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Spiritual Makeup

Spiritual Makeup

Feb 26, 2020

Passage: Matthew 6:1-21

Preacher: The Reverend Andrew Van Kirk


I had a seminary professor who, in an Ash Wednesday class about spiritual disciplines for the season of Lent, offered that her practice was to give up makeup for Lent. She cried as she told us this; about how hard it was for her.

I don’t wear a lot of makeup. I can’t say that I immediately resonated with her story. But obviously the moment stuck with me; it was close to 15 years ago.

What I now understand her to be getting at is that going without makeup was her way of presenting herself “as is” to the world; naked, in a sense. There was no layer between her face and the world. Something spiritually was at stake about losing that control of self-presentation.

And there is something very biblical about this. In our reading today, Jesus, suggests we go al natural. This Ash Wednesday gospel is from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is on a hillside speaking to a bunch of Galilean peasants. Makeup is not on his radar screen here, at least not as we think of it.

He is more worried about spiritual makeup. The stuff we put on or work into our lives to show how holy we are, how much we love Jesus. Or really, to put it more accurately, the stuff in our lives that we use to mask the spiritual deficit within us.

In Jesus’ day, he was thinking of the trumpets some people had played as they gave alms. Wouldn’t that be fun, if we had the sound guy play a little fanfare every time you put something in the offering plate. Or even just the coin sound from Super Mario Brothers — do-do, do, do-do, do! Ding! Yeah, Jesus says no.

Or praying out loud on the street corners? I know some of you are big into…not doing that.

What else? Ah, fasting! Here we have something. Do not disfigure your faces, the priest says, so others can see, he says, right before he invites you up to the altar rail so he can disfigure your faces with ashes!

It’s as if the people who chose this reading for Ash Wednesday didn’t understand what happens at the Ash Wednesday Service!

Of course they did. And look. If you’re going to wear these ashes out of here for the purpose struttin’ your spiritual stuff, showing the world how holy you are, how you’re just God’s #1 pal — if that’s you, then wipe them off the way out. But if it’s not you (and I suspect it’s not), if you’re going to be embarrassed to stop by the grocery store on the way back home with that smudge on your head, then you’re fine.

We’re less likely than people in Jesus’ day to cover up our spiritual deficit with public displays of religiosity. This is because our religious experience is no longer homogeneous with those around us. Or, to put it more bluntly, acting too publicly religious makes us look weird. Once you get much past the cross necklace, the rosary from the rearview mirror, or the blow-up nativity display at Christmas, things get weird. And we don’t want to look weird.

So we are less likely to cover up our spiritual deficits with excess public religiosity. But we still have spiritual deficits. We still have sins — we’re still significantly and substantively short of the the ideal which we claim by our faith. That is why we are here today. As the collect put it, we are “lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness.”

Lent is a time to take what Jesus says about covering up spiritual deficits to heart and try to uncover them. Not so that we can go rubbernecking at the car crash of our hearts — but so that we can be forgiven, restored, made new.

I’ll share a concrete example from my own life, a Lenten practice I plan to take up this year. I share this, not to ignore Christ’s “do the things in secret” command, but to help you imagine what Lenten disciplines can look like beyond giving up chocolate.

I regularly read a series of technology news sites: Ars Technica, The Verge, Daring Fireball, Jalopnik. There is nothing wrong with these; there is no sin inherent in them. The part of me that was a software engineer still loves that stuff.

But, what I find myself doing is reading these sites, sometimes for hours each evening. I read articles I don’t really care about, about things that don’t affect me.

I think…and I put it that way because this is part of what I want to figure out…I think that I read them for the purpose distraction, almost because it’s pointless. Rather than a nonfiction book, a novel, or a book of poetry, of even a quality TV show — something that would capture and share something about being a human being made in the image of God — I read an article about how Microsoft redesigned the icons in Windows 10. And I use a Mac.

Or, if I’m even more honest with myself, I’m reading that article instead of praying or meditating. It’s a like a mild shot of intellectual and spiritual novocaine.

So for Lent, I’m just going to give up all those websites — not because they’re bad (they’re really not), but because I think they may be filling in some spiritual weak spots with distraction. And Lent is a time to uncover that stuff.

It’s a time to be honest with ourselves and with God about who we really are.

This is generally how fasting is supposed to work. What would your spiritual life look like if the rest of your life wasn’t kept moist with alcohol?

Or you decide to you forgo meat on Friday — part of the traditional Lenten fast — does the effort of remembering and sticking to that commitment make you realize how little effort you spending remembering and committing to God?

If we pull back the covers on our spiritual life just a little bit…what will we find under there?

I’m going to teach about this further in my message on Sunday, but part of the promise of Lenten fasting is that we can get underneath the surface sins, underneath the passions and desires that manifest themselves in obvious ways, to the heart of the matter; to the matter of our heart. Lent gives us a chance to see again what the problem really is — and invite God in there to address it.

The thing we chiefly desire to give up in this season is our sins. Or better we give up our sinfulness — the degree to which we are full of sin, the degree to which our life is dominated by things done and left undone rather than the thing Christ has done. We’ve got to give up the authority and power of sin in our life; let God take that.

I mean, if you can manage to give up sinning entirely for Lent, just do that too. And don’t stop at Easter.

But you can’t, and you won’t. There’s no way to walk out of this service today and say, “I got this. I’m all good. No worries.”

There’s a black cross made of ash smeared on your forehead, friend. We don’t got this. We’re not all good.

So please, friends, use this season as a time to understand that central truth. Peek under the covers of your spiritual life; take of the makeup that makes you feel presentable to the world. Fast from something, adopt some spiritual discipline, pray — not to show the rest of us how holy you are, but to come to know, in secret (as Christ would put it), where you aren’t. Where you desperately need pardon, redemption, love, and life that only Jesus Christ can bring you. And if you do that Lent, your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.