Practice or Performancemay we all seek to know and share grace and peace
Read the Sermon
Thank you for joining us in our second week of online-only worship. I hope you have been able to stay connected with Grace. Almost every day we’re posting a video on our Facebook page and thanks to the work of Ben Campney our website is updated with the videos each day too so even if someone doesn’t have a Facebook account they can stay connected with us. As we head into the second week of social distancing, please continue to reach out to one another and check in with each other. I know a lot of us are helpers and that makes it difficult to ask for help, but this is a moment to admit that we can’t do everything on our own, so if there are ways we can help, please let me know.
There are just a couple of things to lift up before we get going. First, this afternoon at 4 pm we are going to have a digital hymn sing. Our music staff put out a survey a few days ago to learn your favorite hymns and they will be singing them at 4 pm in the live-stream. We will be sending out the information about our first bridge the gap groups together soon, hopefully tomorrow. We’ve had several folks sign up so far and there is always space for more. If you’ve missed the link to the form to sign up, after our service this morning we will post the link in the comments of the service and post it again in our Facebook feed.
Finally, I just want to thank you all for your support and help in the past week. I can’t tell you how much it means to me to know that this matters and makes a difference. If you are still looking for a way to help and you’ve been a part of the Grace community, the biggest way that you can help at this time is by reaching out to one another, check in with your friends, family and neighbors. Our staff is trying to write cards and notes and make phone calls, and it helps us immensely to know that others are reaching out too. If you’ve not been a part of the Grace community or if you’re new with us this morning, think about who you can reach out to – who can you send a card to, who can you call just to say hi. In times like this, it can make all the difference in the world. And because we’re talking about support, another way that you can support Grace is by giving online. At our website, gracedesmoines.org there is a link to our online giving and that is the best way to financially help our church as we continue to pay all of our staff. I know a few people have paid their pledges in advance and at a time like this that helps a lot. If paying online isn’t your thing, you can send your offering in the mail too.
Before we get to our reading this moment, let’s prepare our hearts and minds for worship, let’s pause, catch our breath, and center ourselves in the love of God that is always with us. Let’s take a moment of silence, and then I’ll say a prayer and we’ll jump right in.
Holy One, you are always near. In this moment, we ask that you fill us where we are empty, that you restore our souls and spirits with your mercy and grace. As we linger together in your presence this morning, may we be nourished and encouraged to be the people you already know we are – beloved and blessed children of the divine. May we hear your voice among us, and may your hope fill us with courage for the days to come. Amen.
We are continuing to learn from the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew.
Jesus says, in Matthew chapter 6:
Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your [God] who is in heaven. Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may get praise from people. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that you may give to the poor in secret. Your [God] who sees what you do in secret will reward you. When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your [God] who is present in that secret place. Your [God] who sees what you do in secret will reward you.
If you have been on this journey with us through the Sermon on the Mount, you’ve seen how there’s an internal logic to what Jesus says. It’s not as if Jesus starts with one topic and then jumps to another, and then moves to another. This is not some rambling or meandering teaching, it’s intentional. If you have missed any of our messages, you can always watch the videos on our website or Facebook page and if you want to read any of the messages, they are here on Facebook and our website too.
There is a growth and development in the Sermon on the Mount, and it’s the same growth and development we see in our lives.
Has anyone ever learned how to golf. I never did. When you first learn how to swing a golf club, you get a lot of well-meaning, but ultimately worthless advice. Someone probably told you, “It’s all in your hips” and if you’re like me when someone gave you that advice you muttered back “if it’s all in my hips why did you tell me to keep my left arm straight too?”
Or if you’ve ever taught anyone how to swing a baseball bat, you’ve told them to keep their eyes on the ball. We all know that’s good advice for baseball, but have we ever stopped to think about how it’s not helpful? When someone is trying to hit a baseball they’re not actively looking elsewhere.
Think about learning how to cook. When you first learn to cook you hear things like a pinch of salt, but how much salt is that? What quantity is a splash of olive oil? If you’ve never brought water to a simmer, how are you going to know the difference between simmering and boiling? There is a good reason why the first cookbook in my kitchen was called how to boil water because I needed to start with step one.
When you are learning something new, it’s only natural that it’s frustrating, confusing, and even frightening. When we are beginning, when we are learning something new, it doesn’t seem natural or normal, because it’s new, it’s different. The advice and instruction that we get, as necessary as it may be, may not make sense, because we haven’t internalized it yet.
It’s almost like the word has to become flesh.
If there is no embodiment, if our ideas are never enfleshed, they don’t take hold. The word has to become flesh, it has to be transformed from an idea to an actuality.
