Thursday, February 26, 2009
Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18
When I was a campus minister, I went to a training session with other new campus ministers, and one of the seminars I attended was one of mission trips. I’d been on a couple by then, and I thought maybe this might be a ministry that might get carried over into my new job. So I went to learn.
I learned a lot, but not much about college students in mission. I learned that one campus minister had been on a mission trip somewhere internationally for many years in a row. Another one was exceedingly proud of the fact that she’d been to one country so many times that she could have been the ambassador from the US. A third seemed to want everyone to know that foreign missions were dangerous, take it from him, he’d been pick-pocketed.
What I had gone to wasn’t so much a nuts and bolts training seminar on quick passport acquisition and strategies for fresh water and building material collection when in poor countries, as it was a bragging competition between ministers who were feeling the need to make their mark, somehow.
There’s a ten-dollar word here for what I was hearing: Hubris. It’s greek, originally, and it meant “Excessive pride, presumption or arrogance (originally toward the gods).” Now, it is more generally understood to be “any outrageous act or exhibition of pride or disregard for basic moral laws.” Usually the act results in the exposire, or downfall of the person who has committed the act. I could just see one of these people taking a team somewhere, getting into a pickle, and damaging the trip or even someone physically, because they knew so much they didn’t need to prepare. Ultimately, their lack of prudence would reflect on themselves, on their team, their church and even their country.
Ever met anyone like that? It’s like that old forture cookie proverb; “It is better to keep one’s mouth shut and be thought of as a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt”.
I have met people like that. I have met Christians like that. People who will wear Christian T-shirts all the time, people who don’t have just one Christian symbol on the back of their car, they have 20 bumperstickers. I once knew a guy who had no less than 15 crosses on his body at any one time.
Apparently Jesus had met some people like that too, because here he is, teaching his disciples what the proper way to be faithful in public is. And the basic statement of the lesson is; do as little as possible in public, and what you do do, it better only be for God’s benefit. To do so otherwise is to be a hypocrite. Not my word, hypocrite; his.
So then, you’ve probably already jumped ahead of me here—what is this silliness with a cross of ash on the forehead? Is there anything that’s more showy? “Here”, some take this as saying; “I’ve repented and now I am better than you.”
For some, you’d be absolutely right. But the answer isn’t to throw away the practice, or to resist adaptation of it yourself. The imposition of ashes is an ancient practice, some have found mention of it as early as the 700’s, over 1200 years ago; and then it was referring to the more ancient practice of sackcloth and ashes. We have seen in Job and other Hebrew Bible occurences that this is the outward sign of an inward move to repentance and acknowledgement of sin. There is nothing new about it, the recent popularity of this particular act in Protestant churches can be traced more to the recovery of institutional memory and the blessed lessening anti-Catholic bigotry than to any creation of a new thing.
Our goal as Christians is not to “look Christian”. It is not our goal to keep score on how many people we have “brought to Christ”, as if we have any power to do anything of the sort. It is to move toward the acknowledgement of sin and to repent of it, both as individuals, and as communities, and to show the love of God to those who are around us. With vigor, yes. With commitment, yes, but also with prudence. What we do affects how others see God. If we pray in a restaurant, it should be because we want to give thanks for the food and the time together, not because we want to “witness” to those who are seated at the other tables. It should be loud enough for the people at our table only to hear, not the family with the kids six tables over.
Ashes on our heads are symbols of repentance and the seeking of the forgiveness of sins. We’ve done it or we want to do it on the inside, so we adapt the sign on the outside. In its way, it is the same thing as adult baptism—there is no inherent magic in the act, but it is a symbol for what is happening in our hearts.
You may decide that you want to do this tonight. You may decide that it is better to do it on your hand than your head. You may decide that you do not want this symbol on you at all. I’m just the tool here, that’s between you and God.
But I would encourage you to reflect on this passage of Matthew, and realize what it takes for granted as well as for what it says. If you are a follower of Christ, the way you show who and whose you are matters. Being tasteful and discreet is preferable, but to do nothing is not. Letting people see what you believe by your actions when observed is preferable to showing them in order to demand their observance isn’t.
One is discipleship, the other is hubris. And the end result of hubris is that you fail because of the very thing you took excessive pride in.
Be disciples, not advertisers.