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Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
We are entering an "uncelebrated" season. We might say that it is an invisible season, much unlike that of Advent. The season of Advent is filled to overflowing with the signs and symbols of the season. We even observe its beginning with the hanging of the greens. We are reminded of it weekly by our festively decorated sanctuary. And we are reminded of it daily in our secular lives.
But Lent is completely different. And, I think that is as it should be. It is a season of focused piety. And we know that Jesus has a special attitude toward how we practice our piety.
In the opening to the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew, in the middle of his sermon on the mount, he tells us,
"Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven."
And I hear Jesus telling us that our secular rewards are completely different from our spiritual rewards. They have absolutely nothing to do with one another. The rewards we have from others are NOT the rewards we have from God.
"So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward."
Well, we donít sound trumpets; but seriously, how often do we wish to be praised for what we do for others. How often do we feel hurt if we are NOT praised?
"But when you give alms do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
We often use this expression--and I include myself in this--of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing as meaning that actions are confused.
But Jesus has a different view of it. He would have our giving be so automatic, so unself-conscious, that one hand would not be paying much, if any, attention to what the other hand is doing.
Indeed, I believe that for each of us there ARE acts of giving in our lives that are unself-conscious. There ARE things we do for others for which we are not expecting praise. It is as if these acts are performed in secret. And God does reward us for them.
"And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward."
I donít think that Jesus much cares about our methods of prayer. And I donít even think he cares about the locations for our praying. But I believe that he IS concerned for the MOTIVATIONS for our praying.
And if we pray to be seen by others, why should God be supportive of such prayer?
"But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
Personally, I think that Jesus could also have said, "Go inside yourself and shut out the world. This is just between you and God." And it is. Even communal prayer, in the midst of the sanctuary, is between us and God and NOT for the purpose of being seen or heard by others.
"And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward."
Fasting is a practice that most Christians no longer observe. But we do make sacrifices in our lives! And we need to be mindful of HOW we make them. Jesus is telling us that we should not make a big deal of showing others that we ARE making such sacrifices.
"But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
Instead of behaving as if our lives have been turned into an agony because of the sacrifices we have made, we need to continue on with our lives as if nothing has changed.
If others are impressed with our sacrifices, they will be the only ones. God will not be impressed with our showing off. God knows our deepest attitudes. There is nothing we can do to prove anything to God.
I think that we all want to be valued. And we worry about that. So we go out of our way to show off our giving, our praying, and our sacrificing so that others will think highly of us.
But what I think that Jesus is telling me is that God already values me. I do not need to show off. I simply need to BE the person he wants me to be.
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal."
A pastor friend and I were once discussing the difficulties of being Christian, of behaving as Jesus would have us behave, because that could involve taking some risks, and even offending some people.
And my friend remarked, "I think we may be too concerned with our pensions."
"But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
So in this season of Lent, this "uncelebrated" season, maybe we should leave it at that: uncelebrated. At least, as far as the rest of the world is concerned. As we focus our giving, our praying, and our sacrificing on our secret relationship with God. Amen.
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