Matthew 5:13-16a; Matthew 6: 1-20 Based in part on a chapter of “We Make the Road by Walking” by Brian D McLaren, the study book we’ve been reading on Mondays this year. I highly recommend it!~ Rev. Heidi
Are you confused by this week’s readings? I wouldn’t blame you if you are! One minute we’re hearing that we are to be the salt that flavours all life, and the light that shines from the top of a lamp stand; the next we are told to do everything in secret. We’re to be so secretive that our left hand doesn’t know what our right hand is doing! As Arsenio Hall used to say back in the 80s, these are the “Things that make you go “Hmmm””.
Jesus is really good at this. He’s brilliant! He puts seemingly contradictory ideas together and says, “Listen to me!” and we must. We can’t just listen and automatically react. We have to ponder, wrestle with his words for a while.
What on earth is Jesus talking about? I think he’s talking about something that Christian writer and social activitist Jim Wallis calls, the Journey Inward, and the Journey Outward. In order to be light and salt in the word, we need to draw nearer to God. Sometimes that means drawing AWAY from the outer world of jobs, pensions, volunteer work, service, family, and other obligations and drawing inward to focus on our relationship with God. In the book we’ve been studying on Monday afternoons, Brian McLaren writes: “If you want to see change in the outside world, the first step is to withdraw into your inner world. Connect with God in secret, and the results will occur “openly”” . Our lives get salty and our souls become light to others when we focus on God first, before all externals. (p.136)
We’re given three examples: giving, praying and fasting. All of these are spiritual disciplines – exercise and practices we use to strengthen and grow our faith, the way participating in a running or walking clinic builds our muscles and increases our endurance. I love McLaren’s image: “If through physical practice a lazy slug can end up a lean and energetic runner, then through spiritual practice an impatient and self-obsessed egotist can become a gentle generous and mature human being.” But it takes the right practices, with the right motivations. Doing these things to put on a show for others or to feed our own egos? That’s not going to grow our faith. The aim is actually the reverse of making ourselves look better; it’s “to become more holy or spiritual in private than we appear to be in public.” (p.137)
So we don’t announce to others how much we give, but as we increase our standard of living, we also increase our standard of giving. We give joyfully, without fanfare, without the need for any formal recognition. We give out of gratitude and love.
We pray to strengthen our souls and to intercede for others, not to show off or make ourselves look holy. Jesus’ model of prayer is quite simple: Orient ourselves to God who is both intimately known and yet greatly mysterious; align our desire with God’s desires; bring our needs, physical and spiritual, to God; and pray for help to face the public world in which we live and serve.
Then there’s fasting. It’s not a very common practice any more among most Protestants, but one that can really help us go deeper into the spiritual life. McLaren says, “’Let every minute when your stomach is growling be a moment when you affirm to God, “More than my body desires food, I desire you Lord!’ ‘Again, we’re not to let on that we’re fasting, not because there is any particular virtue in secrecy, but so that we’re not tempted to show off our righteousness and forget that this is about our relationship with God, and not what others think of us.
So do I think that means we shouldn’t tell anyone anything about our giving, our prayer, our fasting? No I don’t think that at all. I think it’s still important to share our stories so that others may learn from them and maybe even be inspired by them (or perhaps learn what not to do, in some cases!). Especially in a culture of widespread religious ignorance, our stories can let people know what the Christian life looks like as walked by ordinary Christians. In sharing our stories we give the glory to God. Our stories must not point to us; they point to God and to the ministry of being salt and light that we have been given.
Finally, Jesus gets to the topic of wealth – which, despite our reluctance to talk about it, is one of the most frequently discussed topics in the Bible. Jesus encourages us to build up our “secret” wealth rather than our public wealth. He calls this wealth “treasure in heaven” – all those spiritual gifts we know about and we long for: generosity, compassion, kindness, self-control, patience, goodness, love, mercy. When we put our heart into this “treasure” we are changed, and the flavor of those values is imprinted in us so deeply that we cannot do anything other than share them with the world.
Jesus doesn’t shame the poor or the rich. He doesn’t assume that the poor are poor because they’re lazy and the rich are rich because they’re greedy. He simply urges those both rich and poor and all of us in the middle to invest in a “higher kind of wealth and a deeper kind of ambition”. (p.139)
“The world won’t change unless we change, and we won’t change unless we pull away from the world’s games and pressures. In secrecy, in solitude, in God’s presence, a new aliveness can, like a seed, begin to take root. And if that life takes root in us, we can be sure it will bear fruit through us…fruit that can change the world.” (p.139) This is what it means to be salt of the earth. This is what it means to be light of the world. So, what do you hear Jesus saying to you today? Amen.