Well, Hey, There… Handsome…

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On January 31, we considered the implications of Jesus’ assumption that his followers will engage in spiritual disciplines such as prayer, almsgiving, and fasting, as rooted in the portion of that message contained in Matthew 6:19-24.  The call to discipline was echoed in James 1:22-27.

 

FlirtYou’ve seen it a million times. A man. A woman. They eye each other from across the room. Is something happening? Could there be a spark? Some excitement?

Hair is flipped. Legs or arms are folded or not. Eyebrows are raised, and heads tilted.

Laughter and … “Oh, hello, there, handsome…” “Who, me? Handsome, well, I don’t really know about that…”

Conversation. Innuendo. Risk. Suggestion.

Flirting. I’ve been working with adolescents for almost 40 years. I usually recognize it when I see it.

On the one hand, there is a certain helpfulness and utility to flirting. Somehow, in order for the species to survive, we need to establish interest in one another. The ability to “catch someone’s eye” is useful in determining whether there is a possibility of a real relationship with another person.

But when the flirt goes on too long, it can become counterproductive, if not downright dangerous. Signals are mixed. It can lead to harm – emotional, spiritual, and physical.

But we all know people who are really good at it, don’t we? People who seem to enjoy using a system of signals and actions that are designed to confuse, or toy with, or manipulate others. In fact, the two top definitions of “flirt” in Google’s dictionary are:

behave as though attracted to or trying to attract someone, but for amusement rather than with serious intentions.

 experiment with or show a superficial interest in (an idea, activity, or movement) without committing oneself to it seriously.

Again, most of us have flirted in relationships at some time in the past. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be where we are, relationally. But sooner or later, most of us stop flirting and dive in.

Christ Healing a Leper, Rembrandt (1650-55)

Christ Healing a Leper, Rembrandt (1650-55)

In the Gospel of Matthew, we hear of the extraordinary circumstances of Jesus’ birth. We are told of how he comes to adulthood in the shadow of his more prominent cousin, whom we know as John the Baptist. He comes to engage his community and the world by launching a ministry of teaching and healing. In so doing, Jesus catches the world’s eye – and he caught the eye of those who would become his first followers. There’s a miracle over here, or a profound message over there, and the social media is buzzing… “Hey, check this guy out…”

And then we get to Matthew chapter five and begin to hear the teaching we know as the Sermon on the Mount. Here is a definitive pronouncement that we are not called to be primarily those who flirt with either God or the world.

The Sermon contains, as we have heard, a description of living the Jesus way – as peacemakers, or those who are poor in spirit, pure in heart, and so on. Living the Jesus way, apparently, means developing an awareness of the power that anger, lust, deceit, selfishness, or hatred can have in one’s life. The Sermon on the Mount, with its call to a life of integrity and intentionality, is not for the faint of heart. And I can picture Jesus eyeing his followers and saying, “Look, if you are here only because you liked the healings or the miracles, then you’d better keep walking, because the life of discipleship is intense. There is no room for flirting.”

Palestine: Sermon on the Mount, Vasily Polenov (1900)

Palestine: Sermon on the Mount, Vasily Polenov (1900)

And because the life to which Jesus calls his followers is so all-encompassing, he gives them three practices with which to engage their world and their Lord: generous giving, faithful prayer, and sincere fasting. These are behaviors, says Jesus, that will equip us to adopt this kind of lifestyle.

If we want to live lives that are reflective of God’s intentions for us as expressed in chapter 5, then we’ve got to be good at giving, praying, and fasting – because these are the disciplines that will mold us into faithful followers of Jesus.

We picked up this morning where we left off last week, in the middle of chapter 6. After giving his followers the mindset and behaviors that will allow us to live more like he does, he explores the danger of relying too much on what we have as we seek to define who we are. Material goods and money, he says, are to be used, rather than collected.

He takes an example from Middle Eastern culture. Judaism, Islam, and other traditions from that area all hold to some form of belief that if we look at the world around us or at each other with a malicious glare – what we might call today a “stink eye” – that we will wind up with harsh, judgmental, or miserly spirits. The opposite of an “evil eye” is the “simple eye” or the “single eye”, one that denotes an attitude of good will or kindness. If we have an eye that is trained in this fashion, Jesus says, we are more likely to be able to live by the light of God’s presence in the world.

Our reading for today concludes with the familiar passage in verse 24 about serving God and mammon. When Jesus uses this word, he was apparently using a word that, in his time, simply referred to money, although in the years after his death and resurrection, mammon came to represent a personification of the evil and idolatrous aspects of materialism and greed that seek to control us. Key to any understanding of this teaching of Jesus is his use of the word “serve”, as in the phrase, “you cannot serve God and mammon.” In choosing this vocabulary, Jesus is presuming the captivity of the human heart and spirit. Each of us will fall in line behind and serve something or someone. That is not in question. The question is, what will it be? Ourselves? Our own beaty or wisdom or fear or riches or worry? Our insecurities? Or God? We all live for something or someone, and we are all willing to direct our energies toward that thing or person. The question is not “will you serve?”, but “whom will you serve?”

If we allow ourselves to think that being a disciple is a part time hobby, then we miss the boat. God created us for, and expects from us, singularity of purpose and faithfulness.

