Sunday, September 18, 2016

Covert Church: Sermon on Matthew 6:1-18

Good morning, brothers and sisters! For the last seven weeks, we've been digging into the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus preached the greatest message of all time – there's just no doubt about it. Jesus sat down on the side of the mountain and taught the crowds in Galilee, any who cared to listen. And to this weak band of outcasts, he promised the very kingdom of God. He blessed them, he called them to a mission of being salt and light in the world. He summoned them to a righteousness beyond what they'd been taught. 

And then he instructed them, showing how to unpack what's in the Law. Where the Law tells us not to murder, the Spirit purges us of anger and makes us peaceful, conciliatory. Where the Law tells us not to commit adultery, the Spirit purges us of lust and makes us pure, chaste. Where the Law regulates divorce, the Spirit trains us in contentment. Where the Law regulates our oaths and promises, the Spirit purges us of deceitful manipulation and makes us truthful, candid. Where the Law outlines retaliatory justice, the Spirit strengthens us to protest injustice in better ways. And where the Law reminds us to love our neighbor, the Spirit gives us loving hearts for even our enemies. Because the Spirit conforms us to Christ, who is the very image of God. And so God's complete love and righteousness is the standard: “Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

And now in this morning's passage – really, unless you count Jesus' commentary on the Law all together, this is the longest chunk of the Sermon on the Mount dealing with a single underlying topic. This morning's passage shows Jesus turning from interpreting the Law to taking up the three pillars of Jewish righteousness – three main spiritual disciplines, three practices that every observant Jew would have admitted were essential, and yet Jesus diagnoses how they can go wrong and how to fix them.

I'm going to talk about them in a slightly different order this morning. In the middle, Jesus talks about maybe the most central one, the one we practice the most. And that's prayer. Jesus doesn't directly tell us to pray. And neither, as a matter of fact, did the Law. There's no command in there, “Thou shalt pray,” per se. But the Bible from cover to cover assumes that God's people do pray. 

Prayer, most basically, is just talking with God. And if there is a God (as we know there is), and if he cares about us (as we know he does), and if he chooses to listen to us (as he promises in Christ), then prayer is awfully important. Prayer is gaining an audience with the King of the Universe. Every Jew would have admitted that – many Jewish prayers began with the formula, “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe,” and then go on to praise him for some gift he's given. And prayer allows us to ask for what we need – to not just fellowship with God, but to ask him to change the world in and around us in some way for the better.

We're used to doing that all the time. And we can. But the Jews also had three major sessions of prayer each day – the observant ones did, anyway. They noticed that as Sodom and Gomorrah smoldered, Abraham got up early in the morning to return to where he'd last been in God's presence (Genesis 19:27). And so the Jews practiced Shacharit, a morning prayer service after sunrise. 

And then they noticed that in the middle of the day, Isaac ventured out into the fields to talk with God (Genesis 24:63). And they tied that to the meal offering every day at the temple. And so the Jews practiced Mincha, an afternoon prayer service. 

And then they noticed that Jacob had communed with God after nightfall, when he rested his head on a pillow of stone and dreamed of a ladder to heaven (Genesis 28:11). And so the Jews practiced Maariv, an evening prayer service. 

The three patriarchs inspired three prayer services every day – and these are no spontaneous, muddle-minded thoughts served up to God. These are extended prayers written out in the siddur, the Jewish prayer book. They involve standing, facing Jerusalem, taking steps forward and back, bending your knees, even bowing. And this happens every day, three times a day. It maybe seems unfamiliar to us, but observant Jews still follow it, and Muslims have five daily prayers that involve standing, facing Mecca, and various bodily motions like sitting, bowing, prostrating, hand gestures.

Jesus assumes that the people listening to him will understand, when he's talking about prayer, it includes that. And then Jesus talks about the next pillar of Jewish righteousness. And that's the practice of fasting. Fasting was going without food, or even food and water, for a time – maybe sunrise to sunset, maybe sunset to sunset. It was a way to express self-denial, a way to communicate grief, a way to clear the heart and mind and focus on God. In seven verses in the Bible, fasting is mentioned alongside prayer. There was a yearly fast on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:27-32).

Fasting crops up over and over again in response to a national crisis, which in Israel usually was because the people had strayed from God. So Samuel has everyone fast when the Philistines are oppressing them (1 Samuel 7:6); Daniel personally fasts when he realizes the exile will last seventy years (Daniel 9:3); and Nehemiah personally fasts when he hears Jerusalem's ruins are ruined worse (Nehemiah 1:4). Those were all moments of national crisis and grief. And even here in America, presidents from Washington to Lincoln used to call for “days of national humiliation, fasting, and prayer” in response to special need.

