Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Good evening. Both of our readings tonight focus on the difference between false piety and true piety. Jesus commands us to pray in private, saying: “do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.” Likewise, when we fast, “do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.”
I suppose it’s a little bit ironic that this is one of the readings for Ash Wednesday—it’s ironic, because when you leave here, everyone will know you’ve been to church, practicing your piety. But, of course, we get the ashes as a reminder of our inevitable death and our constant need for forgiveness. Still, it can be difficult for the people outside of church to understand this distinction.
The prophet Joel urges the people to: “return to [the Lord] with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.” I love that line. It’s a reminder that doing the right thing comes from within, from having righteous thoughts, from having a righteous heart.
We are warped by the sin of the world. And make no mistake, we all participate in that sin. Our hearts are distorted by sin. We replace God’s justice with our judgment, and then we pretend that what comes from us really comes from God. This is why we must always be penitent and humble. We cannot restore broken relationships if we’re not humble.
I grew up in a small city, Washington, PA. It’s about thirty miles south of Pittsburgh. Thirty-five years ago, I was confirmed in First Presbyterian Church; it was the old-money church. There were a lot of snobby kids in that church and I never felt like I fit in there. That changed when I started high school.
My mother was a very fine singer, and the summer before I started high school, she got a gig as a paid soloist in the choir of an American Baptist church in the South Hills of Pittsburgh. It wasn’t long before she started dragging me to church with her.
“The kids in the youth group are really nice,” she said.
I didn’t believe her at first, but she was right.
If you see my mother, please don’t tell her I said she was right.
But she was. Even though many of those kids came from wealthy suburbs, they were really nice. There were some blue-collar kids too. And all of the grownups seemed really nice and kind, too. Clearly, they’d had a pastor who taught love—and a congregation who lived into what their pastor taught. That pastor had retired a few years before my mother and I started attending the church, but the new pastor seemed like a great guy, too. He was about forty, married, and had two young kids—you know, the kind of pastor that every church wants to call. He was good with the kids in the youth group and it seemed like the congregation loved their pastor.
For the first time, I felt a real sense of belonging in church. I made some great friends. I went on mission trips. I played in the handbell choir. I even went to church camp. It was great.
Like many kids in my generation, I began to drift away from church after I went off to college. But I kept in touch with some of my old church friends.
Not long after I graduated, I got together with one of my church friends, Matt. I asked him how things were at church. Matt said, “Didn’t you hear? Pastor Jim resigned?”
I was surprised. I thought everybody loved Pastor Jim. “What happened?” I asked. I couldn’t figure out why he’d leave.
“Oh,” Matt said, “Jim’s wife had an affair. They got divorced.”
That didn’t make sense. Matt told me that a lot of people felt that Pastor Jim no longer had the moral authority to lead the congregation. So, Jim left before they could fire him. That still didn’t make sense to me. I mean, it was his wife who had the affair, right?
Matt said that a lot of people wanted to fire him right away. They didn’t care that his wife was the one who had the affair. Other members defended him. The members fought with one another. Many of them left. I guess Pastor Jim thought the best thing was to resign, so the congregation could heal.
I want to point out that I heard all of this second-hand. I wasn’t there to witness it; I don’t know everything that took place or who said what to whom. I just know that they lost a lot of members. This was in the mid-90s.
I didn’t understand church politics then. Nor did I understand the pressures of being a pastor, and how this life can consume you at times. But when I heard the story from Matt, I thought, “wow, those people are really judgmental.” And it seemed like one more reason not to go to church.
I realize now that I was being a bit judgmental, myself. I don’t know all the facts. But it was a church that seemed to love one another and the community around it. I’d say they had a hundred to a hundred and fifty every Sunday. Maybe more. I didn’t count the attendance numbers back then.
A few years ago, I drove past that Baptist church. There was a for sale sign in front of the building. I still don’t know all that happened, but it appears that they never recovered from that one event.
Jesus tell us and shows us that sin is not just a collection of bad acts; sin is a category of relationship. This is shown most clearly in the Gospel of John, but it’s in the other gospels, too.
The sins of this world lead to distorted and broken relationships. Sin takes us out of a right relationship with God.
We magnify those sins when we lead with our own judgment and outrage. And I say this knowing that this congregation has gone through its own season of judgment and outrage. I say this knowing that I’m speaking to the faithful remnant who did not give in to judgment and outrage, but who remained in relationship with one another. I say all this as a reminder that we have to keep working at relationship. We have to repent, always, and be humble, always.
The prophet Joel reminds us: Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.
When we do this, we return to God’s blessings—not because we’re being pious or righteous, but because we’re getting out of our own way.
I think we’re doing this here at FPC. I believe we’re beginning to see the fruits of returning to righteous relationships with God and one another. But it’s all to easy to drift away from this.
In this season of Lent, let us focus on all the ways that we fail to love one another. Let us be aware of all the ways we fall short, all the ways we fall out of relationship. Then let us turn to God and open our eyes and hearts and minds to the movement of the Holy Spirit, so that we may see past our own desire for judgment and work toward restoring relationships. Thanks be to God. Amen!
The Imposition of Ashes
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to follow Jesus, down from the mountaintop and outside of this building, and meet people where they are, as we find them. Remember, too, that we are called to the ongoing work of transformation. So, go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!