A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 28, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 6:1-21
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

When I was a kid, my two favorite TV shows were “The Wild, Wild West” and “Mission: Impossible.”  While the shows are set in very different periods, I’ve noticed some similarities.  Both shows involved secret missions.  In both shows, the team had to work together to fulfill their mission.  Both shows had gadgets and disguises that were used by the team.  In both shows, it was really clear who the “good guys” were and who the “bad guys” were.  And in both shows, if they weren’t trying to make the world better, they were at least trying to make sure the world didn’t get any worse.

Jesus begins his sermon on the mount with a call to a mission.  Maybe not so secret, but spectacular nonetheless.  Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to turn the world around.  You won’t be able to conform to the norms of our society to do it.  The old laws don’t go far enough.  Monitoring your behavior isn’t enough.  You need to check your attitudes and feelings.  You’re going to have to love even your enemies.

Easier said than done, Jesus.  Yeah, I want to change the world for the better, but how do I do it?

Start, Jesus says, on the inside.  “If you want to change the world on the outside, the first step is to withdraw into your inner world.  Connect with God in secret, and the results will occur ‘openly.’”[1]

Jesus offers three spiritual practices than can change the world by changing us first.  The traditional term is, ‘spiritual disciplines,’ and for them to be effective, we do need to be disciplined in doing them.  I prefer, however, the term, ‘spiritual practices.’

A music teacher I knew years ago had a pad of paper he used to write assignments on.  It said at the top, “Practice makes perfect,” but “perfect” was crossed out and “better” was written over it.  Practice makes better.  Another one I like is, “Practice makes habit.”  That’s why Jesus emphasizes the importance of how we practice almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.  And the thing that he says in common with these three practices is to make them part of your secret life.

Jesus spend less time on the almsgiving and the fasting then on the praying, so I’m going to start with them.  “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”  It’s an aphorism that gets quoted often enough, though I wonder how many people who use it know that it refers to giving money away.

Give money away without any show, Jesus says.  Don’t even let your other hand know you’re going it.  I confess that I don’t follow this advice.  Not only does my left hand know, so does the IRS.  And I keep records in case I ever get audited.  I suppose my giving would be purer if I gave and let it go.  It might even help make a deeper change in me if I gave and let it go.  But Jesus didn’t have to deal with the U.S. tax code, so I’m going to cut myself a little slack.

dittybagsWhen I think about giving and letting go, I need to say something about what happened earlier this month.  Without a whole lot of promotion, our congregation gathered up $911 for our Safe Alternatives to Violent Environments offering.  This is money that we gathered up and sent off to SAVE – and then we let go of it.  We let SAVE use it for whatever it is that they feel they need it for.  And with even less promotion than that cash offering, people made, distributed, filled, and collected ditty bags for women leaving violence and finding shelter with SAVE.  We had around 50 of them – a car-full.

Have I just violated Jesus’ instructions on this practice, since you now know what we did?  Maybe.  Yet what would change you more:  knowing what the total collection of cash and ditty bags was; or letting you contribute and then never knowing what we did collectively?

One thing I am convinced of is that giving changes us.  I’ve experienced it in my own life.  I’ve found it opens me to deeper and deeper trust.  I’ve found it opens me to deeper and deeper gratitude.  And I’ve found that it opens me to deeper and deeper generosity.

On the other hand, I have very little experience with fasting.  I understand the concept:  Abstaining from food can help build trust and help shift our hungers.  Fasting done not just as self-denial, but has spiritual practice can move our hunger to God.  “More than my body desires food, I desire you, Lord!  More than my stomach craves fullness, I crave to be full of you!  More than my tongues desire sweetness or salt, my soul desires your goodness.”[2]

Jesus’ point, as it was with almsgiving, is that when we do it in secret, fasting really, truly focuses us on God.  “If we make our lives a show staged for others to avoid their criticism or gain their praise, we won’t experience the reward of true aliveness.  It’s only in secret, in the presence of God alone, that we begin the journey to aliveness.”[3]

The biggest portion of this lesson focuses on prayer.  Again, Jesus says we should offer our prayers in secret.  In a few minutes, we will join together in prayer.  Does this violate Jesus’ instruction to practice prayer in private?  Or have we practiced long enough that we’re ready to go public?  Or, when the community does it, is it a different kind of prayer?

