Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Disciplines for Growth (an Ash Wednesday sermon on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21)

A few years ago a friend of mine, who is a single father, suggested that he and his two teenage kids might like to give up chocolate for Lent. But his daughter put him on the spot by asking, “Dad, why do we give up things for Lent?” He was completely at a loss to answer her question, and he emailed me and said, “You’re a man of the cloth – what’s the answer?”

Lent is a time of repentance. In a few minutes, as we begin the liturgy of the ashes, I will say, “We begin this holy season by remembering our need for repentance, and for the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ”. To repent is to realise that you’re going in the wrong direction, and to turn around and start heading in the right direction. It means turning away from ways of living that are sinful, and turning toward God and the way of life he is teaching us.

What is that way of life? Well, Jesus summed it up for us, didn’t he? He said,
“The first (commandment) is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31).
In other words, the Christian way of life has to do with our relationship to God, to our neighbour, and to ourselves.

These three relationships also appear in our Gospel reading for this evening, from the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus deals with the three disciplines that were common spiritual practices for Jewish people in his day: giving to the poor, prayer, and fasting. Everyone would understand in the time of Jesus that if you wanted to live a godly life, these three disciplines were essential; no one would even think about trying to live in God’s way without including them. So when Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, he didn’t have to spend a lot of time telling his disciples that these three disciplines were important; everyone knew that already. Instead, he had to persuade them to do them in the right spirit – to please God, not to be praised by others.

But I suspect that this is not true today. I don’t think we automatically assume today that if we want to be followers of Jesus we will give to the poor, pray, and fast. So as we begin Lent, it’s a good idea for us to revisit these disciplines and see how they fit into the great commandments that Jesus gave us.

So let’s start with giving to the poor, or ‘almsgiving’, to use the older word that the NRSV uses. In verse 2 Jesus introduces the subject: “So whenever you give alms…”. Giving to the poor, you see, is about my relationship with others.  Growing as a disciple of Jesus includes growing from a selfish, self-centred person into a loving and caring person. Giving to the poor is a vital part of this. The Gospels are full of examples of Jesus encouraging us to do this; in one place he even says that when we care for the needy it is really him that we’re caring for.

In our Old Testament reading for tonight the prophet Isaiah warns the people of his time that God isn’t impressed with fasting and liturgical worship if it doesn’t lead to a change in the way we treat the poor. He encourages the people to loose the bonds of injustice, to share their bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless into their homes, and to stop pointing fingers and speaking evil of other people.

Now of course there are obvious ways in which we obey this commandment, and I don’t need to give people in this congregation any lessons in it. We’ve demonstrated by our ongoing generosity to special projects like our World Vision appeals that we understand how important this is.

But let me just take this a little further and remind you that one of the purposes of giving is to knock selfishness on the head. In other words, we don’t just give for the sake of the people to whom we give; we give for our own sake, too. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul tells us that godliness with contentment brings great gain. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a very content sort of person. I live in a culture where I’m constantly bombarded with ads for all sorts of gadgets I don’t really need, and where the government tells me it’s my patriotic duty to spend so that the economy will do well. Giving, in this context, is a counter-cultural act; it helps me to focus not on my own imagined needs, but the needs of others. As I grow in holiness, the idea is that I will grow not just in generosity, but in my enjoyment of generosity. And that’s a real work of grace!

If we ask, “How much should I give?” I always remember C.S. Lewis’ rule: if my giving isn’t making a difference to my standard of living, I’m probably not giving enough. In other words, there should be things we’d like to do that we can’t do because of our commitment to Christian generosity.

But we need to remember that giving isn’t just a matter of money. It’s also generosity with my time and talents. How do I show my love to my family, my friends and neighbours, and the people I don’t even like? This is all included as we think about our relationships with our neighbours.

The next thing Jesus deals with in this gospel is prayer. Why do we pray? We do so because prayer is about our relationship with God; it is one of the ways we love the Lord our God with all our heart. If we love someone, we want to spend time with them; as someone once said, the greatest compliment you can pay a person is to waste time with them!