So let’s just take a moment to admit, together, that we are all new to this. None of us have been here before. We are all beginners. We should listen to the experts, we should follow their advice, but even those that have studied pandemics before can admit that this is new to us.
Because we are all beginners, it’s natural to be frustrated and confused and anxious because we’re new to this. Together, we are all learning and discovering what it means to live at a time such as this, so let’s admit that it can be frustrating and worrying, and let’s also have patience with ourselves and one another, because we’re all beginners, we’re all learning and discovering together.
As we learn, things shift from new, to normal, to second nature.
That’s how we progress and grow and develop. From new, to normal, to second nature.
I learned how to cook in college by watching a lot of the food network. At first, I was a little arrogant when it came to my abilities because I would watch a show, not write down the recipe, and then go shopping because I could remember it all. I never did and there was always some key ingredient missing.
The peak of my arrogance came when I made a lasagna for the first time and I didn’t have potholders. I told myself that it couldn’t be that hot and I was only going to hold the pan for a couple of seconds so what’s the big deal.
As I scrubbed the floor I knew what the big deal was.
As you learn, you pick up habits, and routines, and a vocabulary. Slowly, everything that was once brand new becomes normal and eventually what is normal for you becomes second nature and you can act without having to stop and think. The small tricks and tips that took so long to learn are now behaviors and habits. Over time a pinch of salt isn’t a mystery, it’s just a pinch of salt.
That’s the progression that we see in the Sermon on the Mount too. There is a growth, a development, a continual invitation for us to become who God knows: beloved, blessed, and empowered.
The Sermon on the Mount begins with Jesus teaching us we are blessed. The Sermon on the Mount begins with Jesus saying when we are lost, confused, anxious, worried, afraid, and feel like we are at the end of ourselves, when we imagine there is no way that God could be with us, God is on our side. That’s how the Sermon on the Mount gets started. We are blessed because God is with us, no matter what.
Next, Jesus says, because we are blessed and because God is with us, we live as salt and light. Jesus does not say this is who we could be, Jesus doesn’t say it would be nice if you decided to live as salt and light. Jesus simply makes this announcement about what God knows we already are.
It’s from this place of being salt and light, of having a flavor, an enhancement, a light to shine before others, that Jesus tells us just as our heavenly God is complete in showing love to everyone, so must we be complete in showing and sharing grace and peace.
This is who we are, people that forgive, that seek justice and reconciliation, that continually seek to move from anger to grace, that move from anything that belittles, demeans, or denies the belovedness of another so that everyone, and everyone means everyone, can live into the fullness of love that God is.
When we arrive at our reading today, Jesus says, “Whenever you give to the poor” because as the kind of people God knows we are, Jesus doesn’t have to say “if you give to the poor”, or “it would be nice when you give”, Jesus simply knows that we are a people of generosity, of abundant joy that we share freely.
For us as followers of Jesus, because we know we are blessed, because we are salt and light, because God has trusted us to be who we are, it’s not if we give, it’s not if we pray. We will, and we do, since our lives are grounded, centered, in generosity and faith.
Jesus says, “Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your [God] who is in heaven. Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may get praise from people. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get.”
In this passage, two words in Greek stick out, because they are both theater terms – θεάομαι (theaomai) and ὑποκριτής (hupokrites).
Theaomai is in verse one and in English, it’s often translated ‘to be seen’ or ‘to draw attention’. The root of the word comes from theater and is directly translated as, “to gaze at the spectacle”.
Have you been performing for anyone? Putting on a show? Have you ever set yourself on fire in the hopes that someone else might feel warm?
When Jesus says, “Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your [God] who is in heaven.” Jesus is reminding us that when we put on a show, when we are a spectacle, when we’re simply performing, we’re not participating.
Reward comes up several times in this passage and when Jesus talks about a reward he’s not saying that we’re given payment. The reward that Jesus is speaking about is our participation in the love and the movement of God. Think of reward in this passage like recompense, reward as an equivalent return. If the reward that we are seeking is approval, status or prestige, if the reward we seek is simply for our ego, we can find that reward, and miss God.
Jesus starts by asking us who we are performing for because he’s going to ask us if we’re wearing a mask.
Jesus says, “Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may get praise from people. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get.”
Hypocrites or ὑποκριτής (hupokrites) in Greek is another theater word that Jesus uses. There is a lot of speculation that when Jesus was growing up, Joseph and maybe Jesus too, would have worked on a massive construction project that was done in Sepphoris, the next town over from Nazareth. There was this large theater that was built in Sepphoris when Jesus would have been in his teens and I know we often think about Joseph as a carpenter but a better way to understand Joseph’s career in the first century is to think of him as a day laborer. Joseph would have had all kinds of different jobs, so while there’s no direct evidence of Jesus and Joseph working on the theater, we do know that thousands of day laborer were hired for this job and for the number of times that Jesus uses these theater terms it’s interesting to think about.
