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This past Sunday we had a Newcomers Lunch. As a part of that, we briefly share some of our values and uniqueness as a part of the Be In Christ Church of Canada. I think about that as I come into today’s Covenant Weekly because we are back to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. A shorthand I’ve heard to describe our Anabaptist and Be In Christ Church of Canada identity is that we believe Jesus meant what he said in the collection of teachings that we call The Sermon on the Mount. While Jesus uses rhetorical tools like hyperbole and metaphor, we believe that what he taught was meant for us to learn from and live out in this life. With that in mind, let’s jump into Matthew 6:1-6 in the Covenant Weekly for April 26, 2024.

Matthew 6:1-6

“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. 2 When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. 3 But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. 4 Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

5 “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. 6 But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

Before we get too far, by way of introduction, I want to acknowledge that most English translations have put a header in the middle of what I just read to introduce Jesus’ teaching about prayer. That feels awkward because these sections are addressing the same core issue. In fact, the same issue is being addressed all the down to the end of verse 18. I’m breaking it up here because after this warning against what not to do, Jesus goes into a prompt for what we should do and I’m leaving that until the next Sermon on the Mount episode.

But for today, Jesus is offering one critique about how some people in his day approached their religious practice. That is, they were doing it for show. Almsgiving - giving to those in need - was a part of their religious duty. Prayer was a part of their religious piety. And when some in Jesus’ world were practicing their faith they made sure they did it in a way and in places that people could see them and celebrate them. To put it bluntly, their worship was about putting on a show and getting attention. It wasn’t about what was in their heart.

This is such an easy trap for any of us to get into. We are social beings and a part of being social beings is a longing for belonging and acceptance within a group. And longing for that acceptance can easily lead us to put on the mannerisms and adopt the language of that group to gain acceptance. Sometimes this leads to us looking and acting differently in different contexts. We do and say things at work that we would never say in church. Or we do and say things in youth group that we wouldn’t get caught dead saying at school.

There is nothing wrong with a desire to belong. There is nothing wrong with learning the norms of any given context so that we don’t needlessly offend another. There is nothing wrong with learning a new way of speaking and being as we grow and change in areas. This could include belonging in a church, learning the norms of a faith community, and learning to speak and act in ways that align with the heart of Jesus.

But that isn’t what is going on in the contexts Jesus is addressing and it often isn’t what is going on in our lives. Jesus is talking about acting out religious life for the primary purpose of affirmation and applause - giving in a way that people know how generous one is. Praying in a way that makes our piety undeniable.

When I think about what Jesus is critiquing here, I think about a time in my life when I joined a Christian music group. In my church, those who sang a certain genre of music were regularly celebrated. And a group of young people were put together to sing this kind of music. I wasn’t one of them. But when one person left the group, I was asked if I wanted to join. Of course, I did! I wanted to be in a setting where I could impress people, get applause, and have people point out what a great Christian young person I was.

Over time, that group gained more and more popularity. As high school students, we started travelling many weekends to perform in concerts and at churches. And whenever we performed, I would stand at the front and say the right words, pray the right prayers, and put on a show of spirituality for the sake of applause. It worked.

Until it didn’t anymore.

It wasn’t that the applause stopped. I realized that the reasons I said I was doing it didn’t align with the reason I was actually doing it. What I was doing became unsustainable for me. I felt there were two options. The first was to quit this group and unapologetically pursue music for the applause. The second was to partner with God and see my heart changed so that my reason for doing it would be in alignment with my words. By God’s grace, that is what happened. And because I was no longer in it for any applause, when I was led away from that kind of performing it was fairly easy to walk away.

Jesus is critiquing showy religion here. But he’s not doing it so that we can join him in going around and critiquing showy religion. He’s doing it as an invitation to consider our own hearts. What is driving us as we live out the practices and habits of our faith? If it is the affirmation of others, that doesn’t mean we need to stop doing what we’re doing. But we may be invited into doing it in a different way - in a way that aligns with the heart of God.

And the best way to get our practices aligned with the heart of God isn’t by trying to fix ourselves or feeling guilty when we find ourselves looking for applause. If you’re like me, you will slide in that direction largely because we are social beings. We continue to be wired to care about what others think. God’s grace is ready to meet us when that happens.

The best way to get our practices aligned with the heart of God is by joyfully and actively aligning ourselves with the heart of God. As we live connected to God, receiving and overflowing with the love of God, our need to chase affirmation through showy worship will fade away. We may still lift our hands in worship…or not, but either way, it isn’t to show off to anyone else. We may still give, but it isn’t for anyone else to see. We may still pray, but it isn’t to impress others. And regarding prayer, which we’ll talk about next month, this renewed posture just might make our prayers more honest, vulnerable, passionate, and broken.

Living connected deeply to God - receiving God’s love freely - helps us gain freedom from our need for applause and into a deeper genuine connection with those around us. Jesus' invitation here is to leave behind a way of pursuing affirmation that uses people in order to receive divine affirmation, opening the door for genuine love. Far more than a condemnation of religiosity, Jesus’ words here are an invitation to live more fully in the abundant life he offers us.

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