November 11, 2007

"Fasting and Lasting"
Scripture: Matthew 6:16-24
Sermon by Rev. Kathleen Groff
Dundee United Methodist Church

  In Jesus' time the practice of fasting involved letting the hair go tangled and uncombed, and smearing ashes on the face. It was a public display that told those around you that you were giving up food for God. For many it was a way of advertising how "pious" they were. Everyone would know what was happening. Jesus speaks against this practice as he continues his sermon on the mount. Let's hear those words…(Read Matthew 6:16-24)

  There is a story about identical twins. One was a hope-filled optimist. He always focused on the positive and could find something good about everything he encountered. "Everything is coming up roses!" would be his model words. The other twin was a sad and hopeless pessimist. He though that Murphy, as in Murphy's Law, was an optimist. Everything was viewed negatively. The worried parents of the twin brought them to a psychologist. He suggested to the parents a plan to balance the twins' personalities. "On their next birthday, put them in separate rooms to open their gifts. Give the pessimist the best toys you can afford, and give the optimist a box of manure." The parents followed these instructions and carefully observed the results. When they peeked in on the pessimist, they hear him audibly complaining, "I don't like the color of this computer…I'll bet this calculator will break…I don't like this game…I know someone who's got a bigger toy car than this…" Tiptoeing across the corridor, the parents peeked in and saw their little optimist gleefully throwing the manure up in the air. He was giggling. "You can't fool me! Where there's this much manure, there's gotta be a pony.

  How many of us can look back on our lives and see the pessimist in us? Certainly there were times when we believed the worst would happen, times when we saw only the bad in a particular circumstance. There were also times when we felt that we did not get the reward we deserved or had enough of what we wanted. And for most of us there were dreams that were not fulfilled and whole lot of "what ifs" that peppered our lives. We often look back with regret on the things we did not do. If circumstances had been different perhaps we would be living in an eight bedroom, 9 bathroom mansion. We also think that if we could have just earned a few more dollars or inherited a small fortune, life would have turned out much differently, with far less difficulty and we would be much happier. Some of us have looked forward to life with much hope and optimism especially when we were young and naïve.

  Perhaps those were some of the thoughts plaguing the disciples as they followed Jesus. These men had left their families and any dream of wealth to follow this itinerant preacher and teacher. There must have been moments when they looked back with regret and dreamed of the "what ifs". And now they were listening to some pretty touch, unrealistic sounding things in Jesus' "Sermon". They were in the public eye whether they wanted to be or not. Thought of their own importance must have begun to filter in. Temptations would have started coming their way. Wouldn't it be OK to earn a few more dollars. The disciples were human, subject to the same wants and desire as any other human being. Perhaps the disciples' early enthusiasm was giving way to doubt and some concern. Maybe they were beginning to really like being in the public eye as the crowds kept growing. Perhaps they wanted things to be more organized or more profitable and saw the need to improve their following. But, before they could begin planning and plotting and organizing, Jesus had some things to say.

  Jesus talks about priorities, "Let's get our priorities straight now!" The focus cannot be on the public eye, what they will think or say or do. The focus cannot be on making money or looking pious for others' benefit or our own benefit. It isn't fame or fortune that we are after. Our priorities must focus on God first and foremost. Don't even focus on the future and the rewards of heaven. It's not enough! Our focus must be on God here and now because the rewards of heaven can be experienced here and now. Our relationship with God is the one thing that will last through all our experiences.

  God must be at the heart of who we are and all we do. Last night we watched the movie, "Francis of Assisi. It was the story of a man who gave up all his possessions and the possibility of wealth from his father's trade, and followed the voice of God. He vowed a life of poverty and love. In spite of the ridicule of his father and friends, he chose to follow the voice of God and live a monastic life, building the church. His was a radical departure from what we might call "normal" living. The peaceful life that he found was not void of hardship and adverse circumstances. But his reward was the deep satisfaction he got from his relationship with and closeness to God. St. Francis' life was an extreme that most of us are not called to live, but we are called to live our Christian lives with God at the heart of all we do.

  We have a tendency to focus on our material gains. The desire to make more and show more often dictates how we will act around others. It becomes important to dress nicely, have the latest toys, and put on a good show to demonstrate that we've kind of made it in life. Money begins to dictate how we will behave and we can find ourselves enslaved to its power. Our worries and anxieties can become centered around whether we will have enough. Our focus in life becomes being successful at making money and living a lifestyle that "shows" others how well we have done. But Jesus says, don't think like that! Get your priorities straight! Learn to live in the loving presence of God! That cannot be taken away from you!

  WE can ask ourselves, what draws our attention in life, where do our eyes take us as we walk through life? Are we in control of what we desire or does desire control us. Does our money or our accumulation control us? Perhaps it's time to sort out our priorities. Does God have a high priority in our lives? Do we wake up and think, "Here I am God, thankful to be with You!" or do we wake up and say, what can I do this day that will make me important or get me more of what I want.

  I know that when God is not a priority in my life, I am not happy. All the toys in life, all the good food in life, all the fun things to do, will not make me as happy as when I focus on God. And when those priorities get turned around and material stuff become the focus, God sends a gentle reminder. That reminder came at 3:00 this morning. I had awakened from sleep and as I laid in bed I heard it. At first I couldn't believe I heard it. It was the gentle hooting of an owl, that most mysterious and illusive of birds for me. Not believing I actually heard it, I listened intently and there, outside my window I heard it again. It was in that moment I remembered whose I was and what my focus in life needed to be. And I was grateful.

  What are our priorities in life? We come on Sunday morning to see one another and to fellowship. But I believe most of us also come with a deep desire to experience God on some level. We have taken ourselves away from other priorities and given ourselves the opportunity to experience something of God however that can happen in a service like this. Right now, in this moment, we do not need material things, we do not need to be seen as important, we do not need to show others how pious or faithful we are. Our only focus needs to be on God. How we receive and respond to God is at the heart of this moment. And it is only God that matters, not the person seated in front of us or behind us, not the choir or the organist or event he preacher, but simply how we sit with God this morning. We are in the loving presence of God.