"The Grace of the Humdrum" – Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Beware of practicing your piety 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.
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as 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.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
As I was scooping out the food for my dog the other day, I thought to myself, “How many times have I done this? How many times have I reached in, scooped out a cup of kibble and fed my dog?”
It wasn’t the most profound thought to come to mind lately; well, maybe it was, but regardless…
It wasn’t actually a question I intended to answer (although I did the math and I figure the answer is around 3,500 times). Rather, it was actually more of a statement recognizing just how ordinary and routine that particular task had become. Scooping out a cup of dog food for my dog had become a part of my life.
Perhaps that seemingly-random thought was sparked by the news that several of our friends have had to put their dogs down recently. We hear about friends whose dogs are the same age as ours and in failing health and suddenly we look at our (for all we can tell) perfectly healthy dog and say things like, “Does her breathing seem labored to you?” and “She looks older” and “I wonder how much time she has left.”
Once we start to imagine a concluding event such as a milestone or a death, we start to pay attention to the ordinary and routine tasks relating to the thing that will soon end.
For example, on a Sunday last January, literally minutes after I received the news that I had been called to serve at Cross of Grace, I walked into the sanctuary at my congregation to lead worship, preach, and distribute the elements of communion. As each person came forward to receive the bread I told them, “The body of Christ, given for you.” At this point I remember thinking, “How many times have I said these words to these people in my time as their pastor?”
As with the dog food revelation, it wasn’t a question seeking an answer; rather, it was a statement recognizing just how ordinary and routine that particular task had become. Placing bread in the hands of people whom I had grown to love and saying “The body of Christ, given for you” had become a part of my life; and that particular part of my life was coming to a close.
During those remaining Sundays with my congregation I paid more attention each time I placed the bread in their hands and said, “The body of Christ, given for you.” Perhaps the congregation paid more attention also.
Our lives are filled with ordinary and routine tasks, some we’ve done hundreds or thousands of times; for example: putting on shoes, vacuuming the floors, changing diapers, driving the same route to work every day, turning on the computer, family pizza dinners on Fridays, and singing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” on Reformation Sunday.
Could it possibly be true that these ordinary and routine tasks that infuse our lives (particularly those tasks done for others) are the key to our spiritual well-being?
Today’s gospel, a portion of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” references Jesus’ teaching about the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and money. Interestingly, the way Jesus talks about these disciplines, he makes them seem ordinary and routine – as ordinary and routine as feeding the dog, putting on shoes, or driving the same way to work each day.
Concerning prayer – Avoid provocative public demonstrations of prayer and grandiose language. Instead, go into your room, pray in secret, and use the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven…”
Concerning fasting – Do it in such a way that people can’t tell you’re fasting. Don’t change your routine or draw attention to yourself.
Concerning money – Take care not to insulate your life with things that can be bought/sold, stolen, or ruined by the elements. Rather, live within your means, be generous, and be content.
These three straightforward instructions stand in stark contrast to the messages that we are bombarded with day after day:
- that we need to stand out from the crowd,
- that we need to strive to prove ourselves over against others,
- that we need to accumulate more for ourselves.
Our culture despises uniformity, ordinariness, and routine. We face unyielding pressure to strive to be better people than we are today, as though we are only valuable to society if we:
- fit into a smaller dress,
- buy the right products,
- get into the best school,
- win the championship,
- move into the nicer neighborhood,
- earn that promotion
None of these things are necessarily “bad.” There’s little wrong with making healthy choices that end up changing our figure; just as there’s little wrong with working hard to earn or accomplish things or create new possibilities. But we must remember that our accomplishments in no way creates or diminishes our worth as citizens, human beings, and children of God.
God has declared our worth despite our complete unworthiness and inability to rely on God’s grace.
God loves us despite our desire and damaging attempts to stand out from the crowd, prove ourselves, and hoard wealth for ourselves. We’re sinners, through and through. But that doesn't stop God from loving us; nor does it stop God from being God for us.
Practicing the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and contentment will not make us better people, will not prove our worth to others or God, nor make us wealthy. The spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and money are not a means to an end. Rather, they are intended to be daily practices that become a natural part of our lives – little holy moments to be appreciated and shared with all whom we come in contact.
The proverbial question goes, “How much more do you need in order to be satisfied?” The answer is always, “Just a little bit more.”
During this season of Lent, Jesus invites us to practice the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and contentment so that we can begin to recognize that the source of our happiness does not lie beyond the next obstacle, but rather exists here and now in the presence of Christ revealed to us through the ordinary and the routine.
Perhaps the ashes smeared on your foreheads and your mortality on your mind could help you pay attention to the things that truly do matter: embracing the holiness of ordinariness, seeking justice for more than just yourself, and coming to truly believe that God loves you just as you are.
And one day, as you close the door to pray or reach into our pockets to give something away, you will stop and say, “How many times have I done this?” And you will recognize that those spiritual disciplines have become ordinary and routine; and as much a part of your life as much as putting on your shoes or feeding the dog.