March 5, 2014 – Ash Wednesday
© 2014 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
I want to let you in on a little secret that you probably already know. When members of the clergy get together behind closed doors, they like to engage in a little friendly competition. But it’s not a competition to see who is the holiest among us—at least not directly. Anyone who talks about how often he prays or how much time she spends caring for the poor or how he’s always reading some impressive theological book is instantly ostracized as a braggart and a blowhard. No, no—we are far less obvious in our boasting. We contend with one another in the sacred art of competitive misery.
“Last week, my Senior Warden called me on Friday evening at 6:45 to ask me whether I was going to make it to his daughter’s piano recital the next morning,” a self-pitying priest exclaims. “Oh, you think that’s bad?” another chimes in. “Well, the matriarch of my church saw me at the grocery store on Saturday afternoon and said, ‘Don’t you know that our minister would never be seen in public without his clerical collar on?’” Unable to resist, a third priest adds, “I asked the chairwoman of our Altar Guild if it would be alright for us to use a chalice and paten made from pottery during Lent, and, by 4pm the next day, she produced a petition signed by every member of the Altar Guild—active and inactive—explaining why my ‘little stunt’ would upend everything that is good and right about our church.” (Don’t worry: nothing like that ever happens at St. John’s.)
Of course, clergy aren’t the only ones who compete with one another to prove whose life is the most difficult. As a child, when I went to visit my grandmother during the summer, she would take me along to the beauty parlor, where women said the most amazing things about their children, about their husbands, and about their ministers. The only people worse than that are men on the golf course. I’ve sat through more than one meal at an assisted living facility where the table talk was a repeated one-upmanship of ailments and infirmities. And you know as well as I do that family gatherings are rarely an opportunity to celebrate each other’s successes. That would be immodest and might upset Aunt Susan, whom we all know has had a rough go of it lately. Instead, everyone takes turns comparing stories about broken furnaces and annoying neighbors. But I’m sure you don’t know anybody like that at all.
We compete to prove who is the most miserable. But why? Why do we feel the need to act as if life comes with more challenges than blessings? Why do we need to pretend that things are worse than they really are? Is it because we worry that our friends and family will think less of us if things are going well? Will our colleagues hear our joy as selfish boasting? Are we worried that God will resent our happiness and send pestilence upon us in order to teach us humility? What do you think God really wants from his people—to grovel in dust and ashes? What is Lent all about—to spend forty days pretending that everything is terrible? To give up chocolate and soda and alcohol and everything fun in order to show God that we really are miserable enough to deserve his favor?
The prophet Joel lived during a time when God’s people were in a lot of trouble. He didn’t give a date for his work, so we don’t know exactly when it was written, but we can tell from his prophecy that his people had suffered through a plague of locusts and a desolating drought. The resulting famine was thought to be a punishment from God, who seemed angry at his people for engaging in idol worship. They had forgotten what it meant to belong to God, so the prophet called them to repent. “Blow the trumpet in Zion,” he declared. “Sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast.” In other words, gather everyone together in a great display of remorse and penitence, and maybe—just maybe—God will have mercy on us.
It feels like that sometimes, doesn’t it? Everything is falling apart around us, and it must be our fault. Maybe God is trying to tell us something. Maybe we should pray a little harder. Maybe we should hang our head a little lower. Maybe we should shuffle our feet and kick at the dirt and mope about like Eeyore. Maybe then God will remember us and turn things around. Maybe, if we’re miserable enough today, God will make things a little better tomorrow.
But that’s not what Jesus says. Whenever you give alms, don’t sound a trumpet before you. Instead, give your alms in secret. Don’t even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Whenever you pray, don’t do it in public. Instead, go into your room and shut the door. Don’t make a big show about saying your prayers. And, whenever you fast, don’t look dismal and don’t whine about how hungry you are. Instead, keep your fasting a secret. Put oil on your head and a smile on your face and act like everything is normal. And your Father, who sees all of this in secret, will reward you. In other words, God doesn’t care about the show or the fuss. All he cares about is your heart. You can do what you want and say what you like, but God knows where your heart belongs. And that’s the only thing that matters.
That means that the reward Jesus is talking about isn’t the product of our manufactured misery but a gift that comes when we give our hearts to God. I don’t believe that God is waiting to bless those who repent the loudest. God isn’t holding back his mercy until we adopt the strictest Lenten discipline. I believe that God’s blessing comes whenever we renew our relationship with him. In other words, we don’t demonstrate our misery in order that God might remember us. We embrace a season of repentance in order that we might remember God.