Back to series
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Matthew, beginning in chapter six this morning.
We’ve been in a series through the book of Matthew for several weeks now. The first few chapters of the book of Matthew show how Jesus left his throne and came out into the desert of our wandering and our temptation to save us—not just in some purely spiritual sense, but in every sense. He’s not just the new and better Moses in giving and fulfilling the law, but Jesus is the new and better you and me, offering us life, real life, in him. We are slaves to sin, and God is bringing us up from every slavery into which we’ve fallen until we are free in him.
The last couple of weeks we’ve been going through the sermon on the mount, where Jesus teaches, with authority, a new law, one which he says in no way gets rid of the old law and prophets, rather the new law restores, upholds, fulfills the old. The law is meant to invite us into God’s grace and into the truly beautiful practice of confession. Core to Christianity is a belief that in Christ we are able to change in all the ways we most desperately want and need to change.
We are meant to learn from the law the way the world is meant to be, and the way we were created to be, and if we are honest, we’re meant to admit that there is a distance between the way the world is meant to be and the way it actually is. There is a distance between the way society ought to be, if we are to truly love and care for each other, and the way it is. That one is easier to admit. What’s harder is admitting, when you look at the law, admitting that you have a part in the discord. You have, I have, done wrong in the things you’ve done and the things you’ve left undone.
In and through all of this moral teaching, interwoven with it, Jesus begins to teach what most scholars consider the primary topic of his recorded teachings and the new testament as a whole: the kingdom of God, and what it’s like. Over and over again Jesus, in almost everything he is going to say, he’s telling us what the kingdom of God is like, what the king is like, and what the kingdom of God means for us and our world. Jesus, in the sermon on the mount, is challenging us to believe that there is another reality, besides the one we can taste, touch, and see; there is another kingdom, besides America, or any other nation we live in. And incredibly, he teaches that the kingdom of God is at hand, meaning not far away, not way in the future, but here and now. We can live as citizens of the kingdom of God even now, where we are, we are able to live in the intersection, in the gap between the city of God and this city.
Our passage this morning is going to delve further into both themes. What does it mean to live a moral life, really? What is this kingdom, and who is this king? Read with me, Matthew 6, starting in v.1. [Matthew 6:1-18] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
We’re going to do, again, what we did last week. Any one of these teachings is worth a sermon, and I’ve already preached several of those sermons, but this passage also has some things to say as a unified whole, and I’m going to focus on the big picture.
I want you to notice all of the practices in this section are religious practices: he starts with almsgiving, or tithing, then prayer, then fasting. What this passage as a whole is about, to borrow language from James, is pure and undefiled religion.
Religion is not something which in our society, even in churches, has a good reputation, but we should notice in our passage, Jesus isn’t teaching against religion. Instead, he’s trying to show that religion, like anything else, can be healthy or it can be diseased. There is a true religion, and a form of religion that lies, or Jesus mostly uses the word act. We don’t usually translate it: the word for acting in the language of the Bible is hypocrisy.
Jesus says all through the passage, as people are sounding trumpets and making faces, he says, they’re acting. That’s not religion, that’s a show about religion. Those aren’t religious people, those are actors. If you don’t want the cast of Gray’s anatomy operating on you, you probably don’t want to learn your religion from the people who are actors. The problem is, how do you tell the real religion from the fake?
I had the pleasure one time of watching Gray’s Anatomy with my cousin who at the time was a nurse at a hospital in Nashville. She couldn’t stand it, just like I can’t stand actors on TV portraying religious people. She couldn’t contain herself, she kept blurting out “that’s grossly inaccurate,” she spotted about twelve different lawsuits. It was hilarious. Frighteningly, she said Scrubs is pretty much spot on.
The most common thing I hear among church folks about people acting religion is that a lot of religious folks, their heart isn’t in it. They’re just going through motions without a real relationship with God. That’s true, I see that, too. The most common thing I hear from non-church folks is that religious people use their religion to make themselves seem better than everyone else, and to put other people down, feel good about themselves, when in truth they’re struggling just like the rest of us, but they’re lying about it. That’s true, I see that. But, listen—I’ve also seen true religion, and it is one of the most gut-wrenchingly beautiful things I have ever seen, and it’s incredibly powerful.
I’ve seen families welcome refugees into their homes who had no home and no visa to work here. I’ve seen families care for children who need families like their own. I’ve seen, over and over again, even with many of you, people leave the comfort of their own homes, go into a disaster area, to help people they don’t even know recover. I’ve seen rich people give anonymously, enormous amounts, to help the poor, and poor people without grumbling be hospitable to the rich. I’ve seen people give their entire working lives in service to the destitute when they were talented enough to do anything they wanted to do. Pastors, exhausted in every way at the end of their day get a call and walk right back out the door.
