Sermon March 2 Matthew 6:1-18
This sermon was the final in a series in our church focused on the Sermon on the Mount. Just below, I have posted the audio of the sermon if you would prefer to listen rather than read.
Click on this sentence to listen to the audio.
There is a simple adage that has been around awhile now that reads, “God created humans in God’s image, and then humans returned the favor.” Said differently, human beings have come up with all kinds of religious teachings and concepts about God that we most like, and then we project those teachings and concepts into the heavens and call them “God.” We might think Jesus is an exception to this rule, since we have the central teachings and actions of him written right before us every time we open the gospels, but it’s always interesting to listen to our society and how we invoke Jesus’ name in relationship to our political, religious, and social agendas.
Just to refresh my perspective on this subject, I simply googled the search term “Jesus” to see what popped up first.
The first link was the Wikipedia entry on Jesus, which is refreshingly helpful as a guide for initial questions. The section most relevant to what I just said is that Muslims, Manichaeans, Gnostics, Bahai’s, Mormons, and some Jews have found prominent places for Jesus in their religions. The Mormon theological perspective on Jesus is maybe most interesting in that they claim that Jesus visited the Americas after his resurrection, that God and Jesus were separate physical people, and that the Garden of Eden was and will be in Missouri. Now, if you talk to Angela Pancella on that point, or Pastor Stoxen during baseball season, they might agree, but that is an interesting statement nonetheless.
The second link was a New York Times article about Christians seeking to follow the counsel of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere to seek reconciliation by multiple avenues before going to a secular court. This is a helpful thing to think about.
The third link was an article about the new movie “Son of God,” which looks interesting, even though Tony Jones hates it, but Tony Jones basically hates anything related to conservative evangelicals.
The fourth link, and another link down the page, were stories about the village in Japan where some Japanese believe Jesus moved after he snookered the Romans, escaped from crucifixion, made a Marco Polo-like trans-Asian journey, settled in Japan, had a wife and kids, and died at the ripe old age of 106.
The fifth link was the “Jesus Christ” Twitter account with such helpful tweets as “Heaven will be temporarily shut down. Please feel free to do whatever you want until further notice. YOLO” on October 15th, and “I’ll celebrate when my Dad apologizes for what he did to me,” on June 16th. So, yeah, there’s that.
Then, further down the page, Paul Oestreicher wrote an article in the Guardian in 2012 entitled “Was Jesus gay? Probably.” Now, you could spend the rest of your life surveying Google searches of Jesus, but that’s just a little glimpse of how our society thinks about Jesus. Now, some of the more strange and ridiculous notions of Jesus aside, I think we could agree that even amongst the Christian community in America, Jesus comes off looking pretty monochromatic, pretty flat, not extremely interesting.
Many conservative evangelicals I speak with, no matter how hard they try to sound excited, come off, frankly, bored of Jesus. Their story of Jesus, that he lived a perfect and sinless life because we cannot, that he died on the cross for our sins instead of God’s wrath consuming us, and that if we accept him as our Lord and Savior, we will be forgiven and saved, has elements of the story, sure. But does that understanding of Jesus come close to the full meaning of Jesus? I find that story wanting. And many of them have heard that one sentence summation of Jesus nearly every Sunday and Wednesday at the end of a sermon for decades on end.
More liberal Christians I speak with, no matter how hard they try to sound excited, come off, frankly, bored of Jesus. Their story of Jesus, that he was radically gracious, that he welcomed the outsider and was harsh toward the judgmental and religious, that he offers us forgiveness and redeems our understanding of God from an angry, bipolar Father into the embrace of compassion and welcome, has elements of the story, sure. But I also find that story wanting. And many of those types are former conservatives who now, out of boredom or curiosity, have rejected the other story and now live in reaction to it, or, frankly, find this version of Jesus more culturally acceptable, more palatable to the American social values of tolerance, freedom, and religion as a hobby.
Now, clearly, there are more pictures of Jesus than these two. Many charismatics trumpet “signs and wonders Jesus,” all about claiming authority, seizing our destiny as inheritors of God’s blessing. Anarchists trumpet the Jesus who showed up Pilate and mocked the powerful. Instead of accepting one narrative, however, is it possible that Jesus is all of these things?
Was Jesus perfect and sinless, die on the cross for our sins instead of God’s wrath consuming us, does he forgive us, was he radically gracious, did he welcome the outsider, was he harsh toward the judgmental and religious, was he judgmental and religious himself, did he offer forgiveness, did he redeem a view of God that was too bipolar and angry? Did he teach and reveal signs and wonders and authority, did he strip the powerful of their power even as they schemed to take his life? Yes, yes, yes, yes!!!!! And yes!
