Where Your Focus Is

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Scripture  |  Matthew 6:1-8, 16-24

“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. 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.  But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

“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. 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.

“When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!

“And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

“Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal.  Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.

“Your eye is like a lamp that provides light for your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is filled with light. But when your eye is unhealthy, your whole body is filled with darkness. And if the light you think you have is actually darkness, how deep that darkness is!

“No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money.

* * * * *

I wasn’t here last Sunday – I went to Chicago for my Dad’s birthday – but I heard Trip’s sermon last week was powerful. I read it online, and while it’s not the same as being here, I was blown away. If you weren’t here, either, I really encourage you do get on our website or Facebook page and find it.

The passage Trip preached on and our readings this morning are all part of a section of scripture known as “The Sermon on the Mount.” It’s found in Matthew’s Gospel, chapters 5-7. I encourage you to read it as a whole – it’s packed full of Jesus’ teaching on what it means to be faithful. How do we practice our faith? What does it look like to live well – not by the world’s standards, but as God imagined it could be? How do we live as children of God?

The part Trip preached on last week was on “loving your enemies.” This week’s section takes a different turn. It’s not about dealing with our enemies, but our friends and loved ones and neighbors. You could argue it’s actually about dealing with ourselves, in relationship with the people around us, and in our relationship with God.

On the surface, it’s all about the practice of piety. When you do good deeds, when you pray, when you fast… Notice that Jesus isn’t telling his followers to do these things; he assumes they’re already doing them. These were standard practices of faith in the Jewish world of Jesus’ day. The question wasn’t whether one prayed, or helped the poor, or fasted. The issue was how.

And the simple, straightforward answer is, do it in a way that gives glory to God instead of drawing attention to yourself.

Good advice. No one likes a show-off. And people really don’t like someone who acts all holier-than-thou. That is not going to do you or your relationships any good. Nor is it going to endear people to the Christian faith. So, Jesus says, knock it off. Kind of like my mom used to say when my brothers were having a wrestling match in the living room and a lamp was about to get broken. Just knock it off, OK?

Though I suppose I should state the obvious: Jesus isn’t saying, stop praying, helping people, or doing spiritual disciplines.

Just do them in a way that nothing gets broken.

When I was a kid, my Dad’s family lived a few suburbs away, and we often saw them on holidays and weekends. I remember this one Easter Sunday when Uncle Jack announced to my sister and me that he had found this really cute stuffed bunny to give us, but there was only one of them, and he would give to whichever one of us was the nicest. Well, you can just imagine us falling over ourselves trying to outdo each other in “nice.” Boy, did we turn on the sweetness. Well, it turned out he actually had two and he was just yanking our chains, but I must say it worked.

Can you imagine if God were like that? If Jesus said, “God has just one reward, and it’s going to go to whichever one of you can prove that you’re the most deserving.” As if faith were a competition. As if this were a race, and there’s only one prize. As if the whole goal were to measure ourselves against someone else.

Why do we do that to ourselves?

So maybe it’s not your piety you’re measuring against someone else – maybe your measuring stick isn’t about who’s the most sacrificial, or noble, or righteous. There are lots of ways we take stock of our lives by comparing them to others. The real question is, who are you trying to impress?

This isn’t a photo op. This is your life. Your one, precious, singular life. And the people around you? Your siblings, your family, your classmates, your friends – they’re not the competition. It isn’t a matter of whoever has the most toys wins. This isn’t about who has the most followers on Instagram.

That part about storing up treasures on earth? Those ‘treasures’ aren’t just material things. They’re all the ways we put our egos on the line and try to figure out how we measure up in the world. It might be how successful you are, or how well your children are faring in life. It might be your beauty, or your body. It might be your money, your possessions. Or it might be how happy you are, compared to how you think everyone else in the world is faring.

I was talking about this last night at the wedding reception for Zach and Jenn Smith – someone asked what I was preaching about – and it took all of two seconds for people to start relaying stories of the competition in their families, and who had what role, and who was the smart one, or the successful one, or the popular one, or the leader… And I suppose all that’s unavoidable, to some extent. And most of the time we get over it, we grow out of it, we grow into our own skin.

But boy, it’s easy to get caught up in what other people think, and how they see us, and their approval. It’s easy for that to become our treasure.

I think that’s at least some of what Jesus is getting at here. It’s so much about our own egos.

My Dad told me an interesting story when I was home this last time. He was telling me about the community where he and Mom moved after he retired. It was a new retirement community near Hot Springs Village, Arkansas. He said that he never introduced himself as Dr. Chakoian, he was always Hank. And everyone else did the same. No one talked much about who they were or what they did in their former lives. They didn’t announce that they were the CEO of a certain corporation, or an attorney with a certain firm. People didn’t flash their wealth or status. The unspoken rule was that retirement was the great equalizer, and they were more concerned with what they would do with the precious time they had left.

They just saw themselves differently. They saw life differently. They were looking at things differently, with different eyes. And it gave them so much freedom.

“Your eye is like a lamp that provides light for your body,” Jesus said. Where are you looking? Where are you focused? Is there light, or darkness streaming in?

“No one can serve two masters,” Jesus said. What is the master of your life, Jesus asks. Is it money or status or ego? Be careful whom you serve, he warns. Is that really what you want controlling your life?

The issue in all of these verses is focus. When we pray, when we give, when we fast, who’s the audience? Who are we trying to impress? Why are we trying to impress anyone? We don’t need to concern ourselves with what other people think, and God isn’t handing out prizes for praying. God’s blessing isn’t a limited commodity for us to compete over.

The treasure is found in the actions themselves. When we pray, we draw closer to God, and we quiet the voices in our own heads that keep comparing ourselves to others. When we pray, we start to hear the still, small voice of God, and are bathed in the light of God’s presence and love. When we pray, we shut out the distractions of this world and all its demands and judgments on us. When we pray, we come down to the center, to the core, to the heart of what matters. When we pray, we find ourselves focused on God, and emerge clearer and cleaner and lighter and free.

The reward is hidden in the action themselves. When we give, we let go. We let go of our grip on possessions, the possessions that can possess us. When we give, our hands open up and unclench. When we see someone else’s need as more important than our comfort, we become less self-focused, less self-absorbed. When we focus less on ourselves, we can see others with compassion, and kindness, and respect. We begin to see with the eyes of God – and we see ourselves with God’s eyes, too.

The treasure is right there in front of us. But it will never be found by measuring ourselves against each other. The moment we take out that yardstick, it disappears. The praise of the world is ephemeral, a mirage. It will only feed our egos, until someone else wins the next round.

God offers us so much more. Serving God gives us life. And our eyes start to open, drinking everything in – all the beauty and light and the loveliness and joy. It’s all there, all right there…

Maybe you can just start to see it?