Thursday, February 14, 2013

Bishop Jake on Ash Wednesday

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 link.

Losing My Graceless Religion

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 cat dish.

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 woman.

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 gossip circle.

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 Wednesday services.

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 approval.

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.

In Christ's Love,

The Rt. Rev. Jacob W. Owensby, PhD, DD The Diocese of Western Louisiana
P. O. Box 2031, Alexandria, LA 71309