Anything that is beautiful and powerful in our world, if it is misused, is horrible. Love, for example, can build a life together or completely destroy people, depending upon how it is used. With fire we cook food for our families and burn people at the stake.
With religion, we reach out our hands to touch the kingdom of God, bridge the physical and the spiritual; we speak of impossible things being true. With religion we can either build a loving community who loves and cares for each other lifelong, or we can use religion to divide and exclude and make people feel unwanted. With religion, we can free slaves and build a more equal society, or we can baptize lynching with words like justice and created order. We could help nations heal from past wrongs, or we can justify genocides. With religion, we can learn our true worth and purpose as individuals, or we can teach people that they aren’t worth our time. Religion is an incredibly powerful tool both when it is true and when it is false, both when it is real and when it is an act. Be careful with it, or you will take this thing of gut wrenching beauty and make it into a twisted horror.
Jesus starts with giving, specifically giving to the poor. Giving in Christianity is meant to be a recognition of the worth and value of the kingdom of God. The idea comes from the Old Testament synagogue system. You would start a new synagogue whenever ten families were willing to join it, because if they were all giving a tenth of their living to the synagogue, you could support the life of the priest at the same level as the lives of the families in the church, and the priest could give to the poor and keep up the house out of his living. In addition to the tenth of what they gave to the church, there were several other offerings designed to provide for celebration and provision, again, for the poor. What a simple system! And beautiful in the way high tides would raise all ships. How could that possibly go wrong you ask?
Humans. From the start, people didn’t want to give a tenth of their living, even if they were doing really well—there was always someone doing better, not giving their fair share—so they would give sparingly if at all to the church, even though they were benefitting from the care of the community. People would misrepresent their wealth in order to give less. Or suddenly any misstep from the church is cause for cutting off giving. Conveniently, you can’t support that kind of thing.
And of course when the church isn’t receiving the full part of its due, it’s easy for the church to turn around and say, we’re sorry poor people, we have nothing to give, and it’s not the church’s fault, it’s his fault over there. As James talks about, people would ask to receive alms over and over again and then spend it wrongly, on drink or other things that aren’t actual needs. Humans.
None of that, of course, has happened in any church I’ve ever worked with. I was talking about ancient Israel. But now that you mention it, all of this is happening all the time at every church. This church is generous to me, and I’m grateful, but I know pastors who are paid well below poverty lines while the people in their church live upper-middle class lives. I know churches who have stopped giving anything at all to missions. And of course if any pastor addresses the topic, he must be self-interested, saving for his second jet. Money is a tough topic no mater where you are, but especially in church, because we’re meant to be a family and share each other’s burdens, really care for each other.
Jesus says, giving would be better if we weren’t so loud about it. He makes another joke, he says if your left hand is giving, don’t even tell your right hand about it. Which is hyperbole, again, but in practice, this kind of giving is super-healthy. One way I try to put this into practice: I very intentionally don’t look at giving records for the church, because I don’t want it to cloud my treatment of people or affect the power dynamics of the church. Giving to a church shouldn’t get you power in a church; it shouldn’t even really be known to the rest of us that you are a big giver.
Another example just of how to put this into practice; I have a policy. Our church does not give money as a part of our missions work. We give out everything we have from the church, but not money. It’s a well-known policy. I’ve been cursed out many times for it, and most people have really stopped asking. Thing is, it’s also not a real policy. We spend about 70% of our church budget on people who are in need, in one way or another, and just like in ancient Israel, that doesn’t even count what people are giving in addition to what they give to the church. Every time I talk to Adam he’s giving something away. We just aren’t loud about it, because people ask for all kinds of wrong reasons, so we try to discern the real needs and meet those in secret. Usually we’re not loud about it, I was hoping many people didn’t come to church today, I’m kind of ruining it right now, but you try coming up with practical examples for this sermon.
When I first started in ministry, years ago in Memphis, one of the guys associated with the Union mission we work with there—his name is Marlin, but he is universally known as big dog—big dog snagged me out of the lunch line one day, I’m maybe 19, and said he needed me to ride with him and help him unload when we got there. I’m making conversation on the ride, find out we were delivering a refrigerator to an elderly lady in the community. I was amazed at the coincidence and asked big dog how he just happened to have an extra fridge, and he goes quiet. It was awkward, we’d been chatting back and forth, eventually he tells me, “I don’t want to lie to you, man, it’s my fridge.” He didn’t have an extra fridge he was giving away, but she needed a fridge for her medication, and he was giving his own refrigerator to her and he tried everything he could not to tell me about it. Beautiful, gut-wrenching religion.
