Living An Inside Out Life

Sunday, August 21, 2022
Pastor Jason Bryan-Wegner

Matthew 6:1-8, 16, 21

When I was in fifth grade I was playing with some friends outside my house when a few girls from my class came by and stopped to talk. I was in that awkward phase when girls were a complete mystery. But something in my pre-adolescent brain told me that I should do something to impress them.

As we were talking, I saw a pencil on the ground and without thinking I picked it up and tried to throw the pencil as far as I could, imagining that it would sail over the house on the other side of the street.

Did I mention that I was all of four and a half feet tall and weighed less than 70 pounds?

Aside from my less than herculean size, the biggest problem was the pencil slipped out of my hand just as I started to throw it and it landed right in the cutest girl’s lip. My hopes of impressing her or anyone else with my feats of strength were dashed in an instant.

There was no reward for trying to show off that day.

But that’s not always the case in our society, right? People get rewarded all the time for their willingness to be bold, to stand out, to make a splash – especially when they do it well. We cram stadiums full of adoring fans at sporting events and concerts. We reward celebrities and internet sensations with our clicks and likes, and feel gratified when others click and like our stuff too. I can’t tell you the number of kids I’ve talked to in the last few years whose dream it is to be a ‘YouTuber’. There’s something inside us that admires those who stick their neck out and do things that we don’t dare do.

Our American version of Christianity has often rewarded those who practice their faith in bold and public ways. Radio, and then TV, and now the Internet make stars of preachers as well as people who are famous for being famous. So, why is Jesus leery of us making big public displays of our faith? If it works for Kim Kardashian, why shouldn’t it work for Jesus?

But Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them”. In Jesus’ view, the splash we make, the clicks we generate, even the impact we have on others because of our faith is only good when our motivation comes not from others, but from the inside out. It’s an upside down, incomplete kind of life that relies and thrives on what others think of us. It doesn’t lead to real and true faith. Motivation matters. Ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once wrote, “Care about what other people think, and you’ll always be their prisoner.”

Jesus’ urging to practice acts of faith “in secret” is a reminder that our lives begin and end in God, not in others. In turning to God first, we’re set free from the prison of impressing people and wondering whether what we’ve done is enough for them. Maybe for some this is easier to escape than others, but our human nature tends to want to keep score in some way or another, whether we win or lose. And let’s face it, keeping up with everyone else’s opinion is most often a losing venture. When we forget to live from the inside out, we can also forget that God is not like people. God doesn’t keep score. Jesus came “so that you may have life and have it abundantly.” There is enough and more for all.

Jesus turns our faith and our lives right side up by teaching us to place our lives first in God’s hands. What we have, who we are, who we are called to be all come from the gracious love of God apart from anything or anyone else. When you are baptized, God makes a claim on you, that God will never let you go, that you will always be forgiven, and that love always wins. Therefore, our acts of faith are first intended to deepen our sense of God’s abundance and love in our lives. In Christ, everything else flows from there.

Jesus saw spiritual practices being used in his day to keep score, rather than unite people in God’s abundance. When faith becomes performance, or is used for some other purpose, like to gain influence or power or popularity its empty. Even if it’s well intentioned. Jesus would call it hypocritical. We know plenty well that this wasn’t just an issue in Jesus’ day.

If you read studies of how religion is perceived in the American public today, one of the glaring accusations is that the church and religious institutions are seen as hypocritical. On the whole, those perceptions aren’t exactly wrong either. I was asked by a young man earlier this week how I could possibly be a Christian with all the messed-up things the church has done to people. Too many things over the centuries, and certainly in recent decades, have been done in the name of religion that have nothing to do with the love of and for God. I think it’s important as the church to be able to confess that and to carefully name when we and our brothers and sisters in Christ are using faith to “store up treasures on earth” in whatever form that takes.

But we also know that’s not the whole story. We’re here today because we see how Jesus makes a difference in our lives, and being part of the Body of Christ matters, not only for us but we hope and pray it makes a positive difference in others’ lives too.  Jesus calls us to reflect on why we practice faith the way we do and ask ourselves how our practices best shed light on the One we worship.

Jesus names prayer, giving, and fasting as examples of ways some had missed the mark of piety. In the best of practices, each of these simple acts of faith strengthens our sense of God’s activity in daily life through prayer, deepens our sense of commitment to compassion as we pray and share with those in need, and encourages a posture of humility and trust in God’s sufficiency as we fast from things that provide a false sense of security.

Jesus’ intended outcomes from these kinds of practices yields treasures like peace, hope, gratitude, mercy, and wholeness. Jesus doesn’t expect us to impress others with our mighty acts of faith. He doesn’t need us to pray with fancy words or expect us to show off how deeply religious we are in public. He calls us to generosity so that our treasure and our heart are aligned with God’s love. He reminds us that fasting is not about suffering but is a practice of relying on God’s sufficiency in our lives. He certainly isn’t interested in us building political or economic kingdoms in his name here on earth. And those that do, he’d level as hypocrites. What Jesus is interested in is our heart. Christ has made us his very own so that our lives reflect the kingdom of heaven that God has already established by giving Jesus to the world, and showing us that the path to real life is through the cross.

Maybe you’ve known this and lived in Christ’s love and abundance for a long time. Maybe this sounds familiar, but it’s been a struggle to make part of your own life. Maybe for some, cutting through the hypocrisy of the church has been a barrier to faith for you at times, or really trusting that God is gracious and loving and doesn’t keep score is hard to wrap your heart and mind around. And for others letting go of impressing others and keeping score feels impossible.

What Jesus invites you to do is start with your inner life, where God already lives within you and then align your outward life with it; starting from the inside out allows us to deepen our trust in God’s goodness, grace, and love for us and for the world. It is a love that frees rather than binds, a love that calls us to embody compassion, generosity and humility toward God and our neighbors. Then, faith practices like prayer and generosity become just a part of who we are and the rhythms of our lives remind us of our deep dependence on God’s gracious providing. The reward for this isn’t a ticket to heaven for being good, that’s already been secured through Jesus’ death on the cross. Rather, the reward is a sense of wholeness in life, and oneness with God, and knowing where our treasure truly rests, so that our hearts rests there also. Amen.

Past Sermons