by David Baer, February 1, 2015
Text: Matthew 6:7-21
It had to do with cookies. They were actually pretty good cookies. As a kid I’d have told you that I’d rather have a cookie than not have a cookie, all else being equal. So I don’t know what made me say it, but the cookie had a dry texture and crumbled in my hand, so I said, “These are really crummy cookies.” My aunt didn’t miss a beat, though. She fixed me with her eyes and said, not unkindly, “We have a different way of saying that in our house. The way we say it is: ‘These are really yummy cookies.’” She didn’t challenge, she didn’t criticize. Instead, she redirected me. Use a different word. Say this instead. I’m coming to appreciate this approach myself, now that I’m a parent. So much childhood misbehavior happens not because of ill will, not because children want to hurt or insult others, but because they are looking for a clear pattern, a clear model of desirable behavior. “Daddy, get me a glass of water.” “Honey, we say, ‘Can I please have a glass of water?’” You don’t learn manners by taking a class in manners, where you explore the theory of etiquette, where you compare and contrast the approaches of Emily Post and Judith Martin (aka “Miss Manners”). You learn manners in everyday life, when the adults around you direct your actions into patterns of behavior that demonstrate consideration and trustworthiness to others.
It’s not just manners that we learn through modeling. How would I know how to hold a baseball bat, how to choose my stance at the plate, if not for a coach to tell me to bend my knees, point my elbow just so, hold my hands here and here on the bat? Maybe for you it was a painting technique you learned from another artist, or an exercise routine you learned from a trainer, or how to hold a nail in place for the hammer without smashing your thumb. How many times does someone have to say to us, “No, not quite like that… Here, try this… Yes, that’s more like it”, before we finally get it right? So much of what we know is not ideas transmitted to us in words or pictures, but techniques, actions that have been modeled for us, behavior that’s been shaped in us by teachers or circumstances.
Today Jesus is modeling a relationship with God. This is part of what we call the Sermon on the Mount. Great crowds of people flocked to him because of his ability to heal the sick. They want to be restored to wholeness. And now Jesus has gone up a mountain to sit down and teach them about what it all means, about God’s new activity that has unleashed such transforming power. He calls this new reality of God’s presence the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Kingdom of God. Last week we heard about how he identified those who are poor in spirit—those who are grieving or trampled on or hungry for justice or seekers of peace—as especially blessed, because the Kingdom is about to reverse their losses and vindicate them. Blessed are you, he said. Rejoice, he said.
And then he went on to talk about how folks who have perceived the nearness of the Kingdom ought to live. Today we heard Jesus modeling a relationship with God. Jesus illustrates a life of trust in God, pointing to common faith practices, things that these people already did–prayer and fasting. (You might have noticed that the model prayer he taught is one we still use today.) What does Jesus’ model look like? What’s the stance he invites us to take, not as a batter at home plate, but as a child of God? The life of faith Jesus illustrates is simple, it’s lived in community, and it’s rewarding.
Life lived with trust in God is simple. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy or unchallenging. It means that it’s accessible, that we have communion with God right here and now. We don’t need special expertise or training. That’s why Jesus urges his hearers not to pile up empty words like believers in Greek and Roman gods do. When they pray they should pray simply, directly. Address God as you would a Father who deeply cares about you and wants to meet your needs. In fact, God knows your needs better than you and doesn’t need to be informed of them. The reason for prayer is not to communicate information that God doesn’t have, but to take the posture of a child of God. You are those who stand in need of daily bread, forgiveness, deliverance. You are those who try with all their might to align their will with God’s, to honor God with your whole self, and to let God be God, not trying to do for yourself or others what only God can do. Having a simple faith is not just about simple language, though that helps. Simplicity is about living into a relationship of care and trust that God has already established, rather than trying to define that relationship yourself. That’s how life with God is meant to be simple.
Trust in God and God’s Kingdom is lived in community. The words of the Lord’s Prayer are deeply intimate and relational. It probably shocked some of the religious authorities of Jesus’ time that someone would dare to address God as a child speaks to her father. But throughout the Lord’s Prayer the pronoun Jesus uses, the pronoun he models for us, is not “I” but “we.” Not “my Father,” but “our Father.” We address God not as an only child, but as a child with many brothers and sisters. This de-centers the relationship from being all about us and our personal needs. Our needs matter to God, but they’re presented together with those of other believers: give us our daily bread, forgive us our debts, lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil. Even when we pray the Lord’s Prayer by ourselves, we’re not really praying by ourselves, but in community with others around the world who are speaking the same words we are, invested in the same hope for God’s Kingdom and aware of the same need for grace and nourishment. Our life with God is lived in community.
Life with God is rewarding. Jesus uses the words “reward” and “treasure” to talk about what we receive in our life with God. But he does this to teach us to be suspicious of the quick payoff, the immediate reward. He points to folks who want everyone to know what a sacrifice they’re making by fasting so that others will see how deeply pious they are. They muss up their hair and mar their face to draw attention to themselves. This is immediately rewarding for them, because of the attention they draw to themselves. But Jesus assures us that the reward stops there. Don’t do that, Jesus says. Instead, make your fast a practice that only you and God know about, and let God, rather than your neighbor, reward you. Store up treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from theft and decay.
I was thinking about it this week, and I really can’t identify anyone in this congregation who is too gushingly, ostentatiously pious. I can’t think of anyone I need to take aside and counsel about toning down their over-the-top religiosity. That doesn’t seem to be a problem most of us Presbyterians have. But I wonder if we could sit with the broader meaning of the posture Jesus is inviting us to take. The posturing behavior he called out is aimed at an immediate reward, instant gratification. So much of what we’re called to do as a church just doesn’t give us that. You can’t know the full impact of a church school lesson on the kid sitting in front of you. You can’t know the full impact of a meal and a place to stay for guests staying at the Family Promise Shelter. You don’t know fully what it means to the person seated next to you this morning what your presence and your kind words might mean to them. In our culture we tend to focus on work whose value can be quantified, but the ministry we share as Jesus’ church defies easy evaluation. I hear in Jesus’ words an invitation to offer what we do to God, and not to worry too much about figuring out its ultimate value. That doesn’t mean we should do things that are obviously wasteful or ineffective. Just that it ought to be OK for the value of something that you do or that we do together for God to be measured in heavenly treasure, rather than immediate here-and-now satisfaction or reward.
So may you live simply with God, turning to God as a child turns to a parent, honestly stating your needs and your gratitude. May you live before God in community with all of us, letting us share your burdens and multiply your joys. And may you be richly rewarded, storing up heavenly treasure and eagerly anticipating the day when God’s kingdom emerges to reveal the value of so much hidden faithfulness. Amen.