Jeremiah 17:5-8; Matthew 6:1-18
A week ago Friday I attended a memorial service held in St. Paul for John Norton, a man 62 years of age who died very unexpectedly of a massive heart attack he had while running, one of his favorite activities. I befriended John when he came to St. Cloud as a community organizer twenty years ago, the same year that Carla and I moved here and started attending this church. It was the vision, faith and leadership of John Norton that brought our church together with a dozen other congregations to form the organization that became known as GRIP – the Great River Interfaith Partnership. A graduate of St. John’s University, from 1986 John traveled across our state and our nation living out his life mission. John felt called by God to recruit and train people of diverse faiths and races who together built organizations like GRIP which provide a powerful public voice for justice and equal opportunity for all.
The memorial service gave witness to the tremendous impact of John’s public life – he trained literally thousands of people to make a significant difference in their communities. What I always will remember about John was his utter belief that each of us is called and gifted by God to help transform this world. When I was with John, I felt that he believed in me even more than I believed in myself. John was incredibly effective at helping people identify their passions and step into the life which fulfilled God’s purposes for them.
Attending his memorial service helped me discover a side of John I had not known so well before. While John was well-known for his life of public service, it was made clear by those who shared reflections on his life, just how important it was to John to have regular time alone with God and with his family and closest friends. I learned that John’s favorite place was the family cabin up in the woods of northern Minnesota. It was there that John found the private space he needed for solitude and reflection. He used this space to deepen his connection with God and to find new strength and perspective to return to his work in the wider world.
We see a similar pattern in the life of Jesus. He practiced, taught and modeled for his followers, the important balance of public ministry and taking time for personal spiritual nurture. Jesus wanted his disciples to extend God’s love to a wider and wider circle of people across their world. That was the mission Jesus called them to share. But Jesus knew for himself and for those who followed him the important principle that if we are to go wider out into the world, we must also go deeper into the private world of the spirit.
The need to go deeper is what is behind the teaching of Jesus in our gospel lesson today. Jesus warns his followers not to be like those whose religious practices are done simply to be noticed and praised by others. Over and over Jesus tells his followers that they will lose their reward if they only put on a show and fail to go deeper and practice seeking God behind closed doors. What is the reward Jesus does not want us to miss out on?
Jesus wanted his disciples, and he wants us today who follow him, to have lives that are fruitful – lives that significantly impact the lives of others and help transform our communities. Jesus knew that simply appearing religious, having a superficial spirituality, would not be enough for his followers to accomplish this mission. That is true for us today as well. As Brian McClaren puts it in his book We Make the Road by Walking, “Instead of seeking to appear more holy or spiritual in public, Jesus urges us to become more holy or spiritual in private…” Jesus knew that it would take a deep, inner spiritual strength for his disciples to change not only themselves, but to be the change the world so desperately needed.
Jesus also knew that simply appearing religious but not authentically and actively loving all our neighbors would appear hypocritical to others and would not lead them into the love of God. Such hypocrisy may be the biggest obstacle that prevents people from entering the doors of churches and experiencing for themselves the love of God. According to one recent survey which asked, “How do 16-29 year-olds think of Christians?” over 85% of young people responded with the word “hypocritical.”
So how might we avoid hypocrisy and have lives that make the kind of difference Jesus calls us to make? One option is to follow the tradition of many Christian churches which invite their members during the season of Lent to more intentionally and regularly engage in three spiritual practices: prayer, fasting and giving. These are the same practices about which Jesus gives instruction in our gospel lesson today. Practicing these three spiritual disciplines during Lent is a good tradition. But I believe that going deeper with God is not limited by Jesus to these three practices or to the 40 days of Lent.
Recently at a retreat with my co-workers of the counseling center where I work part-time we each shared our answer to the question, “how do you find spiritual nurture, times to be renewed in your relationship with God?” Each answer was a little bit different and included activities like daily prayer, reading, meditation, finding God’s presence in nature, attending worship, being in small study and spiritual support groups, listening to inspirational music, going on walks along the river, taking personal spiritual retreats, and having sessions with a spiritual director. Each of us found spiritual nurture in ways that fit who we are – not that followed a prescribed set of rules or recipe for spiritual growth. One creative practice I also recently heard about was fasting from the internet one day a week as an act of spiritual discipline.
Finding creative and personally meaningful spiritual practices is what matters. The intent of Jesus’ teaching is not to make spiritual practices into laws to control our lives or into behaviors that show off our faith in public. As McLaren puts it, “The world won’t change unless we change, and we won’t change unless we pull away from the world’s games and pressures. In secrecy, in solitude, in God’s presence, a new aliveness can, like a seed, begin to take root. And if that life takes root in us, we can be sure that it will bear fruit through us… fruit that can change the world.”
This image of taking root, of going deeper in order to be fruitful is how the prophet Jeremiah describes the life of faith. As we read in Jeremiah 17: “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord…They will be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It will not fear when heat comes, and its leaves will stay green…it does not cease to bear fruit.” I recently read in one of my devotional books that there is a place in India where people have developed a unique way to get across the many rivers and streams in their land. They grow bridges from the roots of rubber trees. These living bridges take between 10-15 years to mature, but once they are established, they are extremely stable and last for hundreds of years.
Like a firmly rooted tree, when we grow deeper in our connection with God, we become more stable and better able to help bridge others to God’s love. It is only natural that as we go deeper into God’s love and grace through regular spiritual practices that we grow wider in our love of others, our ability to give and to forgive.
I have seen this illustrated in the life and faith of a good family friend whose name is Hila. Some of you may remember that Carla and I requested prayers for Hila this past year when we learned that she and two of her family members had been in a tragic car accident. Hila’s cousin, who was sitting next to her, died, and her sister, along with Hila, sustained serious injuries. Now, after several surgeries and many months of physical therapy, Hila is up and walking with a special shoe but remains in constant pain. In a letter we received from Hila a few weeks ago, she shared (and I share with permission) how she has come to a place of forgiveness toward the young man whose reckless driving caused the accident. In an impact statement for the young man’s trial, Hila told him of her family’s grief, and of her many injuries and of the resulting separation from her family for four months while in the hospital and rehab. She also told him that she wanted the best for him and that she hoped that was forgiveness.
This ability to forgive is not a natural human instinct. For Hila, it is connected to her trust in and love for God, a trust and a love that has been deepened over the years through the habit of regular spiritual practices such as prayer and Scripture reading and spiritual journaling. One of the reasons I know this is that this past Advent season I found deep spiritual meaning in reading each day the Advent journal that Hila created during her months in rehabilitation. It is because of her own life of prayer and spiritual devotion that Hila is able to seek not revenge but the best for the one who so suddenly and painfully impacted her life and the lives of her family members.
Jesus taught us to pray and gave us a model prayer which included the profound and powerful truth that experiencing God’s forgiveness is connected to our forgiving others. This is a clear example of how when we go deeper into God’s love and grace we also go wider with our love toward others.
This is the mission which we are called to today as followers of Jesus. Going deeper with God in order to go wider out into the world. Today in our worship we celebrate this mission we have to make a difference in the world as individuals and together as a church. As we celebrate this mission, we do so with the humble recognition that the difference we make in the world is empowered by the difference God is making in our lives. So may God’s Spirit motivate us to go deeper with God in our lives so that we are equipped to go wider with God’s love out into the world. Amen!