[Note: Due to my inability to count, I messed up the continuity of the Sermon Series on the Sermon on the Mount. The following is my newsletter article which attempts to put a small finish on that Sermon Series. The other parts are here: pt1, pt2, pt3.]
We are at a confluence of sorts. Through at least part of the season of Epiphany this year we have been reading the Sermon on the Mount. I thought I had one more Sunday in Epiphany than I do, so that promised conclusion of sermon series will have to take place in a different way. I said that after giving an authoritative view of the law (you have heard it said…but I say…), that Jesus would turn to issues of practice. The law is foundational, but how do we practically put Jesus’ words into action? By practically I don’t mean the typical liberal Christian answer of “God didn’t really mean that, we’ve grown so much since then” or the conservative Christian answer of cheap grace especially for those in the clan. How do we practically live avoiding the ditches of denial and despair?
The rest of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew chapters 6 and 7 is a string of practices, observations and examples from Jesus. Three of them are the historic practices of lent. One of them is our congregational focus. That is the confluence. Our Epiphany and Sermon series is flowing into our lent.
The three historic practices of lent were: prayer, fasting and alms-giving or direct charity. The first words of the Sermon after love your enemies are “when you give to the needy (Matt 6:2)”. That “when” will establish a new pattern. Jesus does not say “if” in this section. He does not say here are good ideas. What he will say is “when”. If you are a practicing Christian, these are things that will sustain the life you have been given. These are practices that will keep you on the narrow way between denial and despair. They are not laws in the formal sense but they are the practice of love, against which there is no law.
And the first of them is charity. When we turn things into a law, what we want is for the scales to balance here. What Jesus has been concerned about is his followers not legally weighing the moral calculus but living love and trusting the Father. The “philanthropists” of our day always come with a sponsored by tag-line; sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or for Masterpiece fans the Bill and Darlene Shiley Foundation or take a stroll around any institution and read the names engraved. Leaving aside the question of if these are “the needy”, what they are is a balancing of the scales. “Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward (Matt 6:2).” The practice that sustains the soul is the one done for the love of your needy neighbor trusting in the promise of the Father.
Such trust is not just a natural thing. It grows out of a relationship. And that relationship is developed and sustained in prayer. Right after charity, Jesus teaches to the Lord’s Prayer. Pray then like this “Our Father…”. It is prayer that we are going to be focusing on this lent. I’d invite you to take and read my little book called “Living Prayer” and come and be part of our conversation. We are going to look at four types of prayer encouraged by the Apostle Paul and how each finds its place in our lives. And prayerfully how this feeds the faith.
The last practice is one we don’t practice much and I’m an awful example. But it is what Jesus brings up next right after the Lord’s Prayer, Matt 6:16-18, fasting.
It is tempting to put a specific meaning on each one of these foundational practices, but I don’t think there is any one meaning. Different people might find a different motivation. The one I would suggest, why I think these three, prayer, fasting and charity are core sustaining practice of Christian love, is because they intentionally move us outside of ourselves. The problem of the law is that it focuses on ourselves. Either we deny that God’s law applies to us, or we too easily excuse ourselves. We walk past the cross without really observing it. Giving stuff away, refusing to add to our bellies, talking with something that is more numinous than “real” gets us outside of ourselves. We put the purely physical, what we are most likely to be enslaved to, in their proper place for a time. In what I take to be a summary of these basic practices of Christian love, immediately following Jesus says, “Do not lay up for yourself treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven…where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matt 6:19-21).” These are the practices of those who “long for a better country” (Heb 11:16) and trust in the Father to bring about that city.
Jesus has another chapter, Matthew 7, in which he continues what Christian practice looks like, but that is further down from the confluence we are at. Right now, approaching lent, these three are enough. And again, I’d invite you to be part of our congregational study on one of them – Prayer.