In this excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his followers to adopt patterns of behavior that will transform us into the kinds of people that God intends us to be. That exortation is echoed in the letter from James, who reminds us that it’s not enough to simply hear the Word, we’ve got to internalize it and practice it. The way that we exercise our ability to choose to serve God rather than mammon or some other idol is to engage in behaviors like giving, prayer, and fasting.

I had a fascinating conversation earlier this week with someone who is unable to worship here, but who faithfully reads the sermons online each week. He said to me, “Dave, I think you had a good, strong message about fasting last week, but to be honest, I wish you would have gone a little harder. You didn’t leave me wanting to fast. I’m not sure it sounded all that attractive.”

Listen: I don’t really want you to be a person who just loves fasting, or is proud of the fact that you prayed an extra thirty seconds yesterday, or that you bought the homeless guy a sandwich. I mean, those are good things – but they’re not the point. The point is that I want you to be a person who is like Jesus. Fasting and praying and giving are all merely exercises that allow us to get to be that way – they are not ends in themselves. I am happy to teach you more about doing any of those things – but not because they are somehow super attractive to us.

I get piles of advertising material for youth and children’s curriculum and retreat centers and special events. I wish I had a nickel for every time I read the words “awesome” or “dynamic” or “intense” or “thrilling” in the context of advertisement for church youth events. I hate it.

Maybe you should come to the CHUP youth group some time. Those words are not always the fairest way to describe what we do or how we do it. Sometimes, youth group is boring. Sometimes, we play games that bomb. Often, we sing songs that are corny. There are lots of nights where youth group isn’t “awesome” or “thrilling”.

Even if you’ve never been to the CHUP youth group, you probably believe me when I say that, because, well, lots of you have been bored to tears in this very room. You’ve been irritated by other people’s children and frustrated at having to endure songs that you didn’t get to select. And don’t even get me started on how hard these pews are, how cold it is in February or how hot it is in July.

And yet, here you are. Why?

Because none of that is why you are here. As a kid, when your mom dies or your parents divorce or a classmate overdoses, you’re not looking for “awesome” or “intense” when you come to youth group. And when the rest of you get a call about your plant shutting down or have high hopes for your kids that are dashed or get that horrible call from the doctor’s office or have to come up with a framework to think about racism or ethnic violence, well, the songs that we sing here or the noise that those kids make suddenly look a lot less important than the destination of faithful living to which we are traveling together.

You know this: we are not here to be entertained (and that’s a good thing for you, Carver!).

We are here because we think that this is the best place to be molded, reminded, nagged, prompted, prodded, or encouraged into following Jesus a little longer or a little better.

And you know this: that sometimes following Jesus can look a lot like a slow, boring advance in righteousness.

And that’s OK.

Jesus is not here to flirt with us, and he doesn’t have much time for people who are merely looking to be coy with him. Jesus came in order to give all of himself for all of creation in the expectation that we would do the same for him, for each other, and for our neighbor.

We praise God for the times that the life of discipleship is “awesome”!

More importantly, we praise God for the process of discipleship that equips us to do hard things, to grow fruit in each season, and to hear and act on what we have heard. May our lives this week be an opportunity to exercise our faith in the hopes that we look and act a little more like Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Who’s in Charge Here?

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On January 24 we considered the way that Jesus addressed some key religious practices, most notably fasting, as presented in Matthew 6:16-18.  We also considered Paul’s words to his community in Corinth as given in I Corinthians 9:24-27.

 

Do you remember the weather forecasters during the middle of the week? The snow is coming! Snow!

When you heard that, what did you do? Well, if you’re like the stereotypical Western Pennsylvanian, you heard the forecast for snow and you hightailed it down the Giant Eagle to make sure you had milk, bread, and eggs. Because that’s what we do, right? One flake, and we’re there. Oh, we may have some difficulty due to the snow, but we’re not going to experience French toast-related emergencies in this household, thank you very much.

It’s what we do.

In the first century, if you were a religious Jew, you gave alms, you prayed, and you fasted. Maybe you spent a lot of time thinking about it. Maybe you didn’t. But you did those things, because that’s what religious people did.

Jesus’ disciples were not an exception, apparently. Here in the Sermon on the Mount, he addresses those practices, and three times he says, “When…” When you give to the needy, when you pray, and when you fast.

Most of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day fasted twice a week – they went without food on Mondays and Thursdays. There were a lot of reasons for this practice, including repentance for sin and a desire to be connected with the things that were important to the Lord. There was also, evidently, something important about being seen as a person who fasted. When Jesus speaks to his followers about fasting, he specifically instructs them NOT to make a big production out of it. In fact, he says, try not to let anyone suspect that you are fasting.

My hunch is that of the three practices that Jesus lifts up here in the beginning of Matthew 6, this is the one that seems the most remote to us.

For the last two weeks, we’ve talked about prayer. We like prayer. We pray for each other, we ask other people to pray for us. We’re pretty good at prayer, in some respects. We get prayer. In fact, a few of you asked me to preach a whole series of messages on the various aspects of the Lord’s Prayer.

And while not everybody likes to give money or time or energy away, we’ve all done it. In fact, here in the USA our own government gives us an incentive for charitable giving in the form of tax deductions. So when Jesus talks about when we give, that makes sense to us.

