Dear Sisters and Brothers,
Blessed Ash Wednesday! My
prayers are with you as we begin together our Lenten journey. For this
installment of my Wednesday thoughts I want to share with you the excerpt below
from the Ash Wednesday sermon I will preach today at St. James, Alexandria. You
can find the text of the whole sermon by clicking this
Losing My Graceless
Flannery O'Connor's stories
are full of religious people. People whose religious purity and moral rectitude
would, to borrow a phrase from Anne Lamott, make Jesus drink gin straight from a
For instance, there's Mrs.
Turpin from the short story "Revelation." Serenely confident of her own goodness
and of her good standing with Jesus, Mrs. Turpin scans and silently classifies
the people who share space with her in a doctor's waiting room.
Black (using the n-word).
White trash. Common. Ugly. In her own assessment of things, she is higher on the
scale of human worth than all of these people because she is a good Christian
In a manner of speaking,
she is both good and Christian, at least to all outward appearances.
She works hard, pays her
own way, and always says and does the polite and proper thing.
She goes to church, knows
hymns by heart, and chatters with Jesus like a trusted member of the beauty shop
Religion has gotten in the
way of her relationship with God. Mrs. Turpin is an example of the kind of
skin-deep piety and outward moral correctness that Jesus warns about in the
portion of the Sermon on the Mount we just heard.
Here's what Jesus says.
"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." (Matthew 6:1)
Jesus is not telling us to
hide our spiritual practices from public view. He is not especially concerned
with whether or not we will wipe the ashes from our foreheads following Ash
Instead, Jesus wants us to
be clear that God is in the grace business. Grace changes who we are. Too often
religious people like Mrs. Turpin assume that God is just a bookkeeper. A divine
bean counter whose only function is to add up the good we have done to see if we
have earned an entry pass for the pearly gates.
Spiritual disciplines like
the ones we emphasize during Lent--prayer, repentance, Bible study, fasting, and
almsgiving--contain a peculiar danger for us. While they can draw us deeper into
grace, they can also get in the way of our relationship with God.
In other words, religion
can get in the way of our relationship with God.
That is what happened with
Mrs. Turpin. She is not presenting a God-fearing front to hide from others her
devious motives or malicious intentions. She has not the first clue that her
outer and inner lives stand in mortal tension with each other.
In fact, it never occurs to
her that anything about her interior life needs changing. She is convinced that,
so long as she does all the right things, God will have to accept her. It would
come as a huge surprise to her to discover that God is more interested in who
she is through what he does for her than in what she does to win his
God is more interested in
who she becomes by his grace than in what she can achieve through her own
efforts. And the same goes for you and me.
Read the rest at Pelican
Anglican by clicking here.
The Rt. Rev. Jacob W.
Owensby, PhD, DD
The Diocese of Western
P. O. Box 2031,
Alexandria, LA 71309