The more I study Jesus, the more I find that he was all of these things, and represented them without becoming the mushy moderate that people so often become. I think the gateway for all of us into a more full, more dynamic, more meaningful picture of Jesus is to learn more about the story behind Jesus, the social story that he entered into, at the perfect moment. What I am talking about is the social context of Jesus.
Jesus was a Jew, a citizen of Israel. The Jewish people lived under military occupation from the Romans, made even more harsh by the fact that the more radical and violent elements of Jewish society kept rabble-rousing and enraging the Roman authorities. They lived in a repressive police state. They were taxed into the ground by the Romans, and many of their Jewish political leaders and tax collectors made the situation worse by intensifying the rates and skimming off the top for themselves. So the average small farmer in this agrarian society was typically deeply in debt, and many lost their properties that had been in their families for generations, and became drifters and beggars; dishonored and ashamed of their failure. If we think of the worst of the Great Depression in America, when drifters would beg farmers in the area I grew up if they could split some wood for a meal to stave off starvation, then we’re beginning to catch a glimpse of Jewish social reality.
What made this repressive, brutal situation even worse was the Jewish self-understanding that they were the blessed people of God, God’s special people whom he redeemed out of everyone else. They understood that blessing to mean material wealth and political power, and over and over in their religious writings after their initial corruption and exile, this concept of the “Day of the Lord” arose. The “Day of the Lord” was the longed-for day when God would set everything right again, would eject the profane occupiers out, would restore the financial and political fortunes of Israel, and a King like David would rule on the throne, as Israel became the envy of the nations, because God had blessed them.
The fact that Israel saw themselves in this way and the reality that this vision was frustrated and unfulfilled for hundreds of years meant that this vision turned in itself, became ugly and corrupted. Many carried a low view of themselves, just trying to get by and feed their families. Revolutionary agitators periodically arose, believing that if they started the violent revolution, that God would join their side. They were crushed again and again, with the brief exception of the Maccabees in a time of relative Roman weakness. The Zealots, the revolutionary agitators, were scheming just as much in Jesus’ day. “Why isn’t God saving us?” was a despair-filled question for them. “Is there something fundamentally wrong with us?” they asked.
Out of this question and desperation, a group of religious reformers arose, believing that the problem was a lack of religious seriousness. “God isn’t redeeming us because we don’t care enough, and if we care, then God will come,” said the Pharisees. And it’s hard to fault them, if we take their social context seriously. God did, and does, care about religious seriousness. Their vision involved reforming the morally degenerate and proclaiming the good news of God’s law and the lived value of it. Unfortunately, they formed simplistic versions of faithfulness, where sickness and disease were signs of God’s curse. And they focused on outward acts of faithfulness so deeply that in some ways their mission became a form of social theater; with faithfulness enacted in front of the people each day. When tithing to God, as many people as possible need to see, so that they will reform and do the same. When keeping purity laws, marginalize the unclean as publicly as possible so society will reform and do the same. And in their defense, isn’t that how social revolutionaries have operated through time, using political theater? Gandhi rejected the British salt tax, so he marched with the Indian people to the Ocean to illegally harvest the salt themselves. Political theater. Black and white college students rejected lunch-counter segregation in Greensboro, North Carolina, so they sat down together at the counter, knowing full-well of the reaction that would create. Political theater. Learning these aspects of the Pharisees redeemed them from the rather flat story I had often heard that they were too religious and self-righteous.
So the Jewish people were desperate, and in this desperation, there were competing agendas of how to encourage the day of the Lord. So this is the context that Jesus entered, and makes the way Jesus skillfully built a mass movement in this context infinitely interesting. Jesus specifically chose one zealot and maybe more as a part of his inner circle. So was he a Zealot? Jesus chose a tax collector as part of his inner circle. Clearly a curious choice, and definitely a political statement. Jesus chose mostly blue-collar people as part of his inner circle. Also curious, though we quickly find they were as political ambitious for power as Caesar himself.
Jesus’ movement began in full force in a synagogue in his hometown where he invoked Isaiah and the oppressed being set free. Who does he think is, but if he isn’t insane, that’s a good place to start, because they’re all oppressed, and the “year of the Lord’s favor” is Isaiah’s version of the “Day of the Lord.”
In this Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins to stake out the boundaries of what his message and movement will look like, and the different groups are there, looking to check off their boxes of whether he really is the Messiah or not, because they know who the Messiah will be. Beatitudes? Confusing, but referencing the poor in spirit, those who mourn? We are those things, so the average Jew checks that box. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the pure in heart? The Pharisees want to check, but there’s that troubling bit about meekness. There’s no room for meekness in the need for purity. Salt and light? The Pharisees’ eyes are lighting up, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law,” obvious, but eyes lighting up even more, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Boom, throw-down. (band music) He’s one of us!
