Private Piety; Public Justice; Total Grace


Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-12: Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually,

and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 - Jesus said, “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.

We gather tonight for a Reminder and for an Invitation

The reminder you are probably expecting. It is, I imagine, at least part of why you are here… to get your ashes… to stand before the cross, and to hear God’s minister speak to you the truth that frees your soul from the heavy weight of trying to earn God’s favor.

“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

It is a description of our truth made palpable through the cross of ashes we receive on our foreheads.The physicality of that sign matters to us because it gives us the assurance of a visible sign of God’s promise… but I wonder whether it might feel a little uncomfortable following tonight’s gospel reading.

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” (Matt. 6:1).

Today, of all the days in the Christian calendar, we go out from our gathering marked by a visible sign of our piety, and this is the day that we hear this warning… to NOT practice our piety before others. This warning could steal from us the freedom that comes from the reminder of our dust nature. It could burden us again with the worry that we are failing to meet God’s expectations, now with the added weight of knowing how thoroughly incapable we are of ever meeting them!

We are dust. We are weak. Even in our piety, in our drawing near to God, we risk the sin of seeking credit for that self-same piety, unless we do it in secret – and a cross of ashes is not secret!

Which is why I am grateful for the invitation in tonight’s first reading:

“Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin” (Isaiah 58:6-7).

To not hide yourself…

In this passage the prophet records God’s word to God’s people when they are crying out, asking God to respond to their piety. And God’s response is NOT to tell them that they aren’t be secretive enough. No! God tells them that they aren’t being public enough. Their personal religious practices are not having any effect on the pain they see, or even cause, in the world around them. And because of this God rejects their piety as worthless. God does not want a fast that ignores the hungry.

God does not want a show of humility that hides contempt for the prisoner, the exploited laborerer, the homeless, or the naked.

God calls for a piety that is expressed as action to meet the physical, practical needs of the world around them, and around us.

Which leaves us with an uncomfortable tension:

Are we to practice our devotion to God in secret, so as not to seek the praise of those who will be impressed by our religiosity?

Or are we to offer God a life of service to the needs of others as the only fast God finds acceptable?

Or are we dust, utterly broken and imperfect people who can never hope to please God through our works?

YES!

Yes to all of it – all of it together, because it in the combination of these expressions of devotion that we experience the completeness of our Lenten fast.

The community here at Abiding Peace has recently been exploring the meaning of righteousness as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. We’ve been learning about how the English language[1] breaks apart ideas that really belong together – righteousness, and justice, and mercy (the word translated in today’s reading as piety and almsgiving).

We have been exploring the wholeness of renewed life into which God invites us, when we receive God’s promise that it is NOT our righteousness that saves us, but God’s grace.

And today’s gospel builds on that foundation – in fact it is the very next verses in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus’s rejection of piety for show follows from an understanding of the kind of righteousness to which God really calls us…

the same kind of righteousness that the prophet exhorts…

the same kind of righteousness that Jesus later uses to sum up all the Law and the Prophets:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…. AND… you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt. 22:37, 39).

There is a wholeness to our devotion to God – to the love that is only real if it is in our heart – AND which is also only real if it spills out in how we respond to the needs of those around us.

But this call to righteousness, this appeal to the Law and the Prophets, is also only a part of the Gospel. And the wholeness of the good news of the gospel is that our righteousness can never be what makes us right with God – only the gift of God’s grace can do that.

Our personal piety, and our public justice are always a RESPONSE to God’s love and forgiveness, never the cause.

We gather tonight for a reminder, and for an invitation, and they are intimately linked.

We are reminded that we are dust – there is nothing we can ever do to earn the reward of God’s blessing.

And yet we are blessed, and that unearned blessing changes us into a people who long to worship God for no other reason, and for no other reward, than the chance to say to God “I love you.”

It is in the dual experience of our brokenness and of our blessing, that we discover the joyful, grateful work to which we are called:

To be repairers of the breach…

To be restorers of streets to live in…

To be the dusty people who live God’s mercy and justice for the world.

All praise be to God, who turns dust into love. Amen.

[1] The Hebrew word tsedeqah includes both the idea of mercy (expressed in the Greek as eleemosune, and translated in English as either mercy or piety) and righteousness (expressed in the Greek as dikaiosynē and including the idea of active justice, rather than simply moral uprightness).

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