We live in a consumer-driven society. Everything from education to religion is a commodity that can be bought and sold, which means that we can easily become consumers of religious commodities. When this happens we cease being disciples of Jesus, and become customers in search of the best deal. We in the “church business” know this to be true, because we go to seminars and workshops and read books that tell us how to market ourselves and create entertaining “worship services” so we can compete with the brand next door. None of this is new, but the resources available to us today are increasingly sophisticated.
Now, some religious institutions do a better job than others at creating attractive venues. And, although there are lots of media-savvy megachurches out there today, no one has done it with quite the flair for the dramatic as Aimee Semple McPherson. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, Aimee’s illustrated sermons and radio ministry reached millions. Not only was she a preacher, she was a celebrity, who drew huge crowds and lots of media-coverage wherever she went. My mother has told me how my atheist grandfather loved to listen to her sermons on the radio as they drove home from her grandparents’ home on Sunday evenings. Now, Aimee didn’t change my grandfather’s mind about religion, but he was entertained. What made Aimee successful is that she knew how to compete with Hollywood, and many others have learned her lessons as well.
While church needn’t be boring, the message that comes to us in the Sermon on the Mount, which we return to this morning after going with Jesus to the Mount of Transfiguration, seems to challenge this consumerist vision of religion. As we’ve been making our way through the Sermon on the Mount, we’ve seen Jesus challenge our habits and our world views, and he doesn’t let us off the hook in this morning’s gospel reading from Matthew 6.
The Sermon on the Mount challenges us to take the narrow path, the one that leads into the desert where both privation and temptation await (Matt. 4:1-11). The path that Jesus takes is very different from the consumer-driven religion that prevails in our time. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and writer on spirituality, suggests that we live in an “adolescent culture,” and that this culture influences our faith expressions. According to Fr. Rohr, there are two halves to our lives. The first half of life is focused on identity formation and the search for security. That is, the focus of this first stage of life is the self. We all go through this stage, because it’s essential to our development. But, unfortunately, too often we stay put in this first half reality. As the book of Hebrews puts it – we stay with the milk rather than moving onto the meat. In the first half of life, our focus tends to be on the boundaries. We often see the world in either/or categories. We do this because we’re still forming our identities. But, the point of the journey isn’t staying put in this identify formation stage, but rather to move into the second stage of life, where we’re ready to take risks and see the world in more both/and terms. We grow spiritually and intellectually, because we’ve experienced deprivation and suffering, and we’ve not only survived, but we have thrived. Rohr’s point is that death comes before resurrection [Richard Rohr, Falling Upward, Jossey Bass, 2011 – forthcoming, pp. 4ff].
1. Beware the Hypocrites
In a consumer-driven reality, it’s easy to find ourselves “playing church.” That is, we find ourselves putting on a religious show to catch the attention – not of God – but of our neighbor. Worship can be a powerful drama that changes lives if the audience is God. But when we perform our faith to catch the eye of our neighbors, then according to Jesus we have become hypocrites. Jesus says to the disciples, and to us:
Be careful that you don’t practice your religion before people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven (Mt. 6:1).
Although consumer-driven religion seems to be thriving, the majority of those people leaving the church or who believe that the church is of no use in their spiritual journeys, point to hypocrisy as the trigger. According to the polls, they like Jesus, but not the institution that claims his name.
Now, it might help us to better understand Jesus’ message if we know that in the first century, a hypocrite was an actor. And in the religious realm, a hypocrite was one who put on a religious mask so that their piety might be seen by others. Jesus says that when you engage in public acts of piety such as giving alms, praying, or fasting, hoping that you’ll be seen by your neighbors, then that’s all the reward you’ll get. That reward may seem attractive, after all, politicians love to invoke God’s support and blessing on their actions. In fact, we expect this of them. We wonder about politicians that don’t wear their religion on their sleeves. As for the rest of us, at least in times past, many people hoped to derive a social benefit from their church membership. In days past if you wanted to get ahead in society you had to be a member of not just any church, but the right church. Not only that, you needed to be seen as a pillar of the church. But, Isaiah’s answer to those who complained that God wasn’t seeing their fast speaks to this view of religion.
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high (Isa. 58:3-4).The world is watching us, and they become disillusioned when we say we love God and neighbor, and then support torture or advocate balancing the budget on the backs of the poor.
2. Practicing True Faith
In this selection from the Sermon on the Mount Jesus addresses the issue of public piety, focusing on giving alms, praying in public, and fasting. The message is really clear – if we do these things so that we’ll be noticed by our neighbor, then that’s all the benefit we’ll receive. It appears that what’s at issue here is one’s motivation.
So, Jesus says – when it comes to giving of alms, something we’ve been asked to do this morning in response to the disaster in Japan – offer your alms without making a big deal about it. Don’t announce the amount. Don’t ask for a plaque. Just give from the heart in response to God’s call to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
And as for prayer, when you pray in public don’t design the prayer to attract words of praise for your eloquence. Now, should someone offer a word of thanks for your words, its okay to receive that word with grace and humility, but Jesus says to us – don’t let that be your motive. In case we need some guidance in this, Jesus offers us a model of prayer. He tells the disciples – pray like this – and offers to them the foundation of the prayer we pray each week. Although there is great beauty to this prayer, it’s also simple and straightforward. It calls on us to pledge our total allegiance to God, whom we are to declare holy. We pledge our service to God’s kingdom, and then make our requests of God – simple requests of food, forgiveness, and deliverance from temptation and evil.
And when it comes to fasting, brush your hair and put on decent clothes, so that no one will know you are depriving yourself of food or pleasure. The point of this act of asceticism, is not to show everyone how “spiritual” we are, but instead, it is designed to put us in a better position to encounter the presence of God.
Church of Christ pastor Jerry Taylor puts it all in perspective:
Spiritual power is not based on the approval rating we receive for the performance of our pious acts of religion. We become spiritually impotent when we allow our righteousness to walk around on the broken crutches of religious showmanship. [Jerry Taylor, “May I have Your Attention,” in Preaching the Sermon on the Mount, (Chalice Press, 2007), Kindle loc. 2012-16.]
3. Secret Blessings
There is a constant theme in this passage. Jesus seems rather insistent that the God who sees in secret, will bless us in secret. If we’re willing and able to move from the first half of life into the second, then we can leave behind matters of identity and security, and begin to move into maturity. The blessings that come from being in the presence of God may not be as apparent to our neighbors, but if we’re willing to take the narrow path, the one Scott Peck called the “road less traveled,” then we’ll begin to see our lives and our relationships transformed.
As Richard Rohr suggests, in the first half of life, we focus on the externals – on the law, correct rituals, and correct beliefs. While these are not bad things – they help us in creating containers that will allow us to share in life changing encounters with God – they shouldn’t be the end of the journey. Instead, as we move into the second half of life, we will find ourselves caught up in the burning presence of God. That is, like Moses’ burning bush, “authentic God experience always ‘burns’ you, yet does not destroy you” (Ex. 3:2-3) [Rohr, p. 13]. Yes, we can be content with the show, but if we are content with the show then we’ll miss out on the secret blessings of mystical union with God.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
First Sunday of Lent
March 13, 2011