STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH AUGUST 30, 2020
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
WORSHIPPING AT HOME TOGETHER
Call to Worship: Isaiah 40: 9 – 11
Climb a high mountain,
Raise your voice. Make it good and loud:
Tell the cities of Judah,
“Look! Your God!”
Look at him! God, the Master, comes in power,
ready to go into action.
He is going to pay back his enemies
and reward those who have loved him.
Like a shepherd, he will care for his flock,
gathering the lambs in his arms.
Prayer of Adoration and Confession
God of Righteousness, you are true, faithful, and just in all your dealings. You are present in our world and your Spirit is active, changing sinful hearts and the corrupt, oppressive systems they produce. Although we don’t like to think about it and want to pretend otherwise, you are our judge. We know that your wrath can burn hot against us. We worry you will withdraw your presence from our lives and our world to go where you are wanted. We’re fearful you will judge us harshly, knowing the depths of our beings. Because of your great power, we are filled with awe. We also know you look on us with grace. You know we are dust – soiling what we land on and easily scattered by the slightest wind. You know that even our best efforts fall short of your perfection. Yet, in Christ, you love us, save us and even reward us for our service. We praise you for extending your mercy to us.
We confess that sometimes we display our faith out of vanity, and sometimes we hide our faith in fear.
We desire glory and attention for ourselves, rather than you.
Sometimes we use the things that belong to you – worship, service, teaching, praying, singing – not to give glory to you but to feed our own needy egos. We rob you of the admiration that rightfully belongs to you.
We defy your purpose for us by denying you the glory you are due. In doing so, we’re saying we know better than you, that we are “gods”.
We are ashamed of these things and sorry for doing them. We beg your forgiveness.
As we worship today, each of us in our own small corner, help us to do so purely out of love for you. May we lift our hearts in praise and awe, not because a reward may await us, but because of your generous grace, shown to us in Jesus, our Lord and Saviour. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon: Revelation 22: 12 – 15
And he (Jesus) said, “Yes, I’m on my way! I’ll be there soon! I’m bringing my payroll with me. I’ll pay all people in full for their life’s work. I’m A to Z, the First and the Final, Beginning and Conclusion. “How blessed are those who wash their robes! The Tree of Life is theirs for good, and they’ll walk through the gates to the City.
Prayer for Illumination:
Lord Jesus, as we hear your word today, strengthen us and make us holy so we will not trade off your eternal blessings for a fleeting moment of fame and the approval of other people. Amen.
“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”. Matthew 6:1 NRSV
“Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding.” The Message
Psalm 115; Hebrews 10: 32 – 39; Matthew 25: 14 – 30
A man who had lived an exemplary life was waiting at the gates of heaven. He had foregone all the earthly pleasures in the hope of increasing his heavenly rewards. As he was waiting, a cloud passed by. On it were people having a fantastic time. They were singing, dancing, and having fun. They were dining on exquisite food, wearing the best clothes, and drinking the finest wines. Laughter and merriment echoed throughout the sky. This must be my reward, the man thought. Soon, St. Peter came to greet him. Peter asked the man to follow him to his new abode. The man said, “If it’s all the same to you, I’d like to live on that cloud!” Peter said that wasn’t a good idea – greater things awaited. The man persisted, so Peter explained that while they always allowed people to choose, he was certain the man would be happier with the original option. The man replied, “I have forgone all earthly pleasures to get my reward here. I choose to live on that cloud.” Peter sighed and granted his wish. In an instant, the man was standing in the hottest, smelliest, and most disgusting place he’d ever seen. There was mind-boggling chaos, blood curdling noises and gruesome images. He was in hell. The man grabbed the first demonic creature he saw and said, “There must be some