Once people know that you are even the least bit intentional about following Jesus, you are done. Finito. You can’t win. Give up trying to manage how other people see you. It is a lost cause.
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 on the street or at the water-cooler 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 uncontrollable!
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.
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; we can react to one crisis after another; we can we can let how much money we wish we had 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. 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 simple such 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 justthis 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 some thing 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 here.
There are many more truths that we can say; and so there are many more truths that we can live.
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 (and the only one in the prayer book). 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 bleieve 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 healing.
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.
In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This was Fr. Gerns' sermon for Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2006 at Trinity Church.