Hungry person hand holding fork knife on food plate

But fasting? Not so much. What good does it do, we wonder? I can kind of see how my praying for your grandma might make a difference. And I know that if I give someone in the youth group $25, she’ll take that to the Youth Group Famine and it will help feed a family for a month. But how in the world does my skipping out on lunch have anything to do with my faithfulness as a disciple?

The Bible is full of people who fast: Moses, Hannah, David, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, Anna, John, Jesus, Paul… all kinds of people are mentioned as going without food as a spiritual practice. People fasted as a means of expressing repentance for their sin, or so that they could really concentrate on serving God well. Some people fasted as a kind of enacted prayer, where they sought to learn more about depending fully on God, rather than their own efforts.

But what about us? Does this apply to us at all? Does Jesus want his followers in 2016 to be people who fast? Or is that one of those bible things, like frankincense or getting fed to lions, that used to happen but doesn’t anymore?

Well, he’s talking about it right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. That ought to be a clue – I mean, so far, there’s nothing very optional about the other things that are in the Sermon.

So far, we’ve experienced the Sermon on the Mount as a catalogue of Jesus’ ethical reality. That is to say, we see the Sermon as the way to follow Jesus most closely. And as we hear the Sermon, we are struck by how difficult it is. I know that we covered chapter 5 all the way back in November and December, but there is some important stuff in there. Do you remember? Don’t fall prey to the dangers of anger, or lust, or revenge. Be a person of integrity. Be generous in all your thoughts and deeds. And be a person of love – love for your enemy, love for your brother.

Those are some hard practices in which to engage, aren’t they? If we are going to be people who do those kinds of things, we’re going to have to be in shape, spiritually speaking. We just don’t fall into those kinds of behaviors.

For millennia, people have found that fasting is a way of aligning our inner spirit with our outward behavior. As we fast, we allow our bodies to feel the weight of spiritual truth. We say we are hungry for God’s reign, but when we are actually feeling our bellies rumble, we can identify that longing in a different way.

When the Apostle Paul talked about spiritual discipline to his friends who lived in Corinth, he referred to a set of athletic contests known as the Isthmian Games. These were modeled after the Olympics, and took place in Corinth every two years. Paul talks about the fact that the prize for these contests was often a wreath made out of celery, but the prize for spiritual faithfulness was eternal. For Paul, the physical body was helpful in teaching the mind and the spirit some things that were true. There were some religions at that time that taught that anything physical – including our own bodies – was evil. Paul counteracts that heresy by saying, essentially, that rather than being the enemy of faithfulness, the human body is a tool for right living.

Back to 2016. Allow me to suggest that there are at least three reasons why occasional or even regular fasting can be important to you as you seek to live like Jesus would have you live.

The physical sensation of hunger or desire can serve as a reminder of our spiritual need. I have often found that if I want to be mindful to a particular situation or need, fasting helps me to be focused. Let’s say that a friend in another state calls to tell me that he’s about to enter into a particularly difficult situation – he’s facing surgery, or anticipating some big test, or applying for job. If I say to him, “OK, I will hold you in prayer” and I engage in a period of fasting at the same time, then every time I feel hungry, I can stop what I’m doing and hold this friend before the Lord in prayer. I can take the time I might usually spend on eating lunch and use that time to be focused on my friend’s need.

FastingWorkoutWith each time I am reminded of my body’s hunger for food, I have the occasion to direct my thoughts and prayers in a specific way. That’s what we mean when we say, “I’m fasting for Bill today”, or something of that nature. On the one hand, my friend receives no direct benefit from the fact that I’m going without food, but on the other hand, I am clearly more focused and attentive as both a friend and a child of God because I’m engaging in this discipline.

Another benefit to fasting in 2016 is that it allows me to get better at being able to do stuff that I don’t want to do. That may sound odd, but think it through with me: many of the core realities of being a faithful adult disciple in the world are rooted in being willing and able to things that we would rather not. Whether we’re talking about doing the dishes, going to school, forgiving your mother, or showing up at a friend’s funeral, our lives are filled with things we don’t like doing. Part of being an effective human being, though, is being able to do them anyway.

When I fast, I am specifically choosing to do something (be hungry) that normally I’d just as soon avoid. Going without food for a designated period of time is uncomfortable. I have a friend who speaks about fasting in almost mystic terms: she talks about having heightened clarity and deepened response… Not me. I’m cold and if I’m not careful I’m irritable and there’s just nothing magical about it…

…Until I am faced with something else that I need to do, but I don’t feel like it, and I find that I’m better at that because I’ve fasted. I’ll think about how much I really don’t want to show up for that meeting, or show kindness to my neighbor, or act in someone else’s best interest…and then I’ll remember, “Hey, Carver, last month you went four days straight without eating anything. That was hard. You can do this, and do it well. You are more capable than you thought you were.” And I’m right – fasting helps me to get better at doing what I don’t want to do.

