Ash Wednesday — February 26th 2020
Pastor Galen Zook
Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21
Pics or It Didn’t Happen
We live in an age dominated by social media, when it seems that the majority of interactions that take place between human beings happens on-line or via a screen.
And in this age of social media, we are so often obsessed with capturing, documenting and sharing even the most ordinary and mundane parts of our lives. The saying “Pics or it didn’t happen” could very well be the mantra of our social networking age. So often an experience is only thought to be real, believable, or authentic if it has been appropriately captured and shared on at least one social media platform. Two people are only thought to be in a real relationship when they have become “facebook official,” and one of the primary considerations of newly engaged couples is what their instagram wedding hashtag is going to be.
In this social media-saturated society, rituals and ceremonies, including even the most personal or religious ones, seem to have no value unless they can be appropriately documented and shared.
As one author stated:
Activities [take] on meaning not for their basic content but for the way they are turned into content, disseminated through the digital network, and responded to. In this context, your everyday experiences are only limited by your ability to share them and by your ability to package them appropriately- a photograph with a beautiful filter and a witty caption, or a tweet containing an obscure movie reference that hints at hidden depths.
In this age, it’s become increasingly difficult to distinguish truth from falsehood, genuine and heartfelt emotions from those actions motivated by a desire to enhance our on-line persona.
Nothing New Under the Sun
Now, all of this may seem like a purely modern phenomenon. Indeed, our ability to capture and share the most seemingly intimate moments of our lives has dramatically increased due to modern advancements in digital technology.
But our Scripture Lesson from the Gospel of Matthew this evening reveals that the religious elites of Jesus’s day also seemed concerned with cultivating their outward personas and presenting their best curated selves to the world.
Jesus referred to these seemingly uber religious people as “hypocrites” — a word deriving from the Greek word for actors or stage players. These religious hypocrite actors seemed to be concerned mostly with putting on a show and demonstrating their outward religiosity.
In truth, they regularly engaged in religious behaviors that we today would consider admirable — such as giving money (or “alms”) to those who were in need. Praying on a regular basis, and even fasting, going without food for certain lengths of time — a practice that was designed to remind them of their need and utter dependence on God.
But rather looking into the faces of those who were in need and allowing their hearts to break for those who lived under the constant yoke of oppression, these religious actors sounded trumpets to announce to the world that they were giving their money to the poor — sort of the ancient equivalent to snapping a selfie with someone who is homeless, and posting it to instagram with the hashtag #doinggood!
Rather than crying out to God in anguish and grief over the injustices of the world, these religious leaders prayed prayers in the public square that showed off their seemingly theological and intellectual superiority — the ancient equivalent to taking quotes out of context from famous civil rights heroes and retweeting them in an attempt to demonstrate just how “woke” we think we are.
And, rather than forgoing the basic necessities of life that in such a way that would have put these religious leaders in a position to better understand and identify with the socially marginalized or economically oppressed, these religious actors of Jesus’s day gave up their most insignificant luxuries, but disfigured their faces and intentionally looked dismal in order to garner the admiration and respect of those around them.
Jesus told his followers to not be like those hypocrites. But it’s interesting to note that Jesus did not tell his followers to stop giving to those in need — in fact he assumed that we would do so. He said, “whenever you give alms” (Matt. 6:3). He simply wants us not to feel the need to announce to the world that we are doing so.
He didn’t tell us to stop praying. Again, he said, “whenever you pray” (Matt. 6:5). But when we pray, Jesus told us to enter our closets and shut the door.
And he didn’t tell us to stop fasting. He assumed that we would continue to do so. But he encouraged us not to make a big show of fasting in order to impress others, but instead to try and make it not so obvious that we are fasting. After all, the point of all of these actions is to help us grow in our knowledge and intimacy with God — not to impress our friends or followers.
Jesus wanted his followers to not be so overly concerned and obsessed with what others thought of them, and instead to be more concerned with pleasing God, who sees what we do in secret and who promises to reward us for even those good deeds that go unnoticed, undocumented, and unshared. A God who is concerned more about our relationship status with Jesus than how many likes or heart emojis we receive from our friends and followers.
I believe that Jesus wanted to free his followers from what has been described in our day as the “paralysing self-consciousness” that fills so many users of social media, ”[that] sense that no social broadcast is good enough, no tweet or Facebook status update reflects the mix of cool, wit, and elan that will generate feedback and earn the user more social capital.
In fact, I believe that Jesus wants to free us from all forms of captivity, internal and external, from anything that might hold us back from truly being present in the moment, and from truly connecting with God and those around us. Jesus wants to lead us into a place where we can be honest with ourselves, and honest before God. Where we can acknowledge who we really are, and where we can be transformed into the people God wants us to become.
Becoming these sorts of people will involve change, but not the sort of temporary or surface-level change that comes from beach-bod ready fad diets or extreme home makeovers.
The Fasting God Desires
In calling for us to change, to repent and to turn in the opposite direction, Jesus stood in the tradition of the Israelite prophet Joel, who called the people to “rend your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2:13). Jesus followed in the footsteps of the prophet Isaiah, who proclaimed God’s words to the Israelite people:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
…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? (Is. 58:5-6).
Isaiah said that when we engage in this type of fasting,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail. (Is. 58:10-11)
Engaging in this sort of fasting will involve turning away from the fear and the shame that so often holds us captive. It will involve allowing God to heal and restore those areas where we’ve hurt others or been hurt by others. It will involve acknowledging where we’ve gone astray, and returning to the God who loves us, whose arms are open wide and outstretched to welcome us back again, no matter what we’ve done or how far we’ve strayed.
When we open ourselves up to receive the love, and grace, and mercy, and forgiveness that Jesus offers, then we will pray, and fast, and help those who are in need — not because it will enhance our social or religious standing, or win us more friends, or followers, but because in doing so, we are drawn even more deeply and intimately into relationship with the God who loves us, the God who knows us even better than we know ourselves.
In a few short moments we will be invited to come forward, to receive the imposition of ashes pressed upon our foreheads. And as we do so, I want to invite us to meditate on these few short lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday:
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will