“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.[a]

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.[b]

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

-Matthew 6: 1-8

 

March 8, 2015

 

 

“DEVELOPING OUR PRODIGIOUS INDEX FINGER”

Freedom Part III

Matthew 6: 1-8

The Reverend Tasha Blackburn

March 8, 2015

As you know, I have just returned from a place that is littered with sacred spots. You cannot swing a cat without seeing a sign for a holy site. It really is overwhelming to experience: there to the right is the Sea of Galilee, and down there King David’s tomb, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Pool of Siloam, the mountain where Jesus stood to preach the words we just heard from Matthew. Holy places cover every hill and valley. There is one that is perhaps the most famous of them all, and what sets it apart is that its holiness is completely accidental. It is the Western Wall, sometimes called the Wailing Wall. It is in Jerusalem’s Old City and is known around the world as one of the holiest sites for the Jewish faith and everyone, from popes to presidents, has prayed there as well. But it was never supposed to be. It is just a wall, a retaining wall, in fact. King Herod built it to help stop the erosion of the mountain. It was practical and functional. It was never holy and nothing sacred ever happened there in ancient times.

The wall only matters because of this: it is the closest the Jewish people can get to the Temple, where the Dome of the Rock sets now. Since Solomon’s time, the Temple was on that spot, setting on top of the place where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac—what they call the Stone of Foundation. And in that Temple was the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant rested and where God lived. That Temple is long gone, destroyed in the year 70 AD, and the Jewish people are not allowed to go to the site. The Western Wall, that surrounded that long ago Temple, is the closest they can get. It is just a wall. But because of where it sets, it has become an accidental holy place.

We are studying Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount during the six weeks of Lent and we have gotten to Chapter six. Before this Jesus talked a lot about how doing the wrong things can get you into trouble: not only murder but anger too, not only adultery but lusting too. Now he moves on to talk about how even doing the right things—but in the wrong way—can be a sin. Giving to the poor can be a sin if you do it to impress. Being public about your faith is great unless you do it for attention. And even prayer gets taken to task; if you are praying long-winded prayers and showing off your prayers in public, even praying can be a problem. Basically, Jesus tells us to stop focusing on what others think about us. Your relationship with God is just that—you and God—and you don’t need to impress anyone with your beliefs.

Paul emphasizes this in his letter to the Corinthians when he writes that they shouldn’t worry if they look like fools because God’s foolishness is better than any human wisdom. There is no reason to show off or to worry about how you look , because God turns even wisdom and foolishness on its head and weak and strong as well. What tremendous freedom there is in this!

Knowing ahead of time that some in this world will think we are fools for believing in Christ, it sets us free to be fools. And knowing that showing off only hurts our relationship with God, sets us free from the desire to be the center of attention. It is such a freedom Christ gives us to not be the focus.

And it is also a tremendous responsibility. Here is why: among the many things Jesus did in his life, death and resurrection is he made you a holy place. He made you a sacred site and not by any accident. This is how Paul puts it in that first section of his letter to the Corinthians. He writes, “God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.”  Years later St. Teresa of Avila would put it this way, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours…[Y]ou are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” Jesus offers us words of tremendous freedom: you are no longer tied up by what the world thinks of you. And that freedom enables a great responsibility, for you will be the closest many people can get to The Holy. You are the way people will get to Jesus and that makes you a sacred site indeed. For “God decided, through the foolishness of OUR proclamation, to save those who believe.”

Before this designation overwhelms you and you feel drowned in the job you have been given, please remember that your work is simple. You see the painting in your bulletin and some of you were there to hear Dr. Jinkins’ talk on it. It is from the 16th century. We can see it is of Christ, of course. He is front and center and our eyes go to him instantly. But John the Baptist is also there, although we notice him only because of one thing: his pointing finger. What theologian Karl Barth called his “prodigious index finger”. It is double or triple the size it should be to make clear what his role is. John’s job is to point, not at himself, but at Jesus. And that is our job too. That is why even doing good things but doing them for the wrong reasons is an opportunity for sin. As a church, Father once wrote, “The servants of the Devil are tormented by all kinds of vices; but it is the desire of glory that torments the servants of the Lord.” Charity is good, unless it points the wrong way. Sharing our faith is critical, unless, in the sharing, we are pointing the wrong way. Prayer is how faith deepens and grows, UNLESS we are pointing the wrong way. Like John the Baptist, we do not point to ourselves, we only point to Jesus. For we are the closest many will ever get to him, so what we are aimed at matters.

Jesus does not walk the hills of Galilee anymore and he doesn’t walk the streets of Jerusalem or the neighborhoods of Fort Smith. But you do and he has enabled you to walk it with amazing freedom. And he has given you the greatest responsibility: people will meet him through you. So what do we do? We get to work developing a “prodigious index finger.” Amen.