When you try to do as
the prophet Joel proclaims—to proclaim a fast, to get people to drop everything
and turn their hearts to God—you will be seen as some kind of fanatic.
If you do the right
thing today and come to church (and you’re here, aren’t you?) and choose to
carry even a small sign of your mortality and penitence around with you on your
forehead, then someone, somewhere will say “Ha! You have your reward!”
Even if someone at work
or in the store or in your household doesn’t remind you that Jesus just told us not to
do this in public, I will bet that there is inside of you a little, chiding
voice that is just waiting to rub it in and make you feel small.
We want to live right,
in the way God wants; and to live well, in a way that has dignity and purpose.
And yet as soon as we begin to get serious about being faithful we end either
feeling guilty or being misunderstood. Or both.
Even Paul reminds us
that Christians are a universally and consistently misunderstood lot. Look at
his list: we Christians are treated as imposters (liars!), as unknown (as ones
without celebrity!). We are seen as punished—beat up by others! — and as a
sorry, sorry lot. We have nothing to give and treated worse than the poor.
It should be no
surprise that Christians are misunderstood. I mean, we spend so much time
trying to straighten each other out, it’s no wonder than the culture at large
does not know what to make of us.
So Jesus is right.
Beware of practicing our piety before others — it is dangerous and
When Jesus warns us not
to be smug in our spiritual practices, does that mean that we should not
practice them? Of course not. He is saying to be careful.
is the truth. We cannot help but practice our piety before others! What we do
and who we are is there for all the world—and God-- to see. The challenge is
for whom we show it. It is to make others think better of us? Or does what we
do somehow show off the truth of who and whose we are?
A good place to start
is to get the relationship between our outer world (what might be called our
treasure) and our inner world (our heart) lined up. Make sure that one flows
out of the other.
Our treasure and our
heart are attracted to each other like iron filings are attracted to magnets.
Jesus says we have a choice. We can leave our hearts in a stuck place beholden
to the outside stuff; or we can put our heart where we want to come out and organize
everything else around it.
Jesus’ remedy for those
of us who might be addicted to some degree of public approval when we do the
right thing is to make sure we start by putting our heart it belongs.
So we have a choice. On
the one hand, we can stay mired in the everyday and the hum-drum, reacting to
one crisis after another, we can fret and worry about how much money we wish we
had; we can let all these things dictate our actions and choices.
We can live out of our
scarcity and let our fear run us—but put on a good game face. That’s one
choice. But that’s the kind of person Jesus is warning us not to be: the person
who makes the biggest fuss over their gift, the biggest show of their prayer.
Why? Because for some people, all that show is hiding something; the loud and
bright presentation is meant distract us (and even themselves!) from the truth.
The other choice is to
admit who and whose we are, and to put our heart where we and God wants it to
be. To say out loud that right now, in this moment, I will give my heart to God
and put my heart where God wants and I will let everything, my treasure, my
priorities, my self go to it.
It is really
simpler—and harder—than it sounds. The first step is to tell the truth. The
second step is to experiment with living with that truth, even for a short
time. Tell the truth and live the truth.
Say the truth: “I don’t
have my act together. But I want to pray more.” Then just for a moment, live
the truth: in this moment, pray as much as you are able.
Say the truth: “I don’t
have my priorities straight all the time.” Then just for a moment, live the
truth: right now, right here, I will do this one right thing.
Say the truth: “There
are days when I live out of fear and reactivity, but I want to be present to
God, my neighbor, and creation.” Then live the truth: right now, just for a
moment do something as simple as a deep cleansing breath that pushes out all
that old stale air you didn’t even know you had down there and breathe in as
deeply as you have ever breathed. For just this moment, know what that feels
like to be here, in this place, in this body, in this community.
Say the truth: “I
define my life by all the stuff I have and all the stuff I wish I had.” Then,
right now, in this moment, live the truth: give something out of our
incomparable abundance so that someone else might have a meal, or a roof, or a
book or a companion that they did not otherwise have.
Say the truth: “I am
wretched and broken and I am not the person God made me to be.” And then live
the truth: know that you are forgiven; that you are an adopted member of God’s
family, Christ’s body, the Church and know that you are blessed. Right now. Right
By telling the truth and then, even just for a
moment, even experimentally, even gracefully, living the truth we put
our heart where it belongs—where God wants it to be—and then right now, in this
moment we let everything organize itself around that.
But be careful. This is
not simply an act of the will. It is a response to grace. When we tell the
truth and then live the truth, we are in fact listening to the Holy Spirit who
goes before us, and prepares us and makes us ready to receive God. We don’t do
this to impress. We do this because it is true.
And be prepared to be
misunderstood. Once we give our hearts to God; once we tell the truth and put
our heart there, and once we live the truth and begin to organize our stuff,
our relationships, and our priorities around where your heart actually belongs,
people will not understand.
Heck, we might
not understand! But we will be changed. We will experience God’s transforming
love and power.
The Apostle Paul says
that “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are
well known; as dying, and see-- we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed;
as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having
nothing, and yet possessing everything.”
There are only a few
liturgies in our Episcopal tradition that requires us to come to the altar more
than once in a single liturgy.
Today is one of them. We come forward to receive ashes; and we come twice for
Maundy Thursday (footwashing) and we come forward during a public service of
healing. I believe this action of coming to the altar twice suggests that the
action telling the truth and living the truth. That telling the truth and
living the truth is necessary for real repentance, real service and real
Telling the truth and
living the truth is also the action of coming to the cross. There is hope in
meeting the truth of Christ’s suffering. It is on the cross that all of our
hard, often unpleasant truths are crucified and given back to us in the truth of
new life unfolding right here, right now.
This Lent, this forty
days, this tithe of our year, we are called once again to experiment in telling
the truth to ourselves and to God and then, with God’s grace, living the truth.
The truth is that we
can’t tell the truth alone. The truth is that we cannot live the truth alone
either. But God has not left us alone. Jesus walks this path with us. We have
the very breath of God, the Holy Spirit, praying in us and with us, even when we
can’t find the words. We will encounter God’s truth and ours in scripture and
in worship and in community.
One thing for sure:
once you give your heart to God, and even for one moment organize your life
around that, nothing will be the same. Once we tell the truth and live the
truth, even for a little bit, we cannot go back. Today is the acceptable time.
Today is the day of salvation. Today is the day to tell the truth. Today is the
day to live the truth.