who knows why the Way matters

It’s another patchwork sermon—
bits and pieces that actually seemed to go better together
yesterday than this morning!
I mention this, because some of the pieces are prayers,
and when I say, “And the people said,”
you’re invited to say, “Amen.”

So this morning, I’d like to point out
three things commonly taken for granted—
three basic assumptions.

The first has to do with
essay or paragraph structure:
which consists of a thesis statement,
followed by three examples,
and a conclusion.
Now I’m not saying that’s the only
or the best way to do it—
I’m not defending it.
I’m just saying this is a commonly taken for granted presupposition.

In preaching,
I’ve heard it paraphrased as
“Tell them what you’re going to tell them,
tell them,
and then tell them what you told them.”
Sounds boring, doesn’t it?!—
not to mention somewhat arrogant on the one hand
and dismissive on the other.
But again, not defending,
just pointing out.

The second basic assumption of the morning
has to do with a theory of child raising—
of parenting—
with regards to rules and obedience,
in which a family makes explicit clear rules and expectations—
as well as clear consequences
when rules are broken and expectations not met.

Now I remember trying to think through
what this might do to the independence of a child—
the spirit.
As best I can tell, let me tell you, absolutely nothing!
We’re not the best with the consequences—
we’re always forgetting what we said they’d be,
but we do have some fairly clear expectations and rules.
And we have debaters in our family,
who greet the introduction of most rules with a “Why?”—
the demand for a rationale,
and “Because I said so” rarely goes over well.

I remain mindful though,
of what our WEE school director Dawn Baker
says most every year, “If you’re in the parking lot
with a running child who doesn’t see the car backing up,
you want her to stop when you tell her to!”

As adults, we’re supposed to know better,
and maybe we can explain why we do, and maybe we can’t,
and maybe we’re even wrong, but we’re the parents!
“And when you’re a parent,” we say,
“you can give your kids grounds for future therapy.”

And the theory I’ve always fallen back on,
is that rules and consequences are initially imposed
as part of a safe process
to develop more of an internal motivation—
the movement from I have to do this—
I have to be this way,
to I want to be this way—
I choose to be this way.

At least that’s what I fell back on
until I started thinking through this sermon,
and now I don’t think that’s true anymore.
It’s just a bit too neat.
There’s always going to be external motivation.
Specifically, there are always going to be
the people who matter to us most, right?
The ones whose approval we value.

So as important as the rules,
so too the community.
That’s why youth group can be so important—
and church.

Finally, the morning’s third basic assumption:
to go along with our paragraph structure
and our newly debunked (at least for me) theory of parenting,
there’s the priority of the individual in our culture.
So obvious, right?
I mean that’s what undergirds
the whole internal motivation thing too, doesn’t it?
The premise that it all boils down to what I, as an individual,
choose, want.

That’s a cultural attitude we trace back to the frontier days
when the early settlers of our country arrived by boat
and had to make a place and a way for themselves.
And they were absolutely dependent on themselves—
their wits, their initiative, their guns, their family.
That’s part of our history—
history being the key word.
To my mind the idea has outlasted
the context that generated it,
but there you have it.

Our God,
we have no idea how paragraph structure,
parenting and individualism relate to our Scripture.
bring clarity please, to the obtuse.
And the people said,

Hey! A little too much enthusiasm there!

Last week, our text was tied together
as a list. Y’all remember, right?
This week, it’s also tied together—
in a commentary on motivation—
beginning with a thesis statement (gasp!):
“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.”

A thesis statement followed, imagine, by three examples.
Three examples from a life of righteousness:
almsgiving—or giving to the poor, prayer, and fasting—
three spiritual disciplines integral to Judaism
claimed here by the early church.
Don’t do these for show—for the approval of others,
but because they matter to you—as an individual, right?