And then there were personal fasts in response to personal crises, like the psalmist mentions: “I wept and humbled my soul with fasting” (Psalm 69:10). One Jewish book written sometime later, a biography of Adam and Eve – yeah, somebody tried that – describes Adam as fasting for forty days after leaving Paradise. And the Bible itself says that Moses fasted for forty days when he went up Mount Sinai to get the Law (Deuteronomy 9:9), and Elijah fasted as he returned there for a spiritual retreat (1 Kings 19:8). We know that Jesus fasted for forty days in the desert after his baptism (Matthew 4:2), and he said his disciples would begin fasting after he had departed from us (Matthew 9:15). He knows that the Pharisees fast twice a week (Luke 18:12), and Jesus assumes this is something we will practice.

Finally, Jesus assumes that we will practice the third pillar of Jewish righteousness: almsgiving. Some versions just say, “giving to the needy.” There were silver boxes at the temple, maybe at the synagogues as well, where coins could be dropped in for the poor – and, of course, people might directly give to the poor. In addition to the tithe to support the priests and Levites, ancient Israel had a special tithe every three years for the needy (Deuteronomy 14:28-29). This wasn't optional; it was something expected of every Jewish household, to set aside resources to be distributed to those in need. Jewish law now recognizes the maaser kesafim, a tithe for charity, as a universal obligation. And the Bible tells us that “he who is generous to the needy honors … his Maker” (Proverbs 14:31), that “whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed” (Proverbs 19:17). Jesus doesn't seem to think he has to tell us to do that; it's so obvious it doesn't even need an additional commandment. Jesus' people will give to the needy; he takes that as a given.

Prayer, fasting, charity – the three pillars of Jewish righteousness. Three visible expressions of the observant Jewish life, and three practices Jesus assumes his followers will keep doing on a regular basis. But here's the problem. Jesus knows that religion can be distorted. The very things God gives us to serve him and bless the world, we have a knack for perverting for our own self-interest. Jesus has been spelling that out for a whole chapter already, highlighting how people were twisting the Law to excuse the badness of their hearts. And now he goes on and points out that the Pharisees have found ways to twist the three pillars of righteousness into three pitfalls of self-righteousness.

Prayer is good. Prayer can and should be a way of getting closer to God. But prayer was never meant to be a performance. Prayer was never meant to be a means of getting credit for how good we are at praying. But the Pharisees Jesus knew were all about getting credit for how good and righteous they were, or at least seemed to be. The whole point, for them, was exposure – it was a chance for a photo op, we'd say today. Now, if you knew there were three scheduled prayer services, and you wanted to impress people, you might time your day out so that the time of prayer just so 'happens' to catch you in public, on the street corner, for everybody to see (Matthew 6:5). Think of a politician who makes a point to show up at a prayer rally – so long as somebody with a camera will be there to capture them for the media. Or, if you're at church, you might volunteer to be prayer leader so you can show off how good you are at it. That's not what prayer is for. But it's a temptation: to use prayer as an opportunity to perform for the people around you. That's dysfunctional religion.

Jesus gives another example: the Gentiles “heap up empty phrases,” they use “many words” and think those will make their god hear them better (Matthew 6:7). They strive for eloquence, they want to get it just right, and since they aren't sure which title their god likes the best, or even which god might be listening, they toss a bunch in in hopes of getting it right. Instead of prayer being about honest fellowship, heartfelt communication, it becomes a performance and a stab-in-the-dark. It becomes detached from real meaning. The phrases don't mean anything, really, to the person praying them. I mentioned the five daily prayers performed by Muslims; I should mention that those have to be prayed in Arabic, even if the person doesn't understand a word of it. And the gestures have to be just right, for the prayer to be accepted. But don't think I'm picking on Muslims here: our own ancestors a thousand years ago listened along to prayers in Latin they mostly couldn't understand. And that is dysfunctional religion. It's prayer as a performance, prayer as a mere ritual.

Fasting is good. Fasting can and should be a way of getting closer to God. But fasting was never meant to be a performance. Fasting was never meant to be a means of getting credit for how serious we are about fasting. Yet Jesus portrays some people as doing just that. They “look gloomy,” they “disfigure their faces so that their fasting may be seen by others” (Matthew 6:16). They don't take a bath. They don't change clothes. They walk around with ashes on their heads and contort their faces into pitiful looks and puppy-dog eyes so that everybody will look at them and think, “Now that guy's really suffering; that guy is really committed; that guy must be so holy.” They turn it into a show. Their fasting is a performance for the people who see them out and about. And that is dysfunctional religion.

