a sermon on Matthew 6:1-18, the fourth in a series on the Sermon on the Mount
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on February 6, 2011
We here know what it feels like to seem to be doing things in secret. Although our doors are open every Sunday, people around Whitestone often don’t know what we are up to since we just don’t have a high profile. Hundreds of people walk past our door each and every day to get to school, go to work, eat lunch, or just enjoy a nice stroll when the weather is pretty, yet so few of those make their way in our doors! I for one often wonder if people would even notice our absence from the community if we ceased to exist, and my fear is that most folks would only notice us if our building were not here, half out of sadness for the loss of a beautiful building and half out of concern for what sort of thing might replace it. So when we talk about special events and the like, raising our visibility is a prominent theme – how can we help people know what we are doing and simply that we exist? What can we do that will help our neighbors and our neighborhood recognize that we are here and join in?
Jesus actually has a few things to say about visibility, but his words don’t seem to encourage us in our work of being seen. In the section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that we heard this morning, Jesus speaks pretty directly against doing things just to be seen. As he looked down from up on the mountain, Jesus offered a vision of God doing something radically new in the world, and he used three familiar practices of faith to suggest ways to live into the kingdom of heaven – but these were things to be done, not just to be seen.
First, he speaks of the practice of giving alms. Supporting the poor with small gifts was very familiar to Jesus’ first listeners, as it was a longstanding part of Jewish tradition and broader cultural practice of the ancient world. Jesus doesn’t attack the tradition at all – in fact, he encourages it – but he demands that its purpose always be kept in mind. Supporting the needs of the less fortunate must always be about responding to those who are in need of assistance, not about making the giver feel good or be appreciated or noticed. True giving is not about being seen making an important gift – it is about doing what is best for the other, and if the temptation is too strong to get a benefit for yourself, Jesus suggests doing it in secret, not even letting your other hand know what is going on! In doing things in this way, we point toward something greater than ourselves. Jesus then suggests that there is a reward from God for doing this – but this is not about storing up rewards for ourselves in heaven. Instead, it may be, as preacher Tom Long suggests, a reminder of our constant dependence on the infinite mercy of God:
All that we have, all that we are, comes by the mercy of God. So, when we are generous toward others, we are not writing checks on a limited account. We are drawing from an inexhaustible flow of divine grace; works of mercy never deplete the supply. (Tom Long, Matthew in the Westminster Bible Companion series)
After lifting up this practice of almsgiving and showing how it reminds us of God’s mercy and grace toward us, Jesus moves on to the practice of prayer. His words on prayer start out very much like his words on almsgiving, with an affirmation of the practice but a condemnation of how it is frequently carried out. Too often, he suggests, prayer becomes a matter of showing off – praying in public settings so that everyone can hear every word, using flowery words, focusing on the prayer itself rather than on those lifted up in it and especially the one to whom it is directed. Instead of all these things, Jesus suggests a very simple prayer instead. This incredible prayer is now so well known that we probably miss its radical nature and intent, but the reality is that the Lord’s Prayer points less to the kinds of requests for healing and protection that get lifted up so frequently in our midst and more toward asking God to make the way of heaven real in the world. In these words of the Lord’s Prayer, prayer becomes less about the one praying and his or her needs and more about becoming engaged with what God is doing to renew the world, not a series of wishes to be granted by an all-powerful genie but rather a practice of faith grounded in our hope to be a part of what God is doing all around us.
The final practice is one that seems a little more foreign to us Protestants these days: fasting. I must admit that I have never found personal spiritual value in this, nor have I tried it for myself. Nonetheless, for Jesus’ listeners and for many others of other religious traditions, fasting is an important part of the spiritual life, but Jesus insists that it be kept in the right perspective. Just as almsgiving and prayer should be rooted in real practices and not just in drawing attention to the doer, so true fasting seeks to deepen the internal spiritual life far more than it is noticed by others. So Jesus goes so far as to suggest that his audience ought to disguise the fact that they are fasting if they are tempted to find righteousness in the practice rather than its fruits, if they are more concerned with being seen than actually doing something to be a part of the coming kingdom.
There is definitely a fine balance at work for us between doing what enriches our faith and being seen at work by others. On the one hand, it shouldn’t matter that we are doing good things in our world in the name of the church, but on the other, we also carry a command to make the name of God known all around us. In our world, where good works abound but understanding of the Christian life seems awfully absent, where people enjoy looking at church buildings but almost never set foot in them for worship, it would almost seem more important than ever to be recognized for why we do what we do.
However, Jesus’ admonitions still apply today. We shouldn’t care for the needs of others just so that others will pay attention to us, let alone place conditions of being seen or heard on our help. Prayer should not be a tactic used to show off, suggest the superiority of one way of life, inject religious content into a properly secular moment, or even proselytize in the public sphere, for it should always draw attention to God and the new way that God places before us. And other spiritual practices like fasting must draw as much attention to the internal life that grounds them as they draw to themselves. Jesus doesn’t mean that we should only give to the poor in secret, only pray alone, or engage other practices that deepen our spiritual lives only in ways that they cannot be seen – he simply suggests that these practices must always point to something more if they are seen.
The three practices of faith that Jesus lifts up here – almsgiving, prayer, and fasting – are only three of a multitude of things we can do to deepen our spiritual lives and point to the true grounding of our faith and action. Other practices can also enrich our walk as we seek to engage more faithfully with what God is doing in the world – things like practicing Sabbath, finding spiritual companionship for the journey, singing the ups and downs of our lives, and even finding words to describe how God has been at work in our lives and our world. Things like these can help us to engage more faithfully with all the new things that God is doing all around us. If in doing these things, we can demonstrate to the world the quality of life in the kingdom of heaven without becoming smug or haughty or focused just on being seen, then we can and should be a part of what God is doing even now to make all things new.
Our visibility in these days certainly matters – people need to see and know what we do and why we do it – but that visibility is only a fruit of the incredible things that God calls us to do as the community of faith in the church. Next Sunday after worship, we’ll be talking a bit about this calling – and some specific ways to make it real through our own commitments – so I encourage you to make plans to join us after worship next Sunday for this important conversation.
And so from up on this mountain may we have a clearer vision of the kingdom of heaven – and how we can be a part of making it real – so that we can also help others to see it and invite them to join in through our life together. Lord, come quickly! Amen.