To be a ὑποκριτής (hupokrites) in the first century was literally to wear a mask, to be a stage performer. Stage make up wasn’t a think in the first century, so all the actors would cover their face with a mask.
It’s one thing to seek a reward, it’s another to hide behind a mask and pretend to be someone that you’re not.
This is not the time for hiding under a mask or putting on a show. In our relationships and our life together, it’s never really the right time to hide under a mask or put on a show, but especially now, we need to be brave enough to be honest, to be open, to be who we are, to take our masks off.
In a time such as this, what reward do we get for putting on a show and pretending to be someone that we aren’t? Is pretending to be someone else worth couple likes on Facebook? Is that fleeting feeling worth it? You don’t have to keep up with the Jones’ anymore because they’re stuck inside too. Check in on one another, care for each other, but let’s all drop our masks. This is not the time to hide ourselves or pretend we’re anyone else. There’s no reward for wearing a mask.
And yet, there is an enduring love that lingers through our participation in the divine life of God. Jesus teaches us, over and over again in the Sermon on the Mount, to be who God already knows we are. We are blessed, we are loved, we are salt and light, and we can live this way not to impress anyone, not to put on a performance, we can live like this because this is who we are.
This is why Jesus says when you give don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.
Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing is Jesus’ moment of zen in the Sermon on the Mount. At first, it can sound like one of those proverbs that we don’t know what it means, and that means it must be wise.
When Jesus says that we should live with such a generosity that when we give our left hand doesn’t know what our right hand is doing, Jesus is making a statement about our consciousness, about how something that was once new, and it became normal, only to become second nature.
I’ve been told there comes a point in golf where you don’t have to think about your hips any more when you swing. There is a moment when you learn to play baseball that you learn what it means to keep your eye on the ball. There is a moment when you learn how to cook that you don’t have to think about the difference between chopping and dicing because our behaviors have become second nature.
In our life of faith, there comes the moment where we don’t have to think about helping, we don’t have to think about reconciling, we don’t have to think about caring for one another because that is simply who we are.
Jesus says, “…when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your [God] who is present in that secret place. Your [God] who sees what you do in secret will reward you.”
At this moment, most of us are doing a lot more than praying with our doors shut. We are living behind shut doors, and Jesus says in this moment when we don’t put on a show, when we aren’t performing or wearing a mask, when we are who we truly are, God is there and our reward is this enduring love that lasts even at a time such as this.
This is all new, right? So the question is, in our lives right now, what’s going to become normal, because that’s going to become second nature for us. When you don’t have to perform, when you don’t have to put on a mask, when you can step back and recognize that we’re not living this way for anyone’s attention, how now will you live?
Jesus says that we can live into the reward of God with us. Jesus says we can participate in the word becoming flesh. The way that we pattern and orient our lives changes everything. This is new, so what will become normal, because whatever your normal becomes, that will eventually be your second-nature response and your left hand will not know what your right hand is doing.
When we give, when we pray, when we care, when we love, what reward are we seeking – are we, with Jesus, making these words become flesh, or are we putting on a show?
The great Alice Walker wrote in ‘The Color Purple’, “Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me. And I think all the other folks did too. They come to church to share God, not to find God.”
It’s not like we have to find God. God has already found us and called us good. What we need to do is embrace our true reward, our participation in the word that becomes flesh, because what was new will become normal and whats normal will become second nature.
We have a chance to define our new normal, so let’s make the most of it. May we live into the love of God that is with and for us by sharing patience with ourselves and one another. May we be a people that care, a people that reach out, a people that give and prayer because of course we would be a people that give and pray. Let’s live with such a love that our left hand doesn’t know what our right hand is doing, and with that, may we all seek to know and share grace and peace.
(Prayers in the comments)
Let us pray…
Christ may we follow you to all the places in our lives where the heavens and earth meet. You are the Word made flesh, so help us to put flesh onto your teaching. Let us live with the love you have for all people and may we be so inspired by your grace that we not only share it with others but accept it for ourselves. When we are weary or afraid, when we question the path ahead, Christ reveals the reward of your sacred presence with us. We never go alone and as close as our breath, God is here. By your Spirit, inspire us to be with and look after one another. All this we pray through Christ who taught us to pray saying, Our Father*, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
If you are a part of the Grace community, your continued support makes a world of difference right now, and if you are new to Grace your support means a lot too. If you would like to give an offering online you can do so at gracedesmoines.org and click on giving.
