Written by Gradye Parsons
Each month the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Moderator or Vice Moderator of the 220th General Assembly write a column of general interest for the church-at-large.
The lectionary gospel text for Ash Wednesday this year is Matthew 6:1–6. The first verse of which is: “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.”
This is an interesting verse to think about when you leave a worship space with ashes smeared on your head. What does the ash cross on our forehead say to others? I suppose that people who are Christians have some idea what it is about. Many times we forget that it is there and wonder why people are looking at our heads.
So it is that we start Lent by practicing our piety before others. We then make a promise to ourselves and God that we will do more of that and less of this. It is a sincere promise as all of our promises are with God. But someone or something or really most anything crops up and the promise gets mediated, shrunk to size, or in the better luck next time category.
I wonder if it would not be better to intentionally practice our piety before others. The goal would not be to win a piety contest. The hope would be to ask the community known as the church to hold us true. In the congregation we seek the best discipleship for each other. We don’t always think about that. Is Mrs. Jones praying for me? Did Mr. Smith just give me the high sign?
Presbyterians promise at infant baptism to help raise this child as a whole congregation. I think we tend to think that ends at confirmation, college, or some other milepost. But I think it is a lifelong commitment to a long life. I think most of us would confess we could still use some community nurture in our adult journey of faith.
So let’s practice our piety as a community. Let us continue to imagine we see that cross on each other’s forehead. Say a prayer for each other. Give a thumbs up of biblical encouragement.
Cold creates community. I drive past a bus stop every day. It is where two routes cross so there are usually several people gathered. Normally they are pretty good about respecting each other’s space. The polar vortex has changed that. They have packed themselves into the little bus shelter like sardines for warmth and to avoid the wind.
You could probably make the same case for warm weather that sends us to the beach in droves, for opening day in baseball, and for fall foliage drives that become bumper-to-bumper. There is common interest like a stream heading in one direction, and before you know it the stream has created all kinds of communities of floating things.
Abraham Lincoln said “The best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time.” I wonder if Abe would say that today with our high-speed high-definition world. To review the speed at which the first home computer became today’s tablet does seem to reflect a future that shows up faster and faster. I also wonder if the president had the same patience for the news of the American Civil War ending. Everything I have read says he did not.
We need to start planning now. We have only 10 years till it is the 800th anniversary of the Nativity Scene. Tradition has it that Saint Francis started the custom upon returning from Bethlehem in 1223. He staged a Nativity Scene in a cave with live animals and people. It went viral and became the thing to do at your cathedral, chapel or palace. At some point statues were substituted for the characters. Then people made smaller versions and the crèche industry was born.
The 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) brings together people from all over the globe. Men and women dress in the clothing of their country – I wear khakis and a sports coat – and you hear many languages and see many different customs.
In the midst of it all, it is the stories that make the impression.