I live by myself, so not a lot of people usually see what I look like or what I do when I go home at the end of the day to relax. Usually, the first thing I do – after I feed my cats – is to change my clothes. In my head, I think of it kind of like Mr. Rogers on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: he comes home singing and he carefully changes out of his suit coat and work shoes into a cardigan and tennis shoes. Except in my case, it’s not usually quite that charming. Usually it’s just me taking off my pants and slipping into some old sweatpants and a grungy pair of slippers, before flopping down on the couch to chill out for the evening. It’s not terribly pretty – but it is pretty comfortable!
In strong contrast to this, my friend Zainab has a home routine that looks completely different. At home is where she’s more likely to get dressed up. Zainab coordinates services for refugees and immigrants at the Good Neighbor Community Center in Lincoln, and she does a lot to help the community, especially to help other Arabic and Muslim women like herself. I met her many years ago when I was working for Lincoln Literacy. I used to coordinate English classes at the Good Neighbor Center every Friday, so I had a lot of opportunity to sit and talk with Zainab and get to know a little more about her life and her faith.
One of the things I was curious to find out more about was the way that Zainab and the other women at the center dressed. Like many Muslim women, she wore hijab – a head scarf and modest clothing that covered most of her body. For Zainab, this was a way of expressing her devotion to God and of living out her faith in her daily life. Out in the world, among strangers and people she didn’t know very well, Zainab’s appearance was simple and modest and humble.
At home, on the other hand, that was where Zainab felt comfortable letting her hair down – literally. I remember her telling me: If I’m going to get dressed up, do my hair and put on makeup and all that, I’m going to do it at home. If I’m going to put in the effort to look my best, it’s not going to be for people on the street or even for the people I work with; I want my best to be for my family, for my husband and my kids, for the people who love me most. For them, it’s worth it. For all you know, I could have sweatpants on under here!
I kept thinking of this conversation with Zainab as I was reading our gospel reading for this evening. Jesus is continuing to preach his Sermon on the Mount, which we read quite a bit of earlier this month. In this section of his sermon, Jesus is teaching his followers about how to practice the three big disciplines of discipleship: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.
At the start of this passage, he cautions his hearers: “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.” The hypocrites are the ones who blow trumpets when they give alms, Jesus says, who pray loudly on the street corners where everyone can hear them, who try to look as miserable as possible when they are fasting. “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward” – the reward of having other people admire them. These are the ones who care most about what other people think about them, who undertake spiritual disciplines as a way to put on a good face in order to impress the world. (In other words, they are human.)
By contrast, Jesus literally tells his disciples to go into their rooms and shut the doors when they practice their faith, not to even let their left hand know what their right hand is doing. When the disciples are practicing their spiritual disciplines, he tells them not to broadcast it to the whole world. Instead, he calls them to practice their faith for an audience of one: for God – the one who loves them most.
And Jesus sums all this up in the last three verses of our reading, by urging his followers:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.Matthew 6:19-21
This is the fundamental question that this gospel text invites us to consider: where are our hearts?
Where are we choosing to store up our treasure? And not just the treasure in our wallets or our physical stuff, but also the treasure of our time, our energy, our focus, and our attention. Do we spend more time worrying about what others think of us than we do about what God thinks of us? What are the areas of our lives in which we give our best? And do we give our best to honor God or do we do it to honor ourselves? I know for me, if I’m being honest with myself, there’s probably a lot more hypocrite in my answers than I’d like to admit.
The season of Lent is a time to wrestle with these questions. It’s a time to take stock of the myriad things in our lives that clamor for our attention and our investment and to reflect on how we choose to respond. And Ash Wednesday in particular is a day set aside to remind us that only one of the many voices calling out to us can truly give us life in return: the voice of God – the voice of the one who loves us most.
So whatever the demands are that weigh heavy on you, whatever pressure you feel to stay busy, or to keep up with the Joneses, whatever way you choose to engage with this season, Jesus invites you to go inside the room of your heart and shut the door against the noise of the world. Tonight, take off your veil and let your hair down, and just let yourself be in the presence of God. Bring your heart back and give your best to the one who loves you most.