Murder, adultery, divorce, oaths; his teachings on these all situate him as a theological conservative. Many of the socially marginalized may have been tempted to see him as a social enemy of theirs in this section. Passive resistance of an evil-doer, love of enemies? Zealot purists are now convinced he is not one of them. And that’s a bad community to have opposed to you, since they’re the ones that will knife you in the middle of a crowd.
And now, in the section of teaching we encounter today, Jesus focuses on the hiddenness of faithfulness. Here, he is staking out a position of deep contrast from the Pharisees, where giving to the needy, praying, and fasting should not be political theater or public teachable moments, but rather something much different. The teaching would have been troubling to the Pharisees, so used to their public theater that made obvious to the people of Israel the things they needed to do, but Jesus also embeds this “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites.” That line is like a papercut on the lip for the Pharisees, a jolting difference. For the average Jew who had questions about the incessant publicity of the Pharisees, this is interesting.
At this point, I want to leave the consideration of the social context of Jesus and draw us into consideration of our response. In just the early stages of Jesus’ ministry, it is easy to see why we so often pick one thing Jesus cared about and make it the whole story for us. Jesus is frustratingly complex, and a joltingly uncomfortable kind of teacher.
Jesus, should we focus on outward acts of faithfulness?
Should we focus on inward acts of faithfulness?
Well, which one is it, Lord, the inward or the outward?
Which one is more important, man, I need some simplicity here!
Well, how would you sum up the last ten minutes of my teaching?
Hmmmmm. Sometimes our faith needs to be expressed outwardly, and sometimes inwardly, with both being important, and neither canceling out the other? But how do we know when one is better than the other?
What else have you heard me teach?
Hmmmm……oooohhhhhhh. I see you sneak away early in the morning or late at night, and sometimes in the middle of a crowd, I see your attention focus inwardly. You’re listening, aren’t you?
Today, the term we use for this activity is “practicing the presence of God.” The name we most often associate with this activity is Brother Lawrence, and attention to his practice is very fruitful for contemplation and action. I would like to check in this morning, however, with the practice of one of my heroes, Frank Laubach, who is often mentioned in the same breath as Brother Lawrence when it comes to “practicing the presence of God.” Frank had a wonderful sense of curiosity with the realm of prayer and listening to the Spirit. He played what he called the “game of minutes,” where he desired to spend one second out of every waking minute in conscious attention to God. He also engaged in what we could call “experiments in hiddenness” with prayer.
But before I mention a couple practices of Frank, I want to invite each of you into a simple reflection right now. You have been provided with a piece of paper and a pen this morning. I simply want you to think about a typical day for you. What happens between you opening your eyes in the morning and closing your eyes at night? What is a typical day? I’m aware that there is no “typical” day, say, for a parent of a child, but there is still a rhythm of the usual day even for parents. Write down the events of a typical day for you.
Now, Frank Laubach would do what we just did. He would consider his day, and aggressively look for opportunities for hidden prayer. If in a car or bus or walking, he considered how to transform his commute into an opportunity to listen to God and pray for others. If in a doctor’s office or business, he considered how to transform the waiting into an opportunity to listen to God and pray for others. If preparing food, he considered how to redeem the time by listening to God and praying for others. When lying in bed just before sleep, he considered how to listen to God and pray for others. In his outward public life, Frank was a hero of literacy and poverty alleviation, and in his inward life, Frank became a hero of experiments in hiddenness.
Frank celebrated the opportunity to pray, and often highlighted that he didn’t see discernible results of prayer right away. But he shares some crazy cool stories along the way in his experiments. My favorite is one from a church in Bombay (now Mumbai) India…
When I think of Jesus’ admonition “when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others… but when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen,” I think of Frank Laubach, and I can imagine Jesus saying, “when you travel, quietly bless the person in the car next to you, when you walk, quietly bless the person in front of you, when you parent, quietly bless your child, when in a meeting, quietly bless each person who speaks…and while you’re at it, quietly bless the person who never speaks.” For me, it could be, “when walking around your classroom, quietly bless each student you pass.” As we consider the events of a typical day for us, what are places we observe are opportunities for hidden blessing?
There is great value in hiddenness, and in an age where nearly every thought a person has somehow finds its way onto Facebook, these quiet experiments in hiddenness hold the opportunity of helping us regain a sense of what needs to be public and what needs to be hidden in our path of discipleship. May we, like Jesus, cultivate a deep listening to the voice of our Father.