And almsgiving, charity, is good. It can and should be a way of getting closer to God and serving those around us. But it was never meant to be a performance. Charity was never meant to be a means of getting credit for how generous we are. Yet Jesus knows of people who do exactly that. He paints an exaggerated picture for us, unveiling the heart that underlies this. Imagine somebody who parades through the streets, people blowing trumpets in front of him, while he shouts, “Look at how generous I am, handing all this money to these poor people right here!” Talk about unseemly! I don't know if anybody ever literally did that – but certainly they did make sure their coins made a loud, satisfying clunk in the alms box at the synagogue and temple – or, for that matter, that their large bill was conspicuously placed in the offering plate for all to see. That's charity as a show, a performance. And that is dysfunctional religion.

Jesus says that people who do these things are hypocrites – and that word literally means “play-actors,” like the people in the theater who wear masks to occupy a role that isn't actually them in real life. These hypocrites are play-acting religion for the sake of the crowd. Their outward piety is a mask for their inner vainglory. They make a display of being holier-than-thou, because they want people to admire them, to look up to them, to see them as religious role models. But it's all on the outside. The insides of their prayers, their fasting, their charity isn't about God; it isn't about the state of their souls. It's about appearances, about selfish gain. But even if they really did mean some of what they were doing, they still have a problem. They're spiritual show-offs.

We'd like to think we're better than the Pharisees. But Jesus is not preaching the Sermon on the Mount to teach us how to judge and condemn people – even 'religious' people, as some think. Jesus is instructing us how to scrutinize our own hearts, our own lives, not our neighbors' lives. He wants each of us to ask: “When I pray, am I putting on a show for people around me? When I suffer, do I try to act the martyr and earn sympathy for my sorrow or applause for my 'bravery'? When I give or do good to people, am I looking for a pat on the back? When I preach or evangelize or just talk about God, am I looking for credit?” 

Because, Jesus says, those who perform their religion for earthly credit will find their reward there – in earthly credit. And nothing more. “Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16) – their full reward, with nothing stored up in heaven beyond it. God gives no credit for the religion we perform for the crowds. The issues isn't so much where we practice these pillars of righteousness as why we do it – what's our motivation? “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).

That's the problem with the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. They make a pretty show on the outside, Jesus says, but that's a hypocritical mask. “You clean the outside of the cup and plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. … You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:25, 27-28). 

Is that us? Too often, it just might be. Too often, we're tempted to look to get credit. And that's one of the culture's bigger complaints about Christians – that we come across as holier-than-thou, that we're looking to posture as our neighbors' moral superiors, that we talk a good talk but don't walk the walk. In short, that we're hypocrites. We're spiritual show-offs. And while our culture may be no better in the service of their professed ideals, Jesus calls us to have a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees – and exceeds the righteousness of 'cultural Christianity' (Matthew 5:20).

What kind of righteousness exceeds theirs? Jesus tells us. It's a righteousness that isn't focused on ourselves and how good we are. It's a righteousness that's focused on God and how good he is. It's a righteousness that isn't concerned with appearances but with reality. It's a righteousness that glorifies God. It's a 'secret' kind of righteousness – the practices of a 'covert church.' That may be hard to square with what Jesus already said, about letting our light shine publicly for others to see: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works...” Isn't that exactly what Jesus is criticizing here? Not if we let him finish: “...that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:14). 

In short, here's Jesus' tip for us: what makes you look good, hide – even from yourself, if possible. Don't dwell on it, don't let pride infest your heart, don't seek a religious reputation, don't look for credit. But what makes God look good, show with gusto. Point to him, not yourself.

So Jesus advises us to pray simple, secret prayers. Instead of heaping up words, trust that God is your Father – he “knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). You don't have to worry about getting him to notice you. He's been paying attention to you since before you opened your mouth. And your prayer doesn't have to be fancy or elaborate. Short and simple is just fine with God, because he's not impressed by how thick your thesaurus is; he's looking at your heart. And so Jesus gives us a short sample prayer to teach us how to cover the key bases (Matthew 6:9-13) – we'll look more at that next week. 