Next, Jesus talks about prayer. He’s still joking around, he says when folks pray all loud and in public, whatever it is they’re saying with all those words, what they really want out of that prayer is attention, so they already got their reward. Look at that, how neat, God didn’t even need to be involved. And the implication is, in that kind of prayer, God really isn’t involved.
If it’s something else you want your prayer to do, though, Like in the Lord’s prayer, if you want to actually praise God, or if you want to be near him, you can do that even in your house with the doors closed. If you want his kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, a bunch of words isn’t going to help that. And you can repeat all the names of God in Hebrew and Greek and any other language, but he really just wants you to call him father. God knows the needs of the people around you.
And some things don’t change. One of the big challenges when I started trying to disciple people growing up—our town was suburban, less open about sin than the city. All the same sins, all the same brokenness, only one doesn’t discuss it in public. One of the big challenges in that context was just getting people to think about, pray about, apply scripture to themselves instead of to other people. What they had learned that day was always what someone else needed to hear. Man, I wish John were here, I know he really struggles with this. I try to share with him, but you know? It’s tough, he doesn’t see it.
Jesus says, stop praying for God to forgive other people’s sins. Ask him to forgive your own sins. As for what other people are doing wrong, pray that you would be able to forgive them, because God’s forgiveness is not, has never been lacking; our forgiveness, though. We judge and divide all the time. Families fall apart because we can’t begin the conversation with an apology of what part we play in the problem. This is part of why I encourage people to respond to the sermon every week. We aren’t here to stock up on some Jesus and bring it to someone else because they are the sinners in need of a savior, we are gathered here in this church to admit our own need of Jesus’ salvation and sanctification, his wisdom and mercy. You, me. We need to hear this word today. It’s for us. Why else do you think God sovereignly ordained your presence here with us today?
Yes, of course other people need to hear the gospel and wisdom of God—it has the power to save them! But the witness you bear to the lostness and brokenness of the world is, I am a sinner, and I found help, salvation, real change in my life for the better in Christ. I get hungry and tired, too, do you want to know where I’ve found bread and wine and rest? The gospel is not a thing you own that you give out, it is a king and a kingdom, and Christ showed us the way that we might walk there together, bearing each other’s burdens.
Fasting is the last topic here in this broader section on true religion. Similarly to what he says about giving, Jesus’ comment is, when you fast and tell everyone about it, what you’re really trying to do with the fast is to get attention, so congratulations, you did it. If you want anything else out of the fast, though—direction from the Lord, wisdom, learning your dependence upon him and him alone, taking part in the suffering of the world—if you want those things, you don’t need everyone to know you’re fasting. You just need to fast.
In our time and place we’ve very cleverly resolved any difficulties we might have experienced with fasting the wrong way simply by not fasting at all. I actually see a lot of people very proudly moving in that direction for each of these topics. Not just fasting, but giving and praying, too. We’ve resolved any tensions by ceasing the practice. Usually we express this impulse as a desire to distance ourselves from organized religion. We don’t want to be hypocrites, we want to live in the freedom of grace, but before long we just stop practicing our faith altogether. Really, though, that’s still acting. Just a different kind.
All of the cynical talk gathers a lot of attention, just like the person giving while blowing trumpets. The criticisms of religion win people followings, praises from certain groups on social media. Meanwhile, in not wanting to do religion the wrong way, you’ve stopped doing it altogether, to the detriment of all the people who needed your alms, prayers, and solidarity.
In my mind, ditching religion altogether helps no one, not even you. So declare a fast in your own life. Give, pray, not so everyone can see you; don’t post it on instagram. Don’t talk about it, just do it. Come to small group so you can know how to pray for people. If you want to give to a need in the church you see, come talk to me about how to do it in a way that doesn’t draw attention and shame the recipient of the gift.
In the end, I would encourage you, invite you, not to ditch your religion, but to make it real. Make it real; stop acting. If you just want people to think you are a good person, you’ve received what you were after already. Want something else. Want the thriving of your neighbor. Want to make the outcast feel welcomed and loved. Give, pray, fast, but do it for Christ and the people around you, not for yourself. Let go of any kind of reward here in this kingdom. Give everything you have to the kingdom of God. Seek that kingdom first, find him, and you’ll have everything you need.