Religion Worth Practicing

Sermon on the Mount Series #5, Matthew 6:1-18 for February, 16, 2014

Religion Worth Practicing

Matthew 6:1-18

“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.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.   But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,   so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you pray, 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. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.   But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.  8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“Pray then in this way:Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 7.30.17 PM
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you;  but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face,  18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Religion Worth Practicing   

Our theme today is authenticity, so I want to start with this. “Judge Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, Jr. was, according to Wikipedia, “a judge, law professor, and state representative in Mississippi, notable for his 1952 speech on the floor of the Mississippi state legislature concerning whiskey.” – source: Wikipedia

“My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 7.20.29 PM

“If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.

“But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; …, then certainly I am for it.

“This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.”

That is as brilliant as insincerity ever gets.  What a great politician he must have been.

Today, insincerity and lack of authenticity is practically expected of politicians.  They are easy targets.

Unfortunately, so are we – Christians.  We have a reputation in the wider world now, which survey after survey keeps showing.  When 18-25 year olds are asked why they do not attend church, there are two reasons that jump to the top: 1) the people are hypocritical, and 2) they are judgmental.

We confess, We hope

Confession is required, and so, as a person who is professionally a representative of at least one slice of the Christian church I want to say: Yes, we have been so; it was wrong of us to be so, and we are sorry for all the damage it has caused.

But there is good news for us here.  It is that God wishes and works for our transformation.  What Christ commands of us, God’s Spirit is at work in us to perform.  So, we approach these texts with both humility and with hope.

There may be some who think that speaking of transformation in a congregation of people like us, the vast majority of whom are well beyond retirement, is pointless.  Who can change, at this point?Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 7.25.17 PM

Well science helps us here: our brains keep changing all the time, right up to the end (they call this neuroplasticity).  The changes are caused by experiences we have – thoughts, words, what we see and hear, and what we do.

There is no one in this room that cannot grow spiritually and actually be transformed.  Just as the daily drip in the cave forms magnificent stalactites, so we too can be transformed by the steady drip of grace.

The transformation process comes by regular Christian practices, spiritual disciplines that form us as they are repeated day after day and week after week.

Jesus is going to challenge us, as people of faith, to examine our practice of the faith.  For Jewish people in Jesus’ community, the three expected spiritual practices were acts of charitable giving to the needy, or alms giving, prayer, and fasting.  We will see how Jesus’ teaching applies directly to us.  It is all about authenticity.

The ContextScreen Shot 2014-02-14 at 7.26.34 PM

Where are we in the Jesus story?  This is Jesus’ first sermon in Matthew, his inaugural Sermon on the Mount.  After saying “repent – change your thinking because the kingdom of God (or Heaven) has arrived.”  Jesus ascends the mountain as Moses had, so many years before, and like Moses, delivers the new Torah for the new family of God.

Jesus has given the beatitudes, his congratulations for people who have kingdom values, and has told his followers that they are indispensable to the world – every bit as indispensable as salt and light.  The world is desperate for kingdom-people.

Last week we heard as Jesus spoke of the contrast between the Old Commandments and the New Commandments which fulfill them: “you have heard it said” contrasted with “but I say to you.”

In each case Jesus coached us to think beyond the words of the law of Moses as we find them on the page, words like “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, Divorce requires merely a certificate”.  For Jesus, those words lead us to think of the ethics behind them, which push us to go beyond them.  And in every case, the care and protection of people was the driving force.

Jesus pushes us all the way to perfection.  Love is the key.  Love for friends, family and nation – yes.  But more.  Love even of enemies is what is required.  It is a high calling – one that should drive us all to prayer.

Now, we look at more contrasts: the contrasts are about practices: bad practices vs. good practices.  Practices we should not do, and practices we should do.

The Role of Practices of the Faith

First, the bird’s eye view.  This section is about Christian practices – the how of living as a follower of Jesus.Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 7.27.49 PM

Practices are essential. For Jewish people, the practices of charitable giving, prayer and fasting were taken for granted as simply normal and expected of everyone.

So too, a Christian life not sustained by regular practices is impoverished and fruitless.  Relying on Sunday morning alone is hopeless.  It will never be enough because it was never meant to be enough.  Imagine an Olympic hopeful who trained only once a week!