Each of our three examples
contrasts the discipline as practiced by hypocrites—
and that was, we should clarify,
a word heard in the days of the early church,
without the negative connotations of today,
meaning simply a stage actor—
that is, someone playing a part—
wearing a mask.
So each example contrasts a spiritual discipline
practiced with an audience in mind—an audience of peers—
religion for show
(we don’t know anything about that in our culture, do we?!)
with the discipline practiced with the audience of God in mind.
So, not really, that there’s ever no audience … right?
More that you pick the right audience.

Example number one: giving to the poor.
and the hypocrites blow a trumpet to announce their gifts.
I announce my charitable giving with a fanfare
never thinking I thus indicate that
how my fans fare is the honest assessment of my faith.
Not sure how a facebook post comes in on this,
but I’m aware of how such posts represent a call to attention.

It was PT Barnum,
you know, founder of what would become
Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus—
who himself surely understood a little something
about putting on a show,

named by LIFE magazine
the patron saint of promoters,
’twas he who said, “Nobody ever lost a dollar
underestimating the taste of the American public.”

Is it the public for whom you live?
Is public taste the reward you choose
for the life you live? Truly?

For the inunderestimatable taste of the public
(the perspective that cannot be underestimated—
you cannot sink so low as to sink below it!)
is nonetheless what determines what music is in,
what movies, what fashion,
what politicians and preachers, what expressions—
oh, and what expressions of faith.

But what you want is what you get.

Want more.

For to live on the very surface of truth
(the off-and-on awareness and interest of others),
as opposed to within the depths of relationships
(with the very spirit of God ever hovering over them
waiting to speak words of wonder and mystery—
of call and creation)—
to live on the very surface of truth
(can you even get any more shallow—any more superficial?)
is to choose,
the lesser life.

So many do.

Don’t run in the parking lot!
Don’t settle for shallow and superficial!

In a world of shallow,
take me into the deep,
and make of my life
so much more than the world ever could or would.
And the people said,

Example number two: prayer.
And there’s “Go into all the world
and proclaim the good news
to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15).
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel” (Romans 1:16).
And there’s “proclaim the message;
be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable;
convince, rebuke, and encourage …” (2 Timothy 4:2).

So be a witness.
Don’t be ashamed of your faith or your God.
Stand up, stand up for Jesus.
Live out your love of God.
Was it St. Francis who said,
“Preach at all times, if necessary, use words”?

And then,
“Pray in secret.”


There’s a difference, isn’t there,
between what you do because it’s who you are,
and what you do so others will think it’s who you are,
and be impressed?
Not always easy to tell that difference.
We can fool even ourselves.
But such an important difference to know
And praying helps us know it.

And just who is it I imagine impressed by this anyway?
Because if the answer’s anyone,
I need to spend more time in prayer!
Because it’s not that God and I are separate,
and it’s my job to impress God.
It’s that we’re together
seeking transformation.

help me know:
why I am
who and how I am,
what difference that makes in and to my world,
and who and how you would have me be.
And the people said,

Then, inserted into this section on prayer,
is a version of what we call the Lord’s Prayer.
And let’s be honest, the Lord’s Prayer
is deserving of much attention, in and of itself.
But today, I only want to point out,
in the way of individual, personal prayer,
what does this model prayer offer?
It starts with a God focus—hallowed be God’s name,
God’s will be done, God’s kingdom come.
And when it gets to us, the petitions are still
that God would provide daily bread—
just enough food to get by,
that God would forgive us (even as we forgive others),
and protect us from trial and evil.
That’s it. Nothing about success, comfort, ease.
And the people said,


Then there’s example number three: the fasting.
And this one was particularly interesting to me this week
as the hypocrites (the masked ones)
are the ones described as putting on a mask of discomfort.
Now remember, they are discomforted.
That’s the point!
They have deprived themselves.
But those who don’t look deprived
are the ones not wearing a mask!
They know their joy.

You know the expression
to toot your own horn?
It’s all about touting yourself.

