Who's Your Audience - Colossians 3:23-24, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
It is that time of year, as Major League Baseball enters its postseason playoffs next weekend, preparing for the World Series. I am going to have to admit. I am not a baseball fan. In fact, the only time I watch baseball is if I have a child playing baseball or I am with a group that is going to a baseball game…and that is for the purpose of socializing with those folks…not watching the game.
When I was a kid I played baseball for three years. I even remember that the team I played for was called the Yankees (back then our teams were named after professional teams, not a team sponsor). I remember playing, not because I loved baseball, but because my friends played baseball and my dad wanted me to play baseball…and we all know that young boys do all they can to impress and please their fathers, if at all possible. I wish I could say I was a star athlete, but that has never been a claim of mine. If I made it to first base, 99% of the time it was because I was walked. Our team won the championship one year, I have a championship trophy somewhere at my parents’ house to prove it. The irony of that trophy is that I did very little to earn it. Out of those three years of playing, the second year, the year we won the championship, I had pneumonia for most of the season. I sat on the bench almost the whole season…I often wondered, and joked about it out loud, if the reason that we won the championship that year was because I didn’t take the field.
Things have changed, though, in the Little League world of baseball. When I played, the only teams that received trophies were the regular season champions and the tournament champions. Those kids that played on other teams did not receive trophies. In today’s world of kids’ sports, if you are on a team, it does not matter how that team does, you get a trophy. I have watched this time and time again…come the end of the season, regardless of whether the team finished on the top or finished dead last without a win to their name, every child gets a trophy…it just matters how much money the coach and/or the sponsors want to put into that trophy. In fact, Davey’s largest baseball trophy comes from playing on a team that stayed in constant battle with another team, not for first place, but for last place—Kind of like Cleveland and Minnesota this year. All of it is done in the name of self-esteem to help the kids feel better about themselves. However, what it amounts to is a complete devaluation of the trophy—you walk into a child’s room and see a shelf full of trophies, it means absolutely nothing other than the fact that at some point that kid was on one or more teams—it says nothing about their skill or their team’s success.
Why do we do this? It is because everyone in the world wants to receive praise. We want to feel honored and cherished. We want to be respected by others. We want recognition. We want to stand out. We want others to appreciate us. This desire does not even stop when we grow into adults. We get bent out of shape if someone else gets credit at work for something we did or we are part of an organization, and others get recognized and we don’t. We pride ourselves on awards and certificates that we get for the things we do. Sadly, this attitude of wanting the praise and recognition of those around us doesn’t stop with the world outside these doors, there are too many times where we as Christians get upset when we feel like we have missed out on being recognized when others are.
I am guilty of this. About seven years ago, the North Carolina Conference decided it was going to recognize several “Acts 2 Congregations” in each district at Annual Conference. Churches were encouraged to submit applications that described their ministry, focusing in on Passionate Worship, Radical Hospitality, Intentional Spiritual Formation, and Risk-Taking Mission and Ministry to the World. I felt like we were doing all of those things here at St. Paul’s and filled out the form, put together the supporting evidence, and turned in the application. Several months later at Annual Conference, they shared the churches that the Bishop and his team had selected as “Acts 2 Congregations,” and because they often do things alphabetically, they began with the Burlington District. As they read out the names of the churches being recognized and showing them on the screen, I prepared to hear and see the name of St. Paul’s. The next thing I knew they began naming the churches of the Durham District that were being recognized, and St. Paul’s had not been called. I began getting upset, but decided to wait it out…there are several St. Paul’s congregations within our Conference, maybe our church had gotten accidently put in another district. Finally, after the churches of the Wilmington District had been named, I gave up and was furious. Why had we been left out…what were these other churches doing that we had not done…what was the conference’s problem? I even went and questioned someone from the district committee about why we weren’t recognized and the other churches that seemed to be doing less were. I determined right then I would not waste my time filling out another one of those Acts 2 recognition forms. I still believe that was the right decision, but I now acknowledge that I made that decision for all the wrong reasons.