A life of Sunday-only Christianity has never transformed anyone.  Perhaps imagining that Christianity is a once a week activity has led to the very kind of churches that the young have walked away from, and left the people inside feeling disappointed.

On the other hand, a life of Christian faith-practices is transformative.  It is never too late to begin or renew regular practices, and it is never time to stop.   Regular practices, or disciplines, form and shape us as Christians every bit as much as daily rest and exercise change us physically.

But today we hear a warning.  There is a right way and a wrong way.  Transformation follows correct practices correctly practiced.

There are three topics as examples on the table: charity, prayer, and fasting.  All three contrast practices done insincerely for show; performances for the crowd, and practices done “in secret” for the view of only one, the Heavenly Father who “sees in secret.”

The theme is summed up in the first verse:

“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.” 

God as Father

Another bird’s-eye-view concept we must see is the God-concept Jesus teaches.  God is able to be conceived of as our “Heavenly Father.”  Now, we are adults: we get it that this is an analogy.  God is not a man in the sky – God is, after all, beyond gender.  And we get it that God is both like and un-like earthly Fathers, with all our faults and limitations.Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 7.28.58 PM

But this way of picturing God is essential.  God is not the angry judge waiting to smite and punish people, as the medieval paintings suggest.  God is not a cold, impersonal, distant spiritual force in the universe.  God is not like the nature gods of the pagan world, arbitrary and capricious, psychologically needy and arrogant.

No!  God is to be thought of as a Father – and we, his children.  Love is what motivates him.  Love for each of us, by name.  And so the “reward” that the Father gives us is not like “stars in my crown” but rather the affection and approval of a loving father who rewards his children with hugs and smiles.  This is a family story we are in.

So what is it that gets the hugs and smiles?  It is Christian faith-practices done out of authentic, sincere hearts.  The opposite of religion done for show.

Money

First Jesus brings up money.  Money is important to Jesus – he speaks of it a lot.  It is deeply connected with our spiritual lives.  There is, in each of us, a generous person who delights to give.  And in each of us is a selfish person that wants to keep.  One of these will grow stronger, over time, and the other will weaken.

The generous person gives because there is a human need – and if no one sees the giving, big deal.  God sees.  An authentic disciple does not care if anyone else ever notices.

Prayer

Next, Jesus speaks of the central Christian practice, which is prayer.  Here authenticity is essential and transformative.  Jesus teaches a model prayer, which we will look at more, in the future, but today let us simply notice that the relationship to God in prayer is, again, a family relationship.

We do not need to inform God, convince God, cajole God, or grovel before him.  In fact, scripture says that we should be still, wait in silence, go in to a quiet room undisturbed.  Contemplative prayer without any words at all, besides the one sacred word that anchors us in the present moment, has great transformative capacity.  Authentic Christians practice regular prayer for the sake of allowing God to transform us.

Fasting and Desire

Finally fasting.  Fasting is all about desire.  It is about saying no to desires – even good ones – for the sake of spiritual training.  Just as our daily physical exercises push us to say no to the desire for rest, so fasting trains us to control our appetites.

But fasting done so that other people will notice is inauthentic.  There is no transformation in that.  Jesus says, in effect, when you fast, act normal; look normal.  It’s between you can God, your Heavenly Father.

Jesus was a big fan of the prophet Isaiah – quoting from him often.  So Jesus knew well Isaiah’s long reflection about the kind of fasting that the Lord found acceptable.  It went way beyond limiting our desire for chocolate or for meat on Friday or in Lent.  For Isaiah, the fast that God found acceptable was the fasting from the desire to live in happy ignorance or apathy about the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed (Isa 58).   Obviously, show-off fasting would not help them at all.Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 7.30.17 PM

Call to Authenticity

The point of this teaching from Jesus is this:  the world is desperate for authentic, kingdom people.  As much as the world needs salt in the diet and light for living, the world needs kingdom disciples.  People who practice kingdom faith practices from pure hearts, for the approval of no one except their Heavenly Father.

He longs to give hugs and smiles all around.  So let us hear the call to authentic Christian practices: regular generous giving, daily prayer, and disciplined desires, that we might be daily transformed.  The world is no longer expecting our authenticity, but it desperately needs it – and so do we.

 

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