A final means in which fasting has been a blessing in my own life is that it is an opportunity to share God’s love and provision with those who need it. Of course, the Youth Group Famine is a great example of this. There are times when I go without food and I directly give some of that time, energy, and money to someone who needs it more than I do. When the Youth Group pauses next month to fast for a day and a half, we’ll take some of the time we’ve been given and use it to learn about starvation and nutrition and justice in the world. We’ll take some of our energy and offer it to our neighbors in service. And we’ll use some of the money we might otherwise spend on ourselves to purchase food for the hungry.

I knew a man whose name was Egonn. When he was a child, he fled the Nazis and came to the USA. He told me of hiding out nights in frozen barns, afraid of who might find him and what they’d do to him. One day I overheard him say to his wife that he wanted to give $30 per month to help alleviate suffering in a certain refugee camp. His wife, who was herself kind and generous to a fault, said, “I understand what you’re saying, but we just don’t have that money. You know the budget. We can’t find another dollar a day.” He was silent for a moment, and then said, “Well, then, let’s get rid of the coffee maker. I don’t need to drink coffee at home.”

I have no idea how much coffee Egonn drank, but I remember being struck by his willingness to voluntarily abstain from something he enjoyed because he thought those resources could be better used elsewhere. When we choose to fast, we can make significant amounts of money, energy, or time available to those for whom those resources could make a huge difference.

This week, let me invite you to consider planning a fast of your own. Think about a day or so that you can skip your regular meals, or engage in some other kind of fast. Maybe you get off social media for a while, or you turn your back on trashy television, or give up something in particular like coffee for a season. We’re coming into Lent, and that might be a good time for you to consider engaging in a practice like this. But think this week about how you can undertake a fast that is meaningful to you, helpful to the world, and likely to prompt you in greater discipleship. You’re not doing it because it’s going to get you a better parking spot in heaven, or because you want me to be so impressed with what a great Christian you are. You can do it so that you are more likely to be shaped in the ways that God is calling you to live.

Way back on Tuesday, when Treva asked me for a title to this message, I said “Let’s call it ‘Who’s in Charge Here?’,” because I thought it was a clever way to indicate that you – your mind, your spirit, your will – you are in charge of your own body, your own calendar, and your own wallet.

I think it’s a good title, but not for those reasons. When we engage in spiritual practices like giving alms, praying, or fasting, it’s because that’s the number one way that we make our lives reflect the truth that we speak all the time: God is in charge. We do these things because we want to be where God is, doing what God does. If we’re really disciples, that’s what we do, right? So let’s talk about a fast that points us to our dependence on God and heightens our ability to be a blessing to our neighbors, because, really, who is in charge here?

A Helpful Model

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On January 17 we considered the way that Jesus addressed some key religious practices, notably prayer, as found in Matthew 6:9-15 as well as Psalm 86:1-13.

 

There’s not much I like to do more than talk with people. Talking with people about their lives, and how those lives fit in with their understanding of the Holy is even better. Talking with two people about how God is moving in their lives and bringing them into relationship is even better.

So let me just say that I was doing one of my favorite things – talking with a young couple about their upcoming marriage and where God might be in the middle of it – when one of the participants said, “You know, Pastor Dave, that I come from a Jewish family. I’m nervous that we might exclude some people if the ceremony is too ‘Jesusy’. Do we have to do the Lord’s prayer?”

You should have seen the look on their faces when I suggested that one of the most Jewish things we could do in their wedding was to pray the Lord’s prayer. I know, Jesus prayed it, but Jesus was a Jewish man. And here, he’s teaching Jewish people about prayer. In the Jewish tradition.

I made what I thought was a pretty compelling argument, but in the end I was not able to convince them that this prayer, like the one on Psalm 86, is a great model for prayer – one that is helpful to just about anyone.

As we begin to consider this prayer, let me admit that we’re not going to go very deep. I mean, there are literally hundreds of books written on these verses, and we have about eighteen minutes. We won’t exhaust the topic – but let’s walk around and kick the tires for a few moments anyway, shall we?

There are six essential petitions in the prayer that Jesus gives to his followers to use as a model. Like the ten commandments, the first section of the prayer concerns the power, authority, and holiness of God, and the rest of the prayer has to do with the ways that we live in response to who God is in the world.

hallowed_3Our Father, who art in heaven: hallowed be thy name… First, let’s acknowledge that the point of this prayer is not to demonstrate that the creator of heaven and earth is a male, and that God is not the same as my dad or as your dad. With this kind of language, Jesus is assuring his followers that God is not merely an idea or a concept or a framework. When using the word “Father” to refer to God, Jesus is directing us toward a loving, authoritative, creative personality whose very essence is relational.

And yet this personal and loving God is so pure and incorruptible that his very name is hallowed – holy. In our quest to honor the person, we will go so far as to honor the name itself as a sign of respect.

God’s personhood, holiness, and parenthood – the relational nature of the Divine – it has an end or a goal. Thy kingdom come. The relational nature of God is to be experienced in the midst of a reality that we can apprehend and understand. There is a royal rule, a reign, in which we come to know who God is and what God values. There is a shape to the set of relationships that the person of God embodies, and there are boundaries that we do not get to define. The right to determine how and where and what right living looks like belongs to God alone, and we pray that we might know that in our own frameworks.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven… In prayer, we ask that the perfect intentions of the creator come to pass in our own experience. We lay open our hearts to reveal that what we want – or what we want to want, at any rate – is for things here to provide us with a glimpse into the way that things ought to be, and the way that things will be in the eternal fullness and reality of God’s unending presence and care. Bring your perfection, your justice, your holiness, your healing, your mercy – bring those things­ to this experience right now, dear Lord…

After we pray for the pre-eminence of God’s name, God’s kingdom, and God’s will, then we turn our attention to the things that we need and experience in our own daily existence.