It is commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus had called the first of the disciples and began his ministry. People began following him to hear what wisdom he would share. Matthew 5 tells us that he went up the mountain and sat down to teach, with those who would be his disciples, his followers, surrounding him. He began his teaching by addressing the fact that those who seek after God will see their status changed…that what is usually considered weakness in the eyes of the world, will be honored by God. He then reminded those listening that as people of God, they (and we) are called to be the salt and light of the world—that which preserves, gives flavor, and brightens that which it touches. Then Jesus began to address several of the laws that many folks questioned, dealing with the issue of murder, adultery, divorce, oath-making, and revenge. What we learn as we read through those is that everyone who says that the Old Testament laws are not relevant after Jesus are wrong…for Jesus does not do away with the Law, but actually tightens the laws up, suggesting that it is not only by our actions that we will be judged, but by what is within our hearts. For instance, Jesus took “You shall not murder,” and said that “if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”[i] He took, “You shall not commit adultery,” and said, “that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”[ii]
For Jesus, the way we conduct our lives is not simply about what folks see us do, but what lies within our hearts. Later on some of the religious leaders criticize Jesus and his disciples for the fact that the disciples for not washing their hands before they eat. Now remember, the religious leaders were not being like your momma trying to get you to wash the dirt and bacteria of your hands before coming to the table, they were concerned with the hand washing ritual that was part of the custom of the time…it was purely for ceremonial reasons, not sanitary reasons. Jesus confronts the religious leaders and quotes the judgment of the prophet Isaiah on them: “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me….’”[iii] Jesus stressed the importance of our actions reflecting our hearts…and that includes why we do the things we do. In fact, for Jesus it was not just about the line between our heart and what are normally consider sins, but also where our hearts and actions lie with regard to the good things we do.
Brother Michael shared those words with us earlier:
“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.”[iv]
“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.”[v]
“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.”[vi]
For Jesus, even when we are doing the good things…giving, praying, fasting, and the sort…just doing them does not put us right with God. Jesus declares that our intended audience, the reason in our heart that we are doing them, makes all the difference.
That same message comes to each one of us. When we are doing the things we do, who are we doing them for? Who are we trying to impress? Who are we seeking recognition from?
I was wrong to get upset with the Conference for not recognizing St. Paul’s as an Acts 2 congregation…some might even suggest that turning in the application to be recognized might have been wrong. The ministry that we do is not being done so that we can receive praise or approval from the Conference, from the Bishop, from the District Superintendent, from the community, or from anyone else. We do not need their praise. We do not need them to boost our self-esteem. We are not supposed to be doing any of what we do in order to be seen by them. If they notice and the world notices, fine. If they or the world wants to give us props for what we do, fine. However, it can’t be the reason for doing it and we can’t upset if they don’t.
We are supposed to be doing ministry for our Father, nor our earthly dad, but our Heavenly Father. We are supposed to be in ministry to the world because we are seeking to love and serve God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. We are supposed to be doing these things because we understand that what we do for the least of these is what we are doing for and to Jesus. Paul gets it right when he tells the folks in Colossae that even as the servants do their day to day work that “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that form the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ.”[vii]
If we, as the church or as individuals, are serving God and having God as the sole audience member that we are concerned about, that is what matters. If we are feeding the hungry, if we are giving to missions, if we are leading a project, if we are helping with an event at the church, if we walking the CROP Walk, if we are supporting missionaries, if we are serving as teachers, if we are preparing a meal, if we are doing anything at the church, it should all be to glorify and please God. If that is the case, then it does not matter if we get an “atta boy,” it does not matter if a list of churches are recognized and we are not on it, it does not matter if names of team members are listed and ours is left off, it does not matter if we get a certificate of appreciation or recognition, it does not matter if we get a trophy, it simply matters whether we have given our best in service to God…whether we have focused our hearts and our efforts in seeking to please Him.
My brothers and sisters, let us long not for the praise of those around us that will fade into silence just as quick as it is spoken, let us long not for a piece of paper that can burn in an instant or a trophy that will rust and corrode…instead let us serve God with all our hearts and simply long to hear the words that when spoken do not fade and are eternal…may all our efforts be to hear, “‘Well done, good and faithful servant…Enter into the joy of your lord.’”[viii]
Om the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.