Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 Psalm 103:8-14 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Over the course of about six years I went from driving a beer truck to working as hospital social worker, starting hospice and home health agencies and serving on the Board of Directors of the National Hospice Organization. In that same period of time, my family grew from one to three children. I loved what I was doing and I loved my family, but I sometimes felt like I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders.
Then, on one of my trips to attend a Board Meeting, I built in some extra time to meet my college roommate and go backpacking in a Sequoyah Forest along the coast of California. We began on a path that took us through the towering trees and would eventually take us to a campground along the beach.
Not only did I feel dwarfed by the trees, as I rounded a bend on the path, I found myself on the edge of a cliff with a full view of the ocean. As far as the eye could see, I saw only water. In that moment I realized just how small and insignificant I was. I felt no more important than a speck of sand on the beach. I found this strangely comforting. It put things in perspective for me, just as this service does. As the sign of the cross is made on our foreheads, we are told, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Both my experience in California and hearing these words, remind me that I am not nearly as important as I sometimes think that I am. The weight of the world does not rest on my shoulders, for I am only one person among those that are more numerous than the stars in the sky whom God has created.
My successes and failures are but brief moments in time. And, although I can do my part to help bring about God’s kingdom, God, working through others, overcomes all my failures. In God’s time, what needs to happen, will happen.
I may, at times, overstate my importance in my own mind, but that does not mean what I do is of no importance. What I do, who I am, is important to God and to me. God gives my life meaning. In today’s gospel, Jesus gives us guidance on what God wants of us, in the form of a warning.
“Beware of practicing your piety before others,” Jesus says. “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. Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth . . . for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If today’s gospel reading doesn’t make you at least a little uncomfortable, you probably weren’t listening.
Here, Jesus gives us cause to reflect on our religious practices and how we use our money. “Do not be like the hypocrites,” he says, and if there is one thing I have learned about myself, it is so much easier to say what I should do, than to actually do it. I don’t think of myself as a hypocrite, but I do know I am hypocritical at times.
I wear a clerical collar and many of you wear a cross, these are signs to others, that we are Christians. So, should we be worried about what Jesus is saying in today’s gospel? Will we find that there is no reward for us in heaven. After all, Jesus does say, “Beware of practicing your piety before others . . . for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
Today, we are here to have ashes smeared upon our foreheads which, if we don’t wipe it off before we leave, is an obvious sign to others that we have been to church. Of course, there are many people today who do not realized it is Ash Wednesday, and many who know nothing of this practice, and find it curious that so many people are walking around with dirt on our foreheads on Valentine’s Day.
Wearing crosses, whether around our necks or on our foreheads, are public displays of our Christianity. Jesus’ warning is not, however, to hide who we are, it is to consider why we are here to receive the imposition of the ashes and why we wear our crosses. Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them. Thus, his warning is that we should not where our crosses, “in order to be seen.”
Acts of true piety drawn our attention away from ourselves and toward God. A number of priest now wear a clerical collar only when they are leading a service. I continue to wear mine whenever I am at work because it reminds me who I am and who I am called to be. Wearing the collar has changed me.
I know that when I am wearing my collar, people see me differently, and they look to validate what they think about Christian’s by how I respond to others. Some think, because I am a priest, that I am a holy man, others think I’m a hypocrite. When I put on my collar, or when you put on a cross, it should be a reminder to us that Christ has called us to be witness to his love in a world that is sorely in need of it. Wearing a symbol of my faith have made me more aware of others and their need to be noticed and appreciated as a child of God.
The cross I will place upon your foreheads today is a different kind of reminder. It is a reminder of that we are mortal and that we belong to Christ. Being reminded of our mortality makes it clear we are not the center of the universe. It puts our lives in perspective and it is, and should be, humbling.
Let us pray.
Lord, God, help us, we pray, to show forth your love in our lives, keep us mindful that it is in sharing your love with others that our lives have meaning. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.