Ash Wednesday: One of Those People

Scripture: Matthew 6:1-8, 16-21

There are people – we all know them – who only give for the recognition they get.

Names on academic buildings, thank you cards or social media acclaim – the recognition they seek may be big or small.  Of course, they would never sound the trumpet themselves.  But they’re watching to make sure someone else does.  And if no one does, someone is going to hear about it.  Or maybe they’ll find a subtle way to talk about it on Facebook, not in a way where it seems like they’re outwardly fishing for compliments about what a good person they are, but in a way where they manage to mention their good deed in the context of something else – a joke or a wry observation, maybe.  And then if people want to comment on the good deed itself, so be it.

I used to think I wasn’t one of those people.

But then one day I was donating to someone’s GoFundMe cause and I had a little internal debate with myself – do I make this donation anonymously, or not?  Because, you know, I don’t want my name to be out there just announcing to all the world that I needed the credit.  But also, you know, I wanted the credit.  I wanted this person in need to know that I had done something to help meet it.  At the very least, I didn’t want them to think I hadn’t done anything.

I used to think I wasn’t one of those people, someone who was only generous for how it would make people think of them.  But then one day I went out of my way to help a neighbor move.  And, you know, it’s not like I expected a card or anything, but surely they could have been a little more thankful than they were.  Didn’t they even appreciate what I had done?

 

There are people – if you’re part of a church, you’ve probably known them – who like to put on a show when they pray.  If you’re the type of person who knows a lot of pastors, you probably especially know these people.  It can never just be simple, right?  There always has to be some attempt at poetry involved, some sort of backstory to each petition, as if God had to be filled in.  I’ve always wondered who those prayers are really for: are they talking to God, or are they talking to the people with their heads bowed?

I used to think I wasn’t one of those people.

But then it became my job to pray out loud, sometimes, and I found myself hunting for just the right turns of phrase to make my prayer sound good.  Sometimes I would write the prayers out beforehand, and I would do my best to make them poetic and powerful.  When I worked at a big church and didn’t preach every Sunday, those prayers were my chance to get my word in, the things I would have said if I’d had the opportunity.  Sometimes, though, I would pray extemporaneously, and I would find myself trying to take the pulse of the crowd as I did, finding the parts that seemed to resonate and laying them on thick.

I used to think I wasn’t one of those people, someone who used prayer as a performance, but then I thought back to how even well before I was a pastor, I thought that I could sway God with just the right words, that if I sounded pious and holy enough, maybe my prayer would carry extra weight.

 

There are people – I don’t know if you know any of them – who fast just so they can tell you about how they’re fasting.  I say I don’t know if you know them because I think fasting has largely gone out of style in our culture, in a religious sense at least.  You probably know people who are eager to tell you about their latest diet, or their juice cleanse, but to be fair, Jesus isn’t talking about them.  He’s talking about people who do their religious duties not because those duties are part of a life devoted to God, but because people will see and hear and know that they are holy.

I used to think I wasn’t one of those people.

But then a couple years ago I decided to bring fasting back, into my life at least, and of course I had lots of good reasons for doing it.  I wanted to have some small experience of the hunger people know here in our community and around the world.  I wanted let God teach me that life isn’t all about abundance, at least not in the ways we think; that it’s OK to not have everything I want.  I wanted to give myself a chance to discover what, deep down, I was really hungry for.  And if I ended up losing a few pounds in the process, I wasn’t going to complain or anything, but that certainly wasn’t my goal.

I used to think I wasn’t one of those people, who just did it all for the show, but then I was surprised to hear myself slip the fact that I was fasting into conversation.  Oh, I can’t have lunch with you that day, I’m fasting, you see.  Wow, I’m pretty hungry!  Why, you ask?  I’m fasting today

 

There are people – I’m sure you’ve probably met them – who wear the ashes we wear today with a kind of pride.  I went to church.

I used to think I wasn’t one of those people.  But the truth was I liked the distinction, even as I maybe felt a little bit self-conscious about it.  I liked the knowing looks from other ash-wearers and side glances from people I passed on the street and even the comments from well-meaning strangers who told me I had a little something on my forehead.  I liked the fact that this smudge marked me somehow as holy, and that was why I always tried to go to the early service, so I could wear those ashes all day, not just at night when no one would know.

I used to think I wasn’t one of those people, until I realized that that was exactly what those ashes meant: that I was.  And that I am.

I realized, at some point, that those ashes weren’t for anyone else.  They were for me.  Each time I reached up to push my hair out of my eyes and had to stop myself; each time I got a sideways glance from a stranger, I would remember that I was marked: not as holy, but as a sinner.  A hypocrite.  A broken, mortal, finite being.  The kind of person who still believes a little bit that God is tallying up all my points in heaven, and hopes that other people will take note – without my having to say too much.

“Don’t be one of those people,” Jesus says, but I am one of those people.  I think we all are.

I used to think that ashes made me holy.  Now I realize it’s not the ash but the promise of what’s beyond them: not the best life that I can live but the life that only comes through dying to myself; not my own spiritual accomplishment but the grace I can only find in my own failings.

They are death and life and sin and grace and resurrection, offered even and especially to all of “those people.”

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