October 28, 2007

"Playing To The Audience"
Scripture: Matthew 6:1-6
Sermon by Rev. Kathleen Groff
Dundee United Methodist Church

  I still remember the Easter we received our first six inch chocolate bunny to share between the six of us. We were not allowed to eat it right away, but would have to eat breakfast and get ready to go to grandma's house. Only after we came home at night would we be able to dig into that wonderful chocolate bunny. A couple of times that day I would think of that chocolate bunny and anticipate our return home. There would certainly be enough chocolate for everyone to have their fill and possibly there would be some left over for the next day. The first thing we did when we arrived back home was retrieve that bunny from the Easter basket, take it out of the box it was housed in and watch as mom went to get a knife to carve it as equally as she could. We watched the knife break the surface of the wonderful chocolate and anticipating that she would need to push hard on the knife to get through the thick, scrumptious chocolate we watched as the bunny unexpectedly caved in, shattering in smaller pieces than anticipated. We had not expected the bunny to be hollow. We retrieved the smaller pieces and shared them as equally as we could, but with six of us it barely satisfied our craving. We felt somewhat cheated and had to resort to our jellybeans and peeps to satisfy our sweet tooth.

   Jesus sees the hollowness of the "pious" people around him. They look good and pious on the outside, but on the inside they are as hollow as that chocolate bunny. Up to this point in his sermon, Jesus has given his hearers some very tough precepts to follow, precepts that touched on just what it meant to live for God, with the love of God in one's heart. I can just see him remembering what he had experienced as he watched the priests worshipping and praying. He must have seen the display of public prayers and heard the beautifully designed prayers and the very public displays of almsgiving that took place in and near the Temple, all designed with an eye on the human grandstand. These "stage actors" have done what God has asked in almsgiving and praying, but their motivation is what is in question now. Something's wrong says Jesus! The intended recipient of these pious acts is not God, but the people who can give accolades and praise, "Isn't he a great prayer, isn't he very generous, isn't he or she very righteous? Isn't she or he a great pastor, or a wonderful lay person, a real pillar of the church? Jesus does want us to wear our faith on the outside, but for a different reason than some wear their faith.

  All along Jesus has been proclaiming the gospel for one purpose in mind, to direct our attention to God. Jesus doesn't say that outward expressions of faith such as almsgiving and prayer are not important or don't matter. What matters is doing faith acts to and for God alone. Jesus' whole Sermon on the Mount is centered on God. The trouble is even if we cleanse our minds from all thoughts directed to ourselves and how we look to others, we still find corners of our thoughts that immediately begin to filter in and we once again find ourselves focusing back on us, doing things to please us not God. We find ourselves in a bind because even our thinking that we will do something to please God, turns back on ourselves as we know that we will be rewarded from God himself or from those who will see us as good Christians. It is very easy for me to lead worship with an eye on you folks and wondering how you will receive what I do. But Jesus is saying don't even do that. Do what you do for me alone, not for any reaction you might get from this congregation. Don't "perform" for anyone else but God. What God will do with what is offered is up to God. Jesus wants us to be so eager to love and please God that we will do everything we do for His eyes alone.

  How do we do that? When we give money away, simply give it and forget it. Sure we can record our money that we give for income tax, but the best way to give is so that no one else knows, and only God is aware of the giving. Then our motivation comes directly from our heart for God. When we focus on ourselves we become hollow on the inside. But when that hollowness is filled with God and the desire to please God out of our love for God, we become solid Christians. Simply knowing God better as we act, is reward enough.

  Most often we sit here in this sanctuary wondering what we can get out of worship. Will I love the hymns that are sung? I hope we don't sing an unfamiliar hymn. Will I stay awake? Will I get something out of the message or even the scriptures? I sure hope the choir sings an inspirational or moving song. I hope the service isn't too long this morning or the sermon wander here and there without any point. I hope I don't start coughing or the baby doesn't start fussing or crying. What if I drop something or miss a line on the call to worship? What if I have to get up and go to the bathroom or I forget to turn my cell phone off? Folks, we are not here for ourselves. We are here to worship God, to focus on God. Our only questions needs to be, what can I offer God? And it might be as simple as watching the play of light on the stained glass windows and reflecting on its beauty, or singing a song with new insight, seeing a phrase with new meaning. Worship is not a passive activity, simply watching the show on Sunday morning. It is participating in all the ways we can, by attending to where God is leading us to worship and praise. This is the time when we can lose ourselves in God, not have to worry about what others think or how "pious" we appear to others. This is simply a time to respond to God in all the ways that we can, corporately of course, (singing hymns together, doing call to worship with one voice, taking communion as a group). But it is also a time to respond to God individually, and we offer that in times of silence, during prayer, during offering, even during the activities of children during worship times.

  Instead of thinking, I wish that kid would sit still, we could offer thanks to God that the kid is even in worship with their parents or grandparents or marvel that new life emerges constantly. Instead of paying attention to who may be watching as we put our offering in the plate, we can offer a silent prayer, receive this my gift given to you O God. Instead of worrying about how we may sound when we sing those hymns, we might say, this voice I give to you O God, wholeheartedly, and sing unreservedly to God and instead of wishing the person next to us or behind us would not sing, we might just thank God for giving that person the heart to sing to God. And if we happen to get stuck sitting next to or near someone we would rather not sit with, we might just ask God for forgiveness for our arrogance and hostility and let God give us an appreciation for new insights into our dislike. And instead of resenting having to give up our regular seats, we can thank God for the new perspective we gain in a different seat.

  Do you get what I'm trying to express here? While in worship our center of attention is not ourselves, it is God. When we focus solely on God in all that we do in worship, we are more likely to be filled and sent into this world with renewed faith, ready to love God in all our settings. Jesus wants our center of attention to always be on God, no matter what we do. All our actions must come from that center. If we focus more on God and less on ourselves we might not get caught up in the anxieties, fears, doubts, and frustrations that plague us so much these days. The more we think about and center on God, the happier we become and the more it doesn't matter what everybody else thinks. Now that is a radical way to exist. And it's not easy! Our tendency is to get wrapped up in our difficulties and to do things so that we please others. But, in fact, there is only one who needs to be pleased and that is the God who created us for himself.