The Lenten Disciplines (Charity, Prayer, and Fasting)

Matthew 6:1-18

Large yellow arrow on the ground, with two feet in tennis shoes, the word "Follow" superimposed on the image.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus says to ordinary people, “Follow me.” In the Sermon on the Mount he clearly lays out the path to discipleship: embracing countercultural values, responding nonviolently in all situations, and radically trusting that God’s love will prevail. During the season of Lent, we listen deeply to the words of Jesus, and learn to walk in the steps of Jesus through the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and charity. We let Jesus reorder our priorities and our appetites as we lean in to what it really means to follow him.

The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ premier teaching, his longest and best invitation, starting with an unqualified declaration of God’s goodness and generosity, and then moving into how we live in gratitude and love as a result of God’s goodness and generosity. As we take this slow walk through the Sermon on the Mount, this morning we are focusing on the three Lenten values of charity, prayer, and fasting. If you’ve ever wondered why those three go together in Lent, it’s because Jesus puts them together right here in his teaching. Despite what the chapter numbers and section headings lead us to believe, Jesus didn’t intend for this teaching to be broken up but to flow together. So even though our focus begins in chapter 6 verse 1, we’re going to back up a few verses to start the reading because I want you to hear this beautiful transition. As I read I invite you to listen for repeated words and themes.

I will start reading in chapter 5 verse 43. Let us listen now in the reading of scripture for the Word and Wisdom of God.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

“Beware of practicing your righteousness 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.

“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.

“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.

“Pray, then, in this way:

Our Father in heaven,
    may your name be revered as holy.
    May your kingdom come.
    May your will be done
        on earth as it is in heaven.
    Give us today our daily bread.
    And forgive us our debts,
        as we also have forgiven our debtors.
    And do not bring us to the time of trial,
        but rescue us from the evil one.

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

“And whenever you fast, do not look somber, like the hypocrites, for they mark their faces to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

Sociologists will tell you that there are several different social institutions, or pillars that hold up different societies. They will list anywhere from three to six, depending on the society, but the ones that are always included are family, religion, government, and economics. Family, religion, government, and economics. Different societies are held up by different pillars; that pillar becomes more important than the others. Family – Japan. Religion – Iran. Politics – Russia. Economics – United States. The most important pillar also determines what the society values, what motivates people, what the system is for conforming to the norm. In a family society, people are motivated by honor and shame. In a religious society, they are motivated by ideology and beliefs. In a political society, they are motivated by force and authority. And in an economically-driven society, people are motivated by transactions and consumption.

Now, the reason we have to see this chart is because we do not usually recognize what kind of a society we live in. It shapes everything around us, and until we go somewhere else and experience something else, we don’t 

realize what’s happening where we are. We read the Bible with the filter of people who live in a society driven by transaction and consumption. The challenge is, the society in which Jesus lived and taught was not an economically driven society. It was a family driven society. The motivators for the people Jesus was talking to was honor and shame. They cared about how they looked to other people, and how their behavior reflected on the people in their kinship network. 

And hopefully, this helps us understand these sections we read this morning. Jesus tells his followers not to worry about how they look to other people. In fact that if they are doing religious things in order to look good, that’s all the good that will come from what they are doing. Jesus is literally overturning the values of the system. In a society motivated by honor and shame, it is moral and good to be seen doing religious things. That’s important. But Jesus is changing that. He says that the only relationship that matters, the only opinion that matters, is the one of “our Father.” 

Now some of us might not immediately appreciate that gendered presentation of God. But what I hope you can see is that the point of the image is relationship. God as parent and provider, one who has a greater perspective on the world and our best interest at heart. The image of God as Father shows up 10 times in just these 18 verses, and it first shows up in the last verse of chapter 5. In a family-oriented culture where our behavior reflects on us and our kin, the relationship Jesus tells us to value, the only opinion we should worry about, is the one with our heavenly parent. 

The last thing I want to point out about the societal differences is what happens in our heads when we read the word “reward.” If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? If you are praying, and fasting, and giving so that other people will see you, that’s all the reward you will get for it. But instead, do it in secret and your heavenly Father will reward you. In a culture driven by economics as ours is, the idea of “reward” automatically reminds us of money, or at least of some material good. We are motivated by transaction and consumption so if we do something that is good then God is going to give us something good in return and our highest goods are money and stuff. Now I know, as Christians, we try not to think that way, but it’s so instinctual because of the system we live in every day. 

As we move to the Communion table, I invite you to imagine what other “reward” might come our way from God because of our prayer and fasting and charity. In this season of Lent, as we draw ever closer to Jesus’ ultimate act of self-giving love, might these Lenten disciples help us to release some of our selfishness, some of our self-serving motivations, some of our self-aggrandizing actions, and be rewarded with hope and peace and joy and love. Might there be a reward of healing or renewal or restoration of relationship with God, others, and self through these practices. Y’all that’s why we do them. Not to score points with God or look good to anyone else, but because they truly do shape us and make us more like Jesus. 

The night that is commemorated at this table had all of the examples of Jesus that we want to follow. The way he washed his disciples feet before the meal. The way he ungrudgingly ate with the person who was about to betray him. The way he fully submitted to God’s plan even though it was going to be really really hard for him. All of that we remember at this table. And that is why we continue to insist that this is the joyful feast of the people of God, where people of all ages, races, and sexes — people in every type of body — come from the north, south, east, and west and are met by Christ, who is the host at every table. 

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