By some accounts, yesterday morning I did exactly the opposite of what Jesus tells us in Matthew.
Some of us gathered at a local coffee shop, a public place, to pray and impose ashes and remember we are merely human.
We were out there, practicing our religion in public.
I always find this passage from the gospel of Matthew such a very strange text to be assigned for Ash Wednesday, but there it is. Every year, on this day, these are the words that are proclaimed.
When you pray, shut the door and pray in secret.
When you give, don’t look for praise.
When you fast, don’t let it show.
All of these seem to speak against exactly the kind of public activity of gathering in a coffee shop to impose ashes.
Or the rather public display of walking outside of the church after worship with a big black cross on your forehead.
We are starting a series in worship here at church called, Renegade Gospel, and are reminded that Jesus didn’t come to start a religion. Jesus didn’t come to hand out new rituals for us to follow.
But you know what, Jesus did come to start a revolution.
Jesus did come to re-instigate a relationship.
Jesus came because of the simple fact we remember today. We are nothing but dust and to dust we shall return.
When we look deeper and contextually at our gospel reading in Matthew today, we come to understand that Jesus isn’t warning against being religious people in public.
No, he is asking us to stop pretending to be religious just because we are in public.
Jesus is calling us back into relationship… with God, with ourselves, with one another.
He is calling us back to the reality of our sin, our failures, our outward trappings of religion that demonstrate little or no faith on the inside.
As the Message translation sums up this passage: When you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production… Do you think God sits in a box seat? Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace. (Matthew 6:5-6)
That sentiment is echoed in the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:13. He is reaching out to them and asking that they listen, that they heed his words, because of what they have seen and heard about his faith.
He hasn’t hidden it. He has lived it. Fully. And living his faith has gotten him into lots of trouble.
The kindness and holiness of spirit, the genuine love and truthful speech… all of it has brought dishonor, ill repute, punishment… and yet he and the other disciples persist. They are not afraid to live out their faith publically for all to see and directly in the face of the religion of the day.
We might think of religion as the rituals and rules, the culture and conditions of faith. It is the box we put our faith in.
But Jesus comes to break the box apart and pull us out into the world.
Jesus comes to help us understand that our relationship with him is about far more than prayerful words and pious actions.
The gospel is yearning for us to be so caught up in its mercy, love and goodness that we can’t help but live into its revolutionary reality.
We are called to stop pretending to be religious and start living faithfully.
Whether this morning, gathered in a public space, or right here, tonight, in this community of worship, we are proclaiming the revolutionary message of the gospel.
We are dust.
We are nothing.
We are sinful.
We need help.
And those words are anathema to our culture. In a world where we try to show how strong and powerful and successful they are – they are tantamount to treason.
But we stand on the street corner and say them anyways… because they are true.
And because Jesus has come.
The one who created us out of dust will re-create us from the dust of death.
There is mercy and forgiveness in this place.
There is life, even in the midst of death.
And that, we should proclaim from every place we find ourselves.
We should invite every friend and stranger alike into that revolutionary truth.