And instead of making an effort to be somewhere visible and prominent when the time to pray rolls around, Jesus gives us the opposite image: “When you pray, go into your pantry and shut the door and pray to your Father who lives in secret” (Matthew 6:6). Does that mean we can't pray together? No. Jesus prayed for his disciples where they could see (John 17:1-26). Does that mean we can't pray outside? No. Jesus held his early-morning prayer retreats outside. But the lesson is clear. Prayer should be separated from performance as far as the context allows; the focus should be on God, and that's most evident when nobody besides God can see you do it. Instead of looking to be seen, look to be hidden.

And when it comes to fasting, Jesus doesn't recommend to us the flashy fast of disfigured faces and big public displays. Instead, he tells us, “When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face” (Matthew 6:17). In other words, clean yourself up so that people can't even tell by looking at you that you are fasting. That way, “your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:18). Instead of making a show of your suffering, instead of trying to garner sympathy or praise, live out what God asks of you without ostentation. That doesn't mean concealing your burdens from your brothers and sisters in Christ, because we're commanded to bear one another's burdens, which is hard if we don't share them with each other. But it does mean that, when we respond to suffering in the right way, we'd rather do it in private for God than in public for one another.

And when it comes to charity, Jesus tells us, “Don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret” (Matthew 6:3). In other words, when you see a Salvation Army box, sneak up on it! Put your coins in the plate softly and discreetly; fold your bills to hide the numbers! In a world where the rich would fund building projects just so they could be honored with inscriptions lauding how kind and goodhearted they were, Jesus recommends private giving, anonymous generosity.

Today, as we celebrate Harvest Home, you can see a collection of gifts for the needy in front of the altar rail. This is our almsgiving. And if you look closely, no one's name is attached to any of the gifts. Unless you've been watching people bring things in and set them down, you probably don't know who contributed what, for the most part. Nothing here says which things Wilmer and Mary Jane brought, which things Joe brought, which things I brought, and so on. These gifts are anonymous. And now that we've blessed them together, we're going to take them to The Factory Ministries Food Pantry. And once they get there, they won't bear a label that says they came from Pequea EC Church, just as the other food and supplies in the food pantry won't be labeled with the church, the charity, or the business that donated them. Again, anonymous giving. The only thing that matters is that it serves those in need and does so in the name of Jesus.

The Factory Ministries is affiliated with the Together Initiative, and we're currently reviewing their philosophy of service to decide about becoming a full partner church. And as I've sat and talked with leaders of the Together Initiative, do you know the slogan they use to guide them? It's this: “What could we do if we didn't care who” – who on earth, that is – “gets the credit?” Isn't that a beautiful way to express the joyfulness of what Jesus is saying in this passage? “What could we do if we didn't care who gets the credit?” 

Jesus is setting us free from our need to perform. Jesus is setting us free from our hunger for a crowd's applause and approval. Jesus is setting us free to love God and to love our neighbors and neighborhoods without getting bogged down in ourselves. That's the boundless horizon of what we can do when we don't care which of us, or which of our churches, gets the credit.

Instead of acting from earthly motives like human approval, we can act from heavenly motives, like the glory of God and the imitation of his complete, whole-hearted love for one and all. That's no longer dysfunctional religion. That's pure, well-functioning religion – the kind that's all about our relationship with a Father who loves to spend time with us and work through us. Be holy as the Father is holy. Be perfect as the Father is perfect. Be secretly righteous as the Father is secretly righteous.

And Jesus gives us a promise. Earlier, he kept saying that those who put on a religious act out of earthly motives will get all their reward in this life. If they're looking for human approval, well, maybe they'll get it. And that's the end of their reward. God has little to nothing to do with their religiosity, so he has no interest in rewarding them (Matthew 6:1). 

But what about those who live out righteousness from heavenly motives? Jesus says it three times, so we can't miss it: “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:4, 6, 18). That's not to say we do it to try to earn his favor. We can't. He favors and blesses us already in Christ, in advance and even in spite of everything we say and do. And yet God does promise that a heavenly reward is naturally tied to sincere prayer, sincere fasting, and sincere generosity that glorifies him.

So that's our challenge this week. Don't let Harvest Home be the end of your journey into 'secret,' 'covert' righteousness. Keep being a covert church – covert as pertains to our credit, overt as pertains to the glory and love of God. Listen to what Jesus says about how to live a 'religious' life – how to do righteousness – without seeking credit for yourself but giving glory to the Father. 

Step away from performance and into the honest truth. Pray for him, fast for him, give alms for him, evangelize for him, live for him. Check your heart and turn it over to him for review. It may not be easy to strip ourselves of our need for approval. But we have the Spirit as the power-granting promise that God already approves of who we are in Christ – and that he always will. That's what his kingdom is all about. May we always live with our focus fixed on him. Amen.

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