“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…” Matthew 6:1
W.H. Auden is one of my favorite poets. I learned recently that he had a secret life.[i] Since his death in 1973, stories have emerged of his private generosity, generosity that was unknown even to those who knew him best.
A friend of Auden’s once needed a medical operation he could not afford. Auden invited this friend to dinner but never mentioned the operation. As his friend was leaving, Auden gave him a notebook containing the manuscript of one of Auden’s books. The friend was able to sell the manuscript to the University of Texas and pay for the operation.
After World War II Auden arranged to pay for the school and college expenses of two war orphans. He continued that practice year after year, until his death at age 66.
My favorite story might be the one about an older woman who was a member of the church to which Auden belonged. He learned that she was having night terrors, and so he took a blanket and slept in the hallway outside her apartment until she felt safe again.
Auden did not want these stories to be known. For whatever reason, he went out of his way to keep them hidden.
I have no idea what Auden would say about today’s gospel, but I suspect he would like it. The gospel cautions us against a purely performative expression of our faith: One translation says: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” Or – as another translation puts it: “When you do good deeds, don’t try to show off.” (CEV)
Don’t give generously to earn praise from others. Don’t pray on the street corners to draw a crowd or fast with melodramatic sighing about how hungry you are. In other words, don’t make it about you.
I’ve long thought this was a strange gospel to hear on a day when we smudge a big ashen cross on our foreheads and go back out into the world. That cross is hard to miss. It invites some attention – and some questions. At the very least it makes people wonder if we’re terrible at face-washing.
But this gospel is not just about today, Ash Wednesday. It’s about how we approach daily life as a follower of Jesus, how we balance the call to share our faith with the challenge to be humble in how we do it.
Jesus isn’t saying don’t share your faith. Quite the opposite. He names three specific ways that we canshare our faith. He simply encourages us to be clear about why and how we do these things.
Sometimes it’s hard to trust our own motives, but don’t let that keep you from trying or renewing a spiritual practice during the Lenten season that we enter tonight. Whatever you decide to try, perhaps the best way to reflect on that practice is to ask: “Is this practice pointing toward me, or is it pointing toward God?”
Let’s consider the three categories that Jesus mentions – almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.
Almsgiving. You might choose to put a little bit of money in an envelope each day during Lent and then after Easter contribute it to a cause that does what God calls us to do – care for those who are suffering in some way (people who are hungry, prisoners, folks struggling with addiction, refugees, victims of sexual violence, hospice patients). The possibilities are many, but we all have some need that is close to our hearts. Telling other people about that donation to make yourself look good obviously isn’t the point. But telling other people that your donation comes from your understanding of faith is a way to bear witness to God’s generosity – and to invite others to share in that generosity too.
God has given us life – both life now and life eternal. And, as we remember tonight, this present life has an expiration date. So why wouldn’t we share what we have? There’s no point in clinging to our possessions while the moths and the thieves circle around us.
Prayer. We probably have less trouble with Jesus’ caution regarding prayer. Most of us aren’t rushing to the street corner to wave our arms and shout prayers at the people passing by. But when a friend or family member or co-worker shares something that has them worried, what if we said, “In my faith tradition we often pray for each other and the heavy loads that we’re carrying. If it would be OK with you, I’d be glad to pray about what you’re going through.” Now that might actually seem scarier than praying on the street corner, but I bet we’d be surprised at the ways it would deepen our relationships – with God and with each other.
Fasting. This one doesn’t have to be about food, although it can be. It can also be about anything that distracts us from following Jesus. Video games. Social media. Netflix. Our fantasy football team. How might we fast from some of those distractions? It doesn’t have to mean giving it up entirely and forever. We could during the forty days of Lent choose to step away one day a week or for a designated window of time each day. And then what would we do with the time that opens up when we fast from these activities?
Once again, Jesus warns us about creating a public spectacle. The goal is not to make everyone within a ten-mile radius aware of our sacrifice. The idea is to open up some new space to reconnect with ourselves, with the people in our lives, and with God.