Grace, photograph by Eric Enstrom, 1918

Grace, photograph by Eric Enstrom, 1918

Give us this day our daily bread… When some of the earliest followers of Jesus were talking about and teaching this prayer, they were surprised that after dealing with concepts as eternal and powerful as God’s perfect and eternal intentions for the creation, Jesus shifted immediately to something as mundane as bread. This part of the prayer seems so simple, they thought, that Jesus simply must be talking about something else. And so great teachers like St. Augustine taught that “daily bread” must be some sort of a code, not for the substenance that we need from day to day, but for the invisible bread that the word of God becomes in the life of the believer.

As the church matured and grew, however, more and more teachers began to take Jesus at face value, and Christian leaders like Martin Luther and John Calvin taught that in sharing this petition, Jesus is instructing his followers to ask God for the basic needs of life, and not to be preoccupied with luxuries and fantasies. In praying today for what we need today, we are free to live one day at a time and not be overwhelmed by the spectre of things to come.

ForgiveForgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors… OK, now things just got real. I don’t know about you, but I can pray the rest of the Lord’s prayer feeling pretty good about myself, but when I get to the part where I am asking God to hold me to the same standard that I’m using against other people, well, I get a little nervous… But that’s the prayer, isn’t it? And frankly, if it’s not plain here, it sure is a few lines lower, where Jesus says, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Including this petition in our model prayer is the Lord’s way of reminding his followers that we all have departed from God’s best for the world and therefore we all need forgiveness. When we become aware of how we have broken faith with God and others, and we also see the remedy for that: we participate best in the rule, intentions, kingdom, and family of God as we learn to be people of forgiveness and reconciliation – characteristics and qualities we see in the Father and are called to by the Son.

Eric Armusik, The Temptation of Christ, 2011 (used by permission of the artist) http://www.ericarmusik.com/religious-art/

Eric Armusik, The Temptation of Christ, 2011 (used by permission of the artist) http://www.ericarmusik.com/religious-art/

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil… The prayer closes with a pointed reminder of the ways that we are weak and frail. God is powerful and strong and full of singularly righteous intentions…and we are distractible and easily overwhelmed. This final plea of the Lord’s prayer is a deep statement of our inability to withstand evil – whether from within our selves or from the outside – on our own. If we are to triumph, it will be because we are walking in the hand of God.

So there you have it – a few thoughts on the one element of worship that we repeat more often than just about anything else. It is one of the first prayers that we learn as children, and it is the last one we forget in our old age.

As we consider that prayer this morning, I’d like to make a final observation about the structure and content and then invite you to use it even more in the days to come than you have used it in the past.

We can’t easily dismiss that this prayer is given to us in the context of community. “Our Father…Give us…Forgive us…Deliver us…” Following Jesus is not a solitary activity, and we do violence to both the composition and intent of this prayer if we change it to read “My father…give me…forgive me…deliver me…”

PrayerWhen I come before God I must remember that I am not standing there alone, but rather in the company of the whole people of God. When I pray for my daily bread, it is only with an awareness of the fact that my neighbor, too, needs and deserves enough to eat. As I notice and ask God’s mercy on my own failures, I realize that the only way to receive mercy and forgiveness is to live in that place – to pass along what I have received from God to those who seek it from me. In asking for God’s protection from foolishness and weakness, I must do so naming our own interdependence and connectivity. This prayer, like the best of worship, is corporate in nature – it is offered not by one in the wilderness, but by God’s people standing together across time and space.

With that in mind, then, let me invite you to use this prayer each day this week in your own life. Try reading through it line by line, or writing the lines on a paper one at a time. Reflect on each phrase, and join me in working to make this prayer more about our community’s relationship with God and our relationship with each other than it is about our own individual selves.

In talking about prayer with his followers and in offering them this prayer in particular as a model, Jesus is affirming the fact that prayer is a statement of humility and dependence. Prayer is a vehicle, not for acquisition and accumulation, but rather for reconciliation and forgiveness. May our prayer and our lives together be a reflection of that, and therefore, a sign of God’s kingdom intentions in this world. Thanks be to God, Amen.

 

Working Out

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On January 3 we considered the way that Jesus addressed some key religious practices, notably prayer, as found in Matthew 6:5-8.  We also considered Peter’s words to his community as found in 2 Peter 1:3-11.  

 

MorningPrayerPeter, James, and John, like Andrew and Philip and Jesus himself, got up every morning and entered into a time of prayer known as the shacharit. That word means “morning light”, and just as their fathers and grandfathers had done, they welcomed each day with a time of prayer. Each afternoon, they and other faithful Jews would find time to pause for the mincha, or mid-day prayers; and at day’s end the maariv would be said – the prayer of nightfall.