When it comes to prayer, Jesus gives us some very simple guidelines in this passage. He assumes that his followers will pray regularly; he doesn’t say “If you pray”, but “whenever you pray” (v.5). And everyone has to find the best way of doing that – that’s to say, the time of day and the place of prayer that works best for you. Some are night people and find that praying last thing at night is good for them. Others like to get up early. Some pray at work, and some pray at home. Some pray out of doors, and some indoors. Some pray mainly be themselves, and some pray mainly with their spouse or their family. It doesn’t really matter; what matters is that we pray regularly.

Jesus also tells us to pray sincerely. In the bit we didn’t read, he talks about how some people like to ‘heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard because of their many words’ (6:7). I suspect that we Anglicans are in special danger here, because we’re so used to the beautiful prayers in our liturgy that we think we can only talk to God in language like that. What Jesus is teaching us is that it isn’t especially important what words we use, or even how long we pray; the important thing is that we mean what we say!

In Philip Yancey’s book ‘Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference?’ he tells a story about a man who works in a downtown rescue mission. At the mission they have prayer meetings, and some of the street people pray rather direct prayers. One day one old guy prayed, “Thank you, God, for Metamucil”, and someone else chimed in, “That’s a 10/4, God!” I don’t expect to hear that sort of prayer in the Prayers of the People here at St. Margaret’s any time soon! But perhaps we could learn something from the simple directness of this man of the street, who prayed out of the honesty of his heart.

A third thing I learn from the Lord’s Prayer is to pray simply. This is not an elaborate prayer; it approaches God simply as Father, and prays first of all about his concerns – his name, his kingdom, his will being done – and then about the necessities of life – forgiveness, daily food, deliverance from evil. And it’s a short prayer, too – there’s nothing particularly virtuous about long prayers.

These are some of the guidelines Jesus gives us about prayer – pray regularly, sincerely, and simply. And in all our praying let’s remember the fundamental goal – to grow in our relationship with God.

We’ve said that prayer is about my relationship with God, and giving to the poor is about my relationship with my neighbour. The third discipline, fasting, is about my relationship with myself. This is important: the way we love ourselves is by disciplining ourselves! This is a recognition that our appetites do tend to run wild if we let them have their way. Of course, there is nothing wrong with food and drink and the other physical pleasures; they were all created by a good and loving God to be enjoyed – but in moderation. However, in our sinfulness we human beings tend to go beyond moderation, and when that happens, we get into trouble.

But there’s a deeper issue here. This coming Sunday we’ll read the story of Jesus going out into the desert to be tested by the devil. What’s this desert theme all about? I think it’s about the removal of distractions, so that we can focus on God, and God’s call on our lives. There’s not much to distract you out in the desert!

And that’s what fasting is all about to. Fasting is the discipline of turning away from things that distract us so that we can give our best attention to God and God’s call on our lives. It might be a fast from TV or the internet. It might be a fast from buying books. I know of one person who fasted from electronic screens one Lent; that would be a very difficult fast for many of us, but she claimed it was a huge benefit to her life.

So we have these three basic disciplines of godly living, disciplines that Jesus assumed his disciples would take on: prayer, fasting, and giving to the poor. Let’s finish by reminding ourselves that Jesus is very concerned about the spirit in which we undertake these disciplines.

When you give, he says, don’t call the TV station to announce it; don’t give the six foot cheque; don’t insist on having your name on the plaque on the wall, or the program at the Shakespeare festival. Don’t even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Keep it secret, so only God will know, and God will reward you. Don’t do it to impress others; do it because you love God.

And when you pray, don’t do it ostentatiously, so everyone can admire how spiritual you are. Find a secret place where no one will catch you doing it. Jesus isn’t telling us we should never pray with others (he prayed in public himself several times). He’s getting at our motivation: don’t pray to impress others, pray because you love God.

And when you fast, don’t make a big noise about it. Don’t tell everyone what your Lent disciplines are; just do them quietly, going about your daily life, not drawing attention to yourself. Don’t fast to impress other people; fast out of love for God.


What Jesus is talking about here is the question of who we’re living our life for. We’ve all got an audience, if we want it: family, friends, co-workers, fellow church members. But we’re not to live our lives to impress this audience. Rather, we’re to live our lives for an audience of one – God – and ‘Your Father who sees in secret will reward you’. What will the reward be? A deeper sense of closeness to God, a greater joy in loving others, and in turning away from the things that distract us so that we can give our best attention to the God who loves us. That’s what Lent is all about, so let’s pray that God will help all of us to embrace the call to a holy Lent. Amen.

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