But this week, may we not only give an offering of our finances, let’s be the kind of offering that Christ calls us to be. May we give, may we love, may we pray, not seeking a reward from others, because our reward is participating in the divine love that is moving with and through us and everything else. God is with us, so as best as we can, may we offer this love to ourselves and one another.
Thank you for being with us this morning. If this was helpful and you know someone that you’d like to share this with, feel free to share this video. Even if someone doesn’t have Facebook they’ll be able to watch it here or on our website at gracedesmoines.org
May we all go into this week with the promise and the presence of God’s love. This is new, let’s not forget we are beginners, so let’s remember that our new will become normal and our normal will become second nature, so may our left hand not know what our right hand is doing, because it’s only natural and normal that our hands would be seeking God’s grace and peace.
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March 23 – 28, 2020
Click on the day to expand the guide.
Read – Deuteronomy 10:16-20; Psalm 68:4-10
Notice – In the Hebrew Scriptures, nearly all legal and financial status depended on a connection to a living male relative. “Orphans and widows” had no such connection. The phrase became a shorthand expression for all powerless or oppressed people. Israel’s faith said God cared in a specific, practical way about the treatment of the poor and the weak. A God of justice demanded fairness and support for widows and orphans. Part of our faith heritage as Methodists is the belief that we are God’s voice, God’s hands and feet, in a hurting world. In what ways can you join in God’s work of blessing orphans, widows, the lonely and prisoners? Do you know anyone who may not be an “orphan” or “widow” in the concrete sense of the term, but who you could bless by extending God’s love and care into their life?
Pray – God, give me eyes to see when other people I meet are hurting. Give me a heart to support, and join in when possible, your work to love and care for people I may never meet. Amen.
Read – Amos 5:21-24
Notice – Amos the prophet lived in a time when conspicuous religion and “conspicuous consumption” went on side-by-side in Israel. Amos itemized God’s charges against Israel: “they have sold the innocent for silver, and those in need for a pair of sandals. They crush the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.” (Amos 2:6-7). If Amos wrote today, rather than in 700 B.C., what failures of our culture might he list? How can you be an active agent, moving our culture toward God’s ideal by your words and actions?
Pray – Jesus, there are still hungry children and hopeless people suffering injustice. They are your children, your people—help me to care about them as much as you do. Amen.
Read – James 1:22-27
Notice – Have you ever known a person who “talked a good game” about religious devotion, but whose actions and attitudes did not match their words? If so, how did that person affect the other people over whom they had influence? When have you discovered a mismatch between your words about faith and your actions?
Pray – Jesus, keep me aware of the places where my actions don’t match my words. I want to be a doer of your word. Guide and mold me into that kind of person. Amen.
Read – James 2:1-9
Notice – Scholar William Barclay said, “The Church must be the one place where all distinctions are wiped out. There can be no distinctions of rank and prestige when men meet in the presence of the King of glory. There can be no distinctions of merit when men meet in the presence of the supreme holiness of God.” How easy or hard do you find it to lay aside a value system built on status, title and wealth to live as James called us to live?
Pray – God, remind me that I am a steward of some of your world rather than an owner of any of it. Keep my values aligned with yours in all of my dealings with others. Amen.
Read – James 2:14-17
Notice – We’ve seen that James called his readers to be doers of the word, not just hearers. He challenged the human tendency to show favoritism toward the wealthy. This was not just economics, he insisted, but a matter of faith. And true faith, James said, shows itself in action. James vividly pointed out the flaw in thinking that genuine faith could ever be limited to kindly thoughts. “Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, ‘Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!’? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs?” Whose example most strongly drew you to a faith that includes your heart and your hands as well as your head?
Pray – Loving Lord, you accept me as your child, and you daily reshape the way I live as I respond to your love. Let my works always find their source in you, and bring you glory. Amen.
Read – Matthew 13:3-9, 23
Notice – Farmers grew crops on most of the hillsides around the Sea of Galilee. It’s likely that Jesus could have pointed to a farmer out broad-casting seed as he told this story. Our choices determine what kind of “soil” we become. Scholar N. T. Wright wrote, “Christianity isn’t about cosy little lessons to make us feel better. It’s about what God’s doing in the world … there is the promise of seed that really does bear fruit. This takes time, and sometimes hard work. A quick glance at the scriptures, an occasional sitting in church or a study group and being entertained by some new idea, is probably not enough. Care and thought needs to be put in to the task of hearing the word of the kingdom until it has taken proper root … the promise is this: that we will become kingdom-people, bearing fruit in our own right.” In what ways is your life bearing a good harvest?
Pray – God, I want the “seed” of your kingdom to grow strongly and bountifully in my heart. And I want to sow seeds of love and caring all around me in your name. Make me good soil, and an effective sower. Amen.