These prayers, proscribed in the Talmud, had been a part of Israel’s history for centuries. So when Rabbi Jesus begins his sentence in the Sermon on the Mount by saying, “when you pray…”, His followers know something of which he is speaking. For these disciples, prayer is not “if” or “should”, but “when”. Prayer happens. And in this teaching, Jesus is apparently not only instructing them as to how to pray, but indicating that his expectation is that even in the new age that is revealed by his coming amongst us, prayer belongs. There is nothing about the incarnation that changes the need for God’s people to pour themselves out to the Lord in prayer.

So when we pray…what is supposed to happen? What does prayer look like for a follower of Jesus?

Praying-Hands-over-BiblePrayer is personal. That is to say, it is not a performance. Jesus cautions his disciples against the practices of the “hypocrites” – people who pray in order to be seen by other people. The Greek word hypokritēs originally referred to actors on the stage – people who read lines that were not their own in order to be seen and heard by an audience. Jesus is saying that our practice of prayer is not for the benefit of any earthly audience, but rather an attempt to communicate with the One who created us.

I say that with the full realization that I am skating on some pretty thin ice here. If you take a look at the bulletin you have in your lap, you’ll see that in twenty minutes (if you’re lucky), we’ll enter into the “Prayers of the People”. That’s when you’ll all be quiet and I’ll speak. If we’re not careful, we may find ourselves tempted towards hypocrisy, wherein I’m up here talking, not to the Lord, but to you – or, even worse, to myself.

There is room for public prayer – provided that we realize and remember that we’re talking corporately with the Lord, and not merely about God. One analogy that I have for public prayer is when both Sharon and I are talking on the computer with our granddaughter. We’re both here, and only one of us is talking – but the purpose of the talk is to communicate with the one on the other end of the line – not for me to impress my wife with what a fantastic grandfather I am.

And public prayer is not limited to our Sunday worship, is it? When we type “Amen” on those Facebook posts, or send out a tweet indicating that “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims…”, are we really engaged in prayer? Or are we wanting to be seen and noticed as being the kinds of people who might engage in prayer? It’s not wrong to do these things – but we need to ask why we are doing them.

According to Matthew, Jesus uses a word here that is found nowhere else in the Bible, and, so far as we can tell, nowhere else in ancient literature. He talks in verse 7 about heaping up empty phrases, and he uses the word battalogeo. Because nobody can find this word anywhere else, its meaning is uncertain. You may recognize the end of that word as logeo, related to logos, meaning “word” or “study.” The Greek word battalizo means “to stutter”, and most translators believe that Jesus is saying that prayer is not about making up words just because they sound good, but rather, prayer is about communicating with our Creator. We don’t pray to hear ourselves speak anymore than we pray to be heard by others.

Not only is prayer personal, but it is to be done with the intention of pleasing God. German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that people who get caught up listening to their own prayers will find that they themselves are the answer to their prayers – we aren’t really interested in taking the time to wait for God to listen to us, so we listen to ourselves and then move along…[1]

In prayer, we are invited to bring ourselves alongside of God in order that God might help us to experience life on God’s terms, and so that we might come to see things from the perspective of the Eternal, rather than our own lives.

For example, a few weeks ago a friend of mine asked if we could go fishing together. My friend knew that fishing was something that brought me great joy, and she recognized that fishing is something that I know something about. In asking, she indicated a willingness to fit the trip into my schedule; as we went, she followed my footsteps and my actions, and was very teachable. While she asked a lot of questions, she also did a lot of watching and a lot of listening – all in the hopes that this mystery called “fishing” would be more understandable to her, and that, perhaps, we might even be rewarded with the joy of a shared meal and fellowship of the table. Do you see what I mean? My friend brought up the idea of fishing to me in a way that demonstrated respect, love, and hope.

Now, contrast that friend with another, who called and said, “Listen, Pastor Dave, I’m in charge of the bake sale next week, and I need you to get me two pies by Friday.”

I like pies as much, or more, as I like fishing. There’s joy to be had – but the second friend was not interested in relationship or any kind of involvement – for friend #2, the request was simply a means to an end: fill the table at the bake sale and have a good fundraiser.

Please understand that there’s nothing wrong with asking a friend for a favor or running fundraisers. But the first conversation was more like prayer ought to be. The second conversation was based on utility and transaction, not on intimacy and shared life experience. Like the best of friendships, prayer is not a way for us to get stuff, or to get stuff done.

Prayer, at its best, is a way to open ourselves to the Lord in a way that is pleasing to him. It is an acknowledgement that he knows us better than we know ourselves, and therefore we approach God with a mind to getting ourselves to where he is, rather than demanding that he show up and do what we need him to do right now.

And along those lines, then, prayer is not only personal and pleasing to God, it prepares us for faithful living. That is to say, when I rise to offer prayer to God, the primary purpose is not to alert the almighty to something that may have otherwise escaped his notice.

“Lord, there are people starving to death in Africa right now…”

“WHAT?!?!? Why wasn’t I informed? I mean, I’m over here worried about finding you a parking place yesterday and taking care of the Powerball, and now you tell me people are hungry?”

“Lord, my mother has cancer…”

“Cancer? Holy moly! Last I knew she was headed for a screening. When did this happen?”