I find it interesting that Jesus tells us to pray in private and then uses plural pronouns in his sample prayer:  Our father, give us, forgive us as we forgive, lead us.

Many of you know that one of my spiritual practices is to write an evening prayer of thanksgiving.  It is part of my review of my day and a way of reflecting on the gifts in my life and the presence of God in my life.  This practice has caused me to shift what I see as gifts in my life, and through that, it has caused me to shift what I value.  My practice has been to post these prayers on Facebook.  That is about as not alone by myself in my room as I can get.  Does this violate Jesus’ instruction to practice prayer in private?  I know that practice of offering the prayers of thanksgiving – whether I write them in a paper journal or write them on Facebook – has immense value for me.  And I’ve heard from a few Facebook friends that the practice of posting the prayers has value for them, too.

The thing that makes this portion of the lesson longer than the others is that Jesus does include this specific example of how to pray.  There are lots of ways to unpack this sample prayer.  Brian McLaren sees it as having four movements.

First we orient ourselves toward God.

“Second, we align our greatest desire with God’s greatest desire.  We want the world to be the kind of place where God’s dreams come true, where God’s justice and compassion reign.

“Third, we bring to God our needs and concerns – our physical needs for things like food and shelter, and our social and spiritual needs for things like forgiveness for our wrongs and reconciliation with those who have wronged us.

“Finally, we prepare ourselves for the public world into which we will soon reenter.  We ask to be guided away from the trials and temptations that could ruin us, and we ask to be liberated from evil.”[4]

This fourth movement takes us back to where I began, to our mission:  to change the world.  The sample prayer Jesus teaches prepares us to come out of our private rooms where we practice these spiritual practices, to engage in and with the world.  And that, perhaps, is where an answer to my questions about not following Jesus’ instructions about almsgiving and prayer might be found.  If the goal of these practices is to focus on and change our insides to prepare us to change what’s outside, then the secrecy matters only as much as not being secret gets in the way of our own transformation.

It’s hard to tell if Matthew meant the next section to be a conclusion to this section on spiritual practices or the beginning of the next section (which we’ll turn to next week).  Maybe it belongs in both places, but I’m definitely hearing it as a conclusion to the section on spiritual practices.

After Jesus tells us that the way to get ready to change the world is to change ourselves through spiritual practices, he turns to wealth.  “Just as we can practice giving, prayer, and fasting for social enhancement or [for] spiritual benefit, we can build our lives around public, external, financial wealth or [around] a higher kind of ‘secret’ wealth.  Jesus calls this higher wealth ‘treasure in heaven.’  Not only is this hidden wealth more secure, it also recenters our lives on God’s presence, and that brings a shift to our whole value system so that we see everything differently.  When we see and measure everything in life in terms of money, all of life falls into a kind of dismal shadow.  When we seek to be rich in generosity and kindness instead, life is full of light.

“Some people shame the poor, as if the only reason poor people are poor is that they’re lazy or stupid.  Some shame the rich, as if the only reason they’re rich is that they’re selfish and greedy.  Jesus doesn’t shame anyone, but calls everyone to a higher kind of wealth and a deeper kind of ambition.  And that ambition begins, not with how we want to appear in public, but with who we want to be in secret.”[5]

So, here’s the invitation to being your engagement with this portion of the Sermon on the Mount.  Hold the phrase “treasures in heaven” in silence in God’s presence, and notice how your heart responds.

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), 136.

[2] Ibid, 138.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 138-139.