All of the cautions Jesus offers are about humility – not false humility, not holding back the gifts and abilities God has given us – but the humility of knowing we cannot save ourselves. Only God can do that. And has already done that.
On Ash Wednesday we receive the sign of the cross to remind us of our need for God. It reminds us of the sin for which we need forgiveness. It reminds us of our mortality, echoed in the words that are both true and jarring: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is also a reminder of our hope. The cross is the place of our salvation. Whatever we do, in public or in secret, we do because our God has faced down death for us. Faced down death and won.
The cross of ashes will eventually wash away. But the love of God never washes away. God’s mercy is eternal. God’s love is everlasting. It follows us as closely as our next breath – from our first breath to our last. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]Edward Mendelson, “The Secret Auden,” The New York Review of Books, March 20, 2014 issue. Electronic version: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2014/03/20/secret-auden/
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. I woke up this morning with those words running through my head on a continuous loop. I turned them over again and again in my mind. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. It’s just one sentence, but it holds so much truth – about the fragile stuff of which we’re made, about how our stories in this life always end. Most of the time we do whatever we can to avoid thinking about it, but at least once a year we gather together and say it out loud. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Lately I’ve heard several interviews with Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School and author of a new book called Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved.[i] Kate was diagnosed at age 35 with incurable stage-4 colon cancer. She’s had some intense treatments that have kept her alive – chemotherapy and some experimental immunotherapy – but the “incurable” part remains true. She’s at the point where she has some scans every few months that reveal whether she’s been given another two or three months to live.
Kate is married and has a young son. She can’t bear the thought of her child growing up without her.
One interviewer asked Kate if her prayers have changed since her diagnosis.
Here’s what Kate said:
I think maybe [they have] because I think I don’t have the luxury of being too sophisticated anymore. I mean, you just get infected with this urgency that comes with facing your death. And so I pray for very basic things. Please, God, make me kind and open to the pain of the world. Please, God, heal me. Make me less of a dink and help me be a good mom and a wife. I mean, just really basic stuff as opposed to maybe the more layered prayers that I was raised with or learned in theological school, which always have long…phrases like ever-loving and ever-living God…
I think Kate has a lot to teach us, starting with the simplicity of these prayers. Please, God, make me kind and open to the pain of the world. Please, God, heal me.
Big ideas in simple sentences. There’s something powerful about that. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Please, God, heal me.
I heard someone say recently that all Christians need to know at least one verse for how to confess their sins.[ii] We sometimes think that our confession has to be elaborate, and certainly on days like Ash Wednesday, we tend to use more words rather than fewer to name our sinfulness. We did it just a few minutes ago. But from day to day and week to week, maybe less is more.
Here’s where a reading like Psalm 51 can be helpful. It’s known as a penitential psalm, a psalm that expresses sorrow for one’s sin and cries out for the mercy that only God can give.
Take, for example, verse 1 of the psalm: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.” That’s a sentence we can write on our bathroom mirrors, put on a post-it note in our planners, add to the Notes app in our phones. Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.
Or what about verse 10: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” A simple plea for a big thing – the chance to begin again from a new place.
Whatever words we use, we do not confess because we’re some sort of super-Christians who are going after the Olympic gold medal for repentance. We confess because we trust in God’s steadfast love. We confess because we know that God’s mercy will not fail us, even when we have failed ourselves and those around us.
Lent invites us to a season of simplicity in which we try to strip away all but the essentials. Sometimes even our faith life can have extra layers that get in our way.
So in the days ahead let us hold fast to simple declarations offered in simple ways:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Please, God, heal me.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.
We speak, and we listen. Listen as God calls to us again and again, saying, “Return to me with your whole heart.” Listen as God, who is gracious and merciful and abounding in steadfast love, reaches out with the gifts of forgiveness and new life. Listen for the chance to start again. Amen.