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.  -Matthew 6:1

There is some irony in reading this passage on the one day that we mainline protestants openly and overtly wear a mark of our faith.

Should we actually not walk out of here with a black smudge on our foreheads, there for all the world to see?  Are we doing it wrong, right from the beginning of Lent?  This scripture has to make us question that… and so many more things.  What about our communal worship service, in which we pray aloud together?  What about the collection of the offering – although at least there, checks and pew envelopes can make that a relatively discreet practice.  But a close examination of our worship practices forces us to wonder if we haven’t been doing it wrong for centuries?  Wouldn’t we be better off, each of us in our own individual spaces, like hermits, where we could pray in secret, where perhaps the right hand really wouldn’t know what the left hand was doing?

Perhaps.  But perhaps our anxiety just gives this passage more power than it deserves, all by itself.

Christianity is inherently a faith of relationship.  Throughout the Gospels, throughout centuries of tradition, our faith has been about how we treat one another.  Our faith has taught us that how we treat one another is the clearest reflection of our relationship with God.  The very God who came to us in human flesh, who came to understand human relationships, who came so that we might learn how to have a relationship with God.  This is why we worship in community.  This is the faith that calls us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves; the faith that shows us who our neighbors truly are, even in unlikely surroundings.  This is the faith that we carry into the world, not as a badge of honor or source of pride, but as a way of informing, and of affirming, our relationships.

An alternative text for Ash Wednesday is taken from Isaiah 58:

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
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?

Our call is to a new fast, one that requires far more of us than hidden, individual practices.  Our call is to more than isolated prayer and unnoticed giving.  Rather, we are called to separate the trappings from the faith; the practice from its reception.

We are called to do what is right and just, rather than what will get a nice reaction.  We are called to question our motivation every time we bow our heads in prayer, because that little voice within us wonders who is watching, wonders who is passing judgment upon us.  We don’t necessarily need the quiet room for prayer, although that does make it easier… until we begin watching for who runs first or fastest off to their own quiet space to pray.  We don’t need to hold our prayers in for a more opportune time – indeed, there are moments when we can’t.  Whose head did not bow, whose heart did not cry out in prayer on the day of the Newtown shooting, when waiting for “the right time” was impossible?  When for once, the little voice within us was silent?

Because ours is a faith of relationships, much of what we do in faith must be visible.  Can we feed the hungry without anyone seeing?  Or house the homeless, or clothe the naked?  Usually, as we do those things that are our Christian responsibility, we cannot help but do them in a way in which someone, at least, will see.  And there will be moments when we will not hold our silence – indeed, moments when we should not: not for ourselves, but for those whom we serve, and for the sake of relationship.  We will speak of those whom we feed in this very community, in the fellowship kitchen and from the food pantry; we will tell their stories, we speak their truth in love, we will call them our neighbors.  We will speak of our work with Habitat, building and restoring homes here, and we’ll encourage others to get involved.  We will be open about the ways in which we serve so that others might come to serve alongside us, so that the humanity of those who are often dehumanized might be recognized.

Sometimes we will speak of our own Lenten disciplines, as they encourage us to be mindful of the practices of our faith, and guard us from the dangers of the voice of judgment within us all – for that is the point of our Lenten practices, whether it is committing to volunteer work, or to going green, or to finding out what it would actually be like to live off food stamps.  We can share our experiences, and thereby strengthen our relationships with one another and with Creation.  We can seek together new ways of living Christ’s love towards one another.

And sometimes, we will speak of this small black smear of ash on our foreheads; this reminder of our own mortality, this reminder that our faith – the practices which bind us to one another in community, the practices which unify us into one Body in Christ – that our relationships cannot wait.  There is no more opportune time.  There is no dodging away from the voice of doubt and judgment within us, there is only our response to it; our choice to ignore it.

Yes, it can be awkward, leaving the church on Ash Wednesday, going about the rest of our evenings with blackened foreheads.  It can feel like we’re only doing this to prove our piety.  These marks we bear tonight may well attract stares, of approbation or of disdain.  They can make us wish for a quiet room in which to be our humble Christian selves.

But they can also be an opportunity for us.  For all who stare at us this evening, whatever the reason, are equally made in God’s own holy image.  They are equally part of God’s creation.  They are our neighbors, those whom we are called to love without reserve.

May the ashes we wear tonight tune our hearts, not to the inward voice of shame, but outward, to those we are called to love.  May they serve not to make us feel good about our own faith and practices, but rather to make us aware of the responsibilities to which we are called by our baptisms.  And may they serve even after they are washed from our skin, as a reminder that when it comes to loving our neighbors, now is always the most opportune time.