, my life and my righteousness come from.  It was a reminder for me of what and where my reward comes from.

All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners

or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial —
did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.

So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.

Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are

but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.