Do you see? If what we say is true – that is, if God really is all-powerful and all-knowing – then we can’t pretend that the purpose of prayer is to make sure that God gets the news about the latest natural disaster or health report.

So if prayer is not meant to catch God up on all the news, what’s it good for?

What if the purpose of prayer is to train us as people who are useful as we seek to join God in bringing about God’s intentions for the world? I think that is what Peter is getting at in the letter to his friends that you heard earlier. He offers a list of practices: faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, patience, service, kindness, and love. These are the means, says Peter, by which God’s people connect with God and become blessings to the world. But this list is not a vague set of notions – it’s a concrete set of attributes that are found in the heart of God. And the way we become people like that is by working out.

IMG_1041This is a set of steps that comes from one of the exercise groups that meets at the church. People are concerned about being fit and healthy, and they want to strengthen their heart and other muscles. So they come in here and they follow some steps and work together find that it makes a difference in their lives. If I tried to do these steps at the pace the class does them, I’d die – because I’m not training myself. For the folks in the group, though, it’s attainable because exercise is about doing a number of things that they know how to do in a way that increases the likelihood of their being healthy people.

A Prayer for Those At Sea, Frederick Daniel Hardy, 1879

A Prayer for Those At Sea, Frederick Daniel Hardy, 1879

Similarly, prayer is given in order that we might grow in our ability to become pliable and useful in knowing God’s heart and therefore in living God’s intentions in the world.

We don’t pray about hungry people to make sure that God doesn’t forget them… when we pray about hungry people, sooner or later we find ourselves caring enough about their hunger to want to raise money, or to encourage them, or to change the structure in our world so that hunger is satisfied.

When we do it right, we find that praying for a church that is healthy and strong and engaged and ready to demonstrate the love of God to the world might just lead us to a place where we say “yes” when someone in the congregation invites us to join in a ministry that shapes a world that is more reflective of God’s intentions for it.

When we read Jesus’ cautions about how not to pray, there is a sense of fear that might be present – how can I pray out loud when Jesus warns us against that? What if I am piling up phrases? What if I screw up my prayers? I know – most of you really don’t like praying out loud because you don’t want to make a mistake.

We’ll talk more about how we can pray next week. For this week, I’d like to close with an encouragement to not get too hung up on it. My sense is that if you ask questions about how we ought to pray, then your heart is moving in the right direction.

Again, to quote Bonhoeffer:

In the last resort it is immaterial whether we pray in the open street or in the secrecy of our chambers, whether briefly or lengthily, in the Litany of the Church, or with the sigh of one who knows not what he should pray for. True prayer does not depend either on the individual or the whole body of the faithful, but solely on the knowledge that our heavenly Father knows our needs. That makes God the sole object of our prayers, and frees us from a false confidence in our own prayerful efforts.[2]

Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship (1963 Macmillan paperback, p. 182).

[2] The Cost of Discipleship (1963 Macmillan paperback, p. 183).

The Secret Giver

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On January 3 we considered the way that Jesus addressed some key religious practices, notably almsgiving, as found in Matthew 6:1-4.   As we celebrated Epiphany in worship that day, we also considered the story of the Magi as found in Matthew 2.

BatmanTVseriesMy first foray into cultural or political activism came at the tender age of 8, when I wrote a letter to those mean people at ABC who had cancelled my favorite television series, Batman. My little brother and I savored each episode that had an odd mixture of campy humor, kitschy fight scenes, and not-so-subtle moral lessons about the importance of wearing seatbelts or drinking milk.

When Batman aired, there were two episodes a week. On Wednesday nights, the dynamic duo would be left in a very difficult situation, and on Thursdays, they’d find a way out of it (or at least they did until those knuckleheads at ABC did what the Joker and the Riddler couldn’t do – they stopped Batman…). One of the devices that the series used was a dramatic narrator who would intone phrases such as, “Meanwhile, back at stately Wayne Manor”. There had been an interruption in the story, and now we were returning to the scene where we’d had some action previously.

SermonOnTheMountSo meanwhile, before Advent interrupted us, we were working our way through the most important ethical teaching in the history of words, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. You may recall that Matthew 5 starts with the Beatitudes, which we considered to be the “ground rules” for life in the Christian community. The pronouncement of blessing upon the meek, the mourners, and the pure in heart is not an attempt to convince anyone to live that way – it’s simply a description of the kinds of fruit that faithful living produces.

From there we moved on to an examination of the Law and its demands in daily life. Perhaps you’ll recall the series of passages that all began by saying, “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” As we looked at those, we noted that Jesus calls his followers to a “higher righteousness”. In Greek, the word is perisson – the “something more” that is expected of those who bear the mark of the Christ on our lives. And chapter 5 ends with Jesus’ command to “be perfect, just as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” In other words, a call to live lives of integrity and completeness – to follow Jesus wholeheartedly in every area of life.

Today we return, not to stately Wayne Manor, but to the Sermon on the Mount, and begin our reading of chapter six as we listen to Jesus’ description of what faithful living looks like in the religious arena. In particular, he holds up the spiritual practices of giving alms to the poor, prayer, and fasting. In what ways does this perisson – the “something more” affect the way that we engage in religious practice?

Jesus starts this section of the sermon by warning his followers to “beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them…”, and that sounds reasonable enough until we remember that less than one page ago, Jesus said, “let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Which is it, Jesus? Are we supposed to stand up tall and proud as we follow you? Or be secretive about it? Both. There’s not really a contradiction here – Jesus is simply warning us about different sins. There are some places where we are tempted to fear and cowardice as we follow the Lord, and in those instances, Jesus would have us follow him with courage and confidence, not worrying about what others might think of us. In other places, though, we are seduced by our own pride and vanity. In that case, Jesus says, remember that we follow him because it is right, and not because we want people to think how holy we are. John Stott suggests a good rule of thumb: when it comes to practicing our faith, we ought to display our faith when we are tempted by cowardice and hide our actions when we are convinced that everyone should know exactly what we’re doing.[1] In any and every case, the reason that we act is so that people can see God at work – not us.

As Jesus discusses the spiritual practices of giving to the poor, praying, and fasting, he uses a very important four-letter word. In Greek, it is otan. In English we say “when”. Followers of Jesus do not have the burden of deciding “if” or “whether” we are givers, prayers, or fasters. When you give, do it like this.

It’s important for us to hear that little word and to consider its importance. Too many times I have been in situations where someone – maybe me, maybe another person – has said, “Wow, I wish I could help, but I just can’t right now.” And surely there are times and places where we can’t help more, or in that place, too. But I am here to tell you that I have tried to walk in Jesus’ footsteps for more than four decades, and in all that time and in all the places I have been, I have never seen anyone who was so poor that they could not give something. I’ve seen people give money, and lots of it. I’ve seen people give eggs and bananas and chickens. I’ve seen people give time and energy and respect. The life of the disciple is one of giving and sharing, of offering and receiving. Jesus does not prescribe what his followers will give, but he surely assumes that they are givers.

In the next sentence, he returns to the theme of secrecy. When we give, he says, we are to be so attentive to both the needs that are in front of us as well as the God who calls us to join him in giving that we don’t bother telling the left hand what the right hand is doing. I would say that it’s important to plan our giving and to know what we have available and where and when is best to share it – but that we do so without a trace of self-consciousness or self-centeredness. Just as he warned against giving to impress other people, such as the hypocrites were doing, here Jesus cautions us against being overly impressed with ourselves or our own religious observances.

And when we get it right, Jesus says – when we are a people who give with humility and passion, with freedom and joy, focused on the Giver of all good gifts and those who can benefit from what has been entrusted to us – then we are rewarded.

As we read verse 4: “…and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you”, let me speak deliberately against the heresy known as “the prosperity gospel”. A whole lot of preachers have made big piles of money by telling their people that God’s intentions for us include material wealth, and the best and surest way to fatten up the old bank account is to send a “love offering” their way. In this line of thought, God sees the so-called righteous act of giving to the Lord’s work and God rewards that act with a monetary windfall.

One advocate of this theology was preaching in a crowded church. It was well known that this man was worth millions of dollars, and he had the suits and the cars to prove it. He stood before the congregation and he thundered, “I didn’t always have it this good, brothers and sisters. There was a time when I was down on my luck. In fact, I was down to a single $10 bill when I went to church, and I heard the Lord ask me for everything. I didn’t know where I was going to get my next meal, but I knew then that I had to give my all to Jesus. So when the ushers came around with the plate, I did it. I gave it all to the Lord, and I trusted him for tomorrow. That day, I put all the money I had into the offering plate, and look where that has brought me today!”

The church was quiet for a few moments until an elderly woman in the second row piped up: “Amen, brother. Go ahead now. I dare you to do it again!”

The “prosperity gospel” is a lie. I am here to tell you that God does reward those who give, but rarely financially. The reward of which Jesus speaks here is the sense of joy and satisfaction that one receives when one who has ached because of a need is privileged to see that need addressed.

IMG_6851Most of my friends have seen this photo before. If I get hit by a truck this afternoon, you can tell anyone that this is the single greatest photo I’ve ever taken in my life – because it documents the kind of reward of which Jesus speaks here in Matthew 6. Our friends in Malawi had faced an incredible famine, and we were in a position to help. People around Pittsburgh and across the country rallied, in large part behind this congregation, and I was privileged to be a part of the “launch” of a campaign wherein hungry families would receive monthly allotments of food until their gardens came in. This young mother has just received the food that will keep her and her child alive, and now she is walking back to her home to celebrate God’s provision.

Although we had spoken briefly, she is not looking at me – because I do not matter to her. She had a profound need. Through people like you, God addressed that need. I happened to be in the right place at the right time, watching and celebrating how God’s people are privileged to share in the love of God. As she became smaller and smaller in my sight, walking towards her home, I wept that God should include me in that great gift.

In a few moments we will celebrate our Epiphany Communion. We will remember the day when some un-named strangers showed up in the home of a poor family and showered them with gifts. When that baby had grown to be a man, his friends understood that the gifts that he received that day merely pointed to the supreme love that lay behind the Gift that he himself was – the Word becoming flesh and living among us. May we join the Magi in being people who are eager to share what we’ve received in ways that bring blessing to those around us, and may all our gifts point, not to ourselves, but to the one from whom we’ve received everything. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Intervarsity, 1978) p. 127.