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 the 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.
Strictly speaking, Mrs. Turpin gets just that surprising message about her inner life beginning with a confrontation with a character named Mary Grace. In the waiting room, the troubled young college student Mary Grace hurls a book–a book entitled Human Development–striking Mrs. Turpin on the forehead. Before being dragged off to an asylum, Mary Grace whispers to Mrs. Turpin, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”
God, you see, is about grace. And grace changes who we are from the inside out. That change is almost always surprising, sometimes startling, and frequently painful. But it is always good.
Spiritual disciplines are a vehicle through which God shapes us with his grace, but paradoxically they will just get in our way if we approach them in the wrong way. That’s why Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth” (Matthew 6:19) In other words, don’t approach the spiritual practices of Lent as a set of achievements that will win God’s approval.
Instead, approach them as ways to make yourself available to God’s grace.
Lent is a season of repentance. While this can include making lists of naughty deeds and admitting to periods spent as moral and spiritual couch potatoes, penitence boils down to something radical, something right at the root of things.
Primarily, repentance is a posture of submission. A penitent heart yearns to be more than it can ever make itself and so surrenders to the only one capable of such spiritual alchemy.
In our very marrow we want to love God without distraction and to love our neighbor effortlessly because of who we are, not what they do. When we repent, we fess up to this ridiculous desire and relent to God’s unflagging invitation in Jesus Christ to fulfill it.
Lent leads us inevitably to the cross of Holy Week and the empty tomb of Easter. On the cross, Jesus burns away even our finest achievements, because even they fall short of the glory of God. We surrender our best there, not only our worst. Whatever we cling to will inevitably be less than what Jesus can give us.
In the resurrection Jesus gives us the new life that only he can give. He does more than repair a few faults and touch up the chipped paint of our character. He makes us a new creation.
Our Lenten practices are meant to help us let go of the life that we can make for ourselves so that we can be ready to receive the new life that Christ is preparing for us. Spiritual practices are just that, practice being people made by God instead of self-made people.
Ironically enough, religion can get in the way of our relationship with God when we mistake it as simply one more way to be self-made people. Take up your spiritual practices with joy and confidence this Lent. Don’t worry about getting them right to please God. Trust that God is making us right with him in Jesus Christ.
The sermon preached at St. James, Alexandria, on Ash Wednesday.