Practicing Piety -- A Word for Ash Wednesday

Note: As I'm not preaching this year for Ash Wednesday (I am participating in a joint service), I am sharing this word from 2018. May it speak to the soul as we gather to be marked with ashes, and begin the Lenten journey.  

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

We have come here today to have our faces marked with ash, as a sign of our piety. We’re doing this, even though Jesus tells us not to practice our piety to be seen. After all, God can see our hearts and our actions, even when we don’t make a big display of our spirituality. Nevertheless, we have come today to mark our piety with ash.

Jesus takes up the question of practicing piety in the Sermon on the Mount. He tells the crowd that when you give offerings, pray, and fast, make sure no one is looking. If you’re going to fast, then wash your face. If you’re going to pray, do it in your closet. If you’re going to give offerings, well, don’t make a big deal about it. Don’t wave your envelope so everyone can see and don’t ask for a plaque to mark your gift. Just give, because God sees and God rewards.

We hear this message about practicing piety as we begin our Lenten journey toward Good Friday and Easter. While Epiphany and Easter speak of joy and light, Lent is supposed to be a quieter, more introspective time. This is a time for quiet reflection on the course of our lives. We might decide to follow Ignatius of Loyola’s practice of daily examen, and make ourselves aware of God’s presence in our lives, and take that to prayer. 

The Lenten season could be compared to going in for a physical, something I did yesterday, and discovering that there are things we need to do to live a healthier life. We may not like what we hear, but it’s important to pay attention to the signs that our bodies and spirits are sending us. When it comes to the life of faith, whatever reward we receive comes from God, who is the great notice-er. 

Although Jesus tells us not to practice our piety to gain notice from others, there might be reasons why we feel the need to be noticed. If we’re honest, we all want to be noticed. In fact, we need to be noticed. Maybe it’s not our piety that needs to be noticed, but we need to be noticed. We don’t have to be famous. We just need to know that someone sees us. While it’s great that God sees us and rewards us, most of us would appreciate knowing that someone other than God notices us.  

While I was thinking about being noticed, an old movie from the 1970s came to mind. It’s called Cipher in the Snow, and it was used in churches and in schools to encourage inclusion. The story goes like this: There was a boy who didn’t have any friends. No one seemed to notice him. He always stood off to the side. One day, after he boarded the school bus, and couldn’t find a seat, he got up and asked the bus driver to stop so he could get off. After the bus stopped, he stepped off the bus and collapsed into the snow and died. The only teacher who seemed to know anything about him was his math teacher, who was given the task of giving the obituary at the funeral. When the teacher tried to write it, he realized he didn’t know much about the boy either. He couldn’t even find ten students who knew him. The boy was a cipher, a zero, who died in the snow. While this might seem rather melodramatic, it does suggest the importance of being noticed, not only by God but by our fellow human beings. After all, in Genesis 2, God noticed that the man was lonely, and so God created a companion for him. But, while we may need to be noticed, Jesus seems to believe that this doesn’t mean we should practice our piety to be noticed. 

As we begin this Lenten season, with our faces disfigured by ash, perhaps we might commit ourselves to noticing where God is at work in our lives and in our community. We can also notice those around us, making sure that everyone is included. Just in case our hearts aren’t in the right place, we do have an opportunity to confess our sins, and receive a word of grace in return so that we might walk with Jesus. As Paul declared, today is a day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2).

Dr. Robert Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Ash Wednesday
February 14, 2018


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