“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. “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. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“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. But 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.

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Pastor Marc's sermon on Ash Wednesday (February 18, 2015) on Matthew 6:1-6,16-21. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


So, for a number of years in my pre-pastor life, I worked right near Union Square in Manhattan. And my daily commute usually involved walking past a bodega with a giant white cat sleeping among bags of Doritos and also walking past a tv studio where the cable channel TLC filmed their show What Not to Wear. Every few weeks I’d spot the two co-hosts hanging out on the sidewalk and I was always curious what they were wearing because the show, if you’re not familiar with it, was a makeover show. People would nominate family members or friends to be given into the hands of these two co-hosts and have their makeup, clothes, and hairstyles completely redone. And most everyone who was nominated for the show was nominated for the same reason. Their family and friends felt that the person they were seeing on the outside didn’t match what was going on inside. They knew their friend, knew their joys, their heartaches, their skills and amazing lives - and they wanted what was on the outside - to honestly reflect the beautiful person they knew and loved. They wanted their friend to present themselve out into the world and for the world to, in an instant, see their beauty, intelligence, and grace. I loved the show because I loved seeing that transformation - seeing that change - and seeing people look like they really are. And I was reminded of this show because, as I started to put together my thoughts for tonight’s sermon a few days ago, What Not to Wear  just happened to come on in the background. There I was, watching a makeover show, and hearing these words from Jesus that seem to be asking us to be made over too. 
Now, tonight’s reading comes from the middle of Jesus’ sermon on the Mount. Jesus has started his ministry, he’s preaching about the kingdom of God, healing the sick and brokenhearted - and he’s getting famous so crowds are starting to gather around him. Jesus, for a moment, pulls back and retreats up a mountain. His disciples follow him, they gather around him, and Jesus starts to teach. He tells them why he’s here - what he’s trying to do - what exactly he’s hoping to teach and share. And he’s also sharing with the disciples a taste of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. So in the middle of this sermon, we hear these words from Matthew chapter 6 - words about piety and the practice of our faith  - and we even a little fashion advice about what to do when we’re fasting. And here, Jesus is asking his disciples to be aware - to reflect and know, deep down, why they do the things that they do. Our first line tonight sums up what Jesus is looking at. He tells his disciples to “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen.” He tells them to be aware of why they are going to do what they are doing. What are their true motivations? Are they here for fame, to be loved and acknowledged and celebrated by others,  or are they here for something else? 

This text from Matthew is all about asking that why - about getting deep into what motivates us to believe what we do - and to do what we do. It means examining who Jesus is for us - it means looking at what the cross, if anything, means for us - and it means asking how we’re being madeover by God or if this makeover is even happening? We find, in these words from Jesus, being asked to look at our whys. And I think that’s why we read this text every year at the start of Lent and why this text is read to signal the 40 days and 6 Sundays that are between us and Easter. Because Lent - at its core - is an invitation to look at our whys - and to see just how our whys are matter to us. 

So if Lent is a season of asking our whys - then why do we mark today with ashes? 

I’ll admit that it seems odd on a day when we hear Jesus telling us to be aware of how we are practicing our faith in public, and then we go ahead and put an ashen cross on our foreheads. Jesus seems to say the exact opposite - telling us to hide from others our spiritual practice so we won’t be seen by others. But it’s hard for us to hide in the background if we have an ashen mark on our face. I’m mean, that cross is right out there- literally - in our face and on our face too. And for those who grew up or participated in Christian communities where the ashen cross wasn’t done - this peculiar act can feel very strange.

And I think it’s okay to call that ashen cross strange. Because today is the only day in the church year where we invite each other to put on a temporary tattoo in the middle of our forehead. And it’s something we’ll only see ourselves when we glance in the mirror or if we use the selfie angle on the camera on our smartphone. The ashen mark on our forehead is a cross that will be seen more by others that by ourselves. 

But I think that’s what maybe makes it so powerful. Because later tonight, as we go about our lives - maybe loading our dishwashers or preparing for tomorrow - or maybe heading out to start our graveyard shift where we work - it’s easy to forget that the cross is on our forehead. It’s easy to get caught up in the normal, everyday, busy parts of our life and forget where we were just a few hours earlier. It’s easy to go through our routine - to do what we always do - and not be mindful of Christ’s presence there. But those around us - those who see us - will see something different. They’ll see us wash dishes, marked with the Cross. They’ll see us make lunches for our kids, marked with the Cross. They’ll see us fold laundry and laugh at a late night tv show - marked with the Cross. Others will see us as we truly are - as people who smile, people who feel joy, people who make mistakes and screw up, and people who will, eventually, die - and we, all parts of us, have been marked by the Cross forever. Even when we don’t see the cross on us, we carry that cross with us, in everything that we do. 

This is, for me, the power of Lent. It’s an opportunity to decenter ourselves and recenter who we are as beloved children of God. It’s a time when we as individuals and as a church express and affirm that our identity as Cross bearers needs a little self-reflection to be fully known. Our life as disciples needs opportunities where we ask ourselves our whys and where we let our answers be meaningful and true just for us. It’s possible that your answers about your relationship with Jesus won’t match my answers about Jesus and that’s okay. But what matters is that we, together, are taking the time to ask the questions, to remind ourselves who we are and what we carry with us, and to know that we are all in the process of being madeover by God. And like all makeovers, this one is a journey and God is in for the long haul. Lent is a time for our whys. It’s a time to journey through our questions. It’s a time to affirm and share that our journey with Jesus is ongoing and needs tending. And tonight, on this Ash Wednesday and the start of this year’s Lent - it’s time to discover our whys and walk with Jesus as we uncover just who we are and what it means to be marked with the cross forever.