And we all know self-promotion is integral
to our get-ahead culture,
characteristic of the go-getter,
promoted to an art form
already in elementary and middle school,
the competitive nature of sports and academics,
politics and religion,
and, scarily, in our culture
accepted as a common strategy in relationships,
prevalent in (indeed constitutive of) social media.

Do I really need to point out a toot
is also the expulsion of air
not through the mouth?

Scripture affirms you should not seek the attention—
the validation of others,
when doing God’s work.

Integral to a life of piety—
consistently choosing your story to unfold with God,
(who always chooses you to unfold within God’s story)—
is not the call to try and stand out by tooting your own horn,
but to be a part of God’s symphonic poem of creation.

May I know the deep deep joy
of being a part of Your work
and a corresponding independence
from the constant need
for the attention and admiration of others.
And the people said,

So, thesis.
Three examples
on maturing in the faith,
but not in some movement from an imposed devotion
to an internally individual one—
nor about some kind of an individual practice of faith
over and against a corporate or public one—
not about some kind of watchdog God
who sees everything and evaluates it,
but rather about an integrity of faith
that doesn’t turn faith into the means to some other ends,
but is both means and end.
So much more about what our spiritual practices reveal of our faith.

Will they restate the thesis in affirmation
that our faith is not for show? It’s not an act?
Or undermine it in denial?
That’s the question, and that’s the brilliance
and honesty of Scripture that knows its fulfillment
lies beyond itself in the living of those who seek to follow.

Because what we’re missing in our Scripture,
did you notice?
is the conclusion.
We have our thesis, our three illustrative examples.
No conclusion.
But of course, that’s us, isn’t it?

Just like parenting!
Which is always very much a thesis followed by examples
without a conclusion!—
or, rather, a conclusion, left up in the air—
or, rather, left in the hands of another.
We won’t know … will we?
until they live into the fullness of their living.

I have a dear friend.
We’ve reconnected on facebook, actually.
She’s a dancer.
Works at a dance company in Austin, TX.
And yes, she loves to perform,
but it’s not that she needs an audience to dance.
Dancing is not just something she does, you see,
it’s who she is.
The grace and beauty and joy inside her—
the struggle and the tension,
the changing and the growing—all in her—
physically expressed in movement to music.
Her dancing could not be more her—
her individuality, her person,
her giftedness, her work, her passion.

But it’s also all the dance lessons she’s ever had
stretching back to the ones
her parents arranged for her long ago.
It’s her education. It’s her job.
And so it’s family and friends—
a community that has encouraged her
and continues to—
that facilitates her dancing—
that celebrates her dancing.

She couldn’t be the dancer she is
without her own commitment—
her own hard work—
none of which can be or should be minimized at all.

But she couldn’t be the dancer she is without others, as well.

And I pray there are always those—
who look for, expect, and anticipate
not just her expressions of the dancing of her spirit,
but the dancing of her soul as well—

that the fullness of her dancing
might fulfill the image in which she was created.

may our communities
support and encourage the whole of who we are—
ever accepting us as we are,
while at the same time, all the while,
challenging us to be more.
And the people said,

In an interview, Yann Martel, the author of the book Life of Pi,
on which the movie Life of Pi was based,
said the book could be summed up in three affirmations:
1. life is a story;
2. you can choose your story;
3. a story with God is the better story.

Isn’t that wonderful?

And as true as that may be for Life of Pi,
that’s true for a life of piety too,
which is simply, consistently,
always choosing the better story—
the story with God.

Certainly a whole lot of people,
choose a story without God.

Maybe because they ask themselves the question
who’s watching the story of me
rather than who’s living it with me.
Maybe because they care more about people responding to their living,
than participating in it.

How do I enjoy the gifts of social media
without making of my life
a series of posted status reports?
How do I “like” my living
without constantly checking
how many “likes” my latest post got?

Maybe by liking most God-with-us—
the best story.

help me to choose,
as You do,
life together.
And the people said,


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