February 26, 2020
Ash Wednesday, Pastor Javen Swanson
Today’s scripture readings: Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 51:1-17; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
The comedian Anthony Jeselnik does a stand-up bit where he takes people to task who go on social media on the day of a tragedy and offer their condolences—people who see something horrible happen and immediately jump on the internet to broadcast their “thoughts and prayers” for the victims. He says, what good does that do? On the day of a tragedy, the victims are not on Twitter. They have other things to be doing; they’re not seeing our tweets. What are “thoughts and prayers” worth, the comedian asks? Those whose only response to a tragedy is “thoughts and prayers” aren’t giving any of their time, their money, or even their compassion. He says, when we transmit our “thoughts and prayers” online, what we’re really saying is, “Don’t forget about me today. Lots of crazy distractions in the news right now, but don’t forget how sad I am!” He says it’s like a wedding photographer who only takes selfies.
A few years ago the British journalist James Bartholomew coined a term for this phenomenon; he calls it “virtue signaling.” It’s a way of “indicating that you are kind, decent and virtuous,” without really having to do anything. Bartholomew says, “There was a time in the distant past when people thought you could only be virtuous by doing things… These things involve effort and self-sacrifice…. Much more convenient to achieve virtue by expressing” our support for a noble cause online or publishing our contempt for those we think have got it all wrong. He says that “virtue-signaling battles can soon take leave of any genuine concern for [others]…. It’s just showing off.”
Oby and I are supporters of OutFront Minnesota, which is Minnesota’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization. For years, we made automated monthly contributions—until last year, when they asked us to consider co-sponsoring their annual gala. We realized that, for only a little more money than we were giving through our monthly contributions, we could make a single, large, one-time gift to sponsor the gala, which not only got us a pair of tickets to the event, but also earned us a small ad in the program book, and got us into the special VIP reception beforehand with the free drinks and fancy hors d’oeuvres. We justified all this by telling ourselves it’s important that those attending OutFront’s gala see a gay married clergy couple among the event’s sponsors—that, actually, it’s an act of evangelism, since our little ad communicated that there are LGBTQ-affirming faith communities who make it a point to welcome those who have often felt shunned by the church. That really was part of it. But if I’m honest, our motivations weren’t totally pure. It was also a way of drawing attention to ourselves, or, to use Bartholmew’s words, “just showing off.”
On this day when we mark ashes on our foreheads, we begin the season of Lent. This is a season of repentance, fasting, and preparation for the coming of Easter. It is a time of self-examination and reflection. It’s a time when we focus on our relationship with God—some of us choosing to give something up, others taking on a new spiritual practice, still others committing to volunteer in the community or give of themselves for others.
In today’s Gospel reading Jesus teaches about the proper way to observe three of the basic practices of the Christian community: giving money for the poor, prayer, and fasting. We do these things, Jesus says, not for our own benefit, but only for God, “who sees in secret.” We do these things not so others will see us and be impressed, but in order to deepen our relationship with the one who created us.
Why do we at Gloria Dei do what we do? Is it really because our hearts are so perfectly aligned with Gloria Dei’s mission to be a caring, healing, and welcoming community that we make our offerings to support this congregation, or is it also that those contributions get us bit of a break on our taxes? Is it really because we are so clear about God’s concern for the outcast that we at Gloria Dei are so emphatic about welcoming all, or do we also revel in countering the voices of exclusion we hear coming from those other Christian communities? Is it really because we have heard Christ’s command to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless that we take part in the various social justice and outreach ministries of this congregation, or does volunteering also assuage our guilt about our own comfortable, privileged lives?
The truth probably lies in some complicated mix of all of those things. Our motivations aren’t always so easy to parse. Many of us, I know, really do understand ourselves to be living our faith when we engage the ministries of the church, and those efforts really do deepen our spirituality and draw us closer to God. At the same time, volunteering at church is a great resume builder, and it looks good on college applications, too.
Ash Wednesday, this day that ushers in a season of reflection and renewal, is a good day to ask these questions and contemplate these complexities. The ashes we will receive on our foreheads in a few moments are a sobering reminder of our mortality. The words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” are a gentle reminder that it’s not about us—which is probably a good thing for us to hear at least once a year. Because we are human, we have a way of using whatever is available to us to cultivate just the right image and exert control over our lives—to make things all about us. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells us that even our spiritual practices can be manipulated to serve our own ends—to promote ourselves and earn people’s favor. Jesus says, you’ll get what you want. If what we want is to be adored by others, we can get that. But if what we want is a deeper relationship with God, then we’ll have to set aside all our scheming efforts to make a life for ourselves and surrender ourselves to God; to trust, as Jesus promises us, that God sees. We don’t have to bend to the pressure of our peers or society more broadly to manufacture the right image or curry favor with others. We don’t need to lament our inadequacy or our supposed lack of resources. The message of Ash Wednesday is that it’s not about us. It’s not about our effort, our success, our achievement. It’s not about what we are or what we are not. We are sustained only by God’s mercy.
The beautiful thing is, if we make this our everyday practice and master this mindset, we will be less likely to fall prey to the voices in our culture that tell us we need to be more productive or more efficient, or to the voices that peddle products that promise to make us more attractive or fashionable or more worthy of people’s approval. If surrendering to God becomes our way of life, there won’t be a need to compare ourselves to one another and measure all the ways we fall short. Abandoning our efforts to master ourselves and resting instead in God’s mercy is the way out of the rat race that has worn so many of us down and left us feeling defeated and empty.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s not about us. The path through the Lenten wilderness to resurrected life is the practice of surrendering ourselves to God—surrendering our determination to prop ourselves up, surrendering our insistence on making a name for ourselves. The path to life is truly learning to trust that God sees us, and loves us, and holds us—and to trust that, in the end, that’s all the matters.
James Bartholomew, “The Terrible Rise of ‘Virtue Signaling,” in The Spectator, published April 18, 2015, accessed February 25, 2020, https://www.spectator.co.uk/2015/04/hating-the-daily-mail-is-a-substitute-for-doing-good/.
Winn Collier, “March 6, Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21),” in The Christian Century, published January 29, 2019, accessed February 24, 2020, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/march-6-ash-wednesday-matthew-61-6-16-21.
Anthony Jeselnik, “Thoughts and Prayers,” on YouTube, published November 11, 2016, accessed February 24, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QdWOptGFfjE.
Jeffery L. Tribble, Sr., in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).
Samuel Wells, “Holiness: Simplicity: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21,” in The Christian Century, published February 23, 2000, accessed February 24, 2020, https://www.christiancentury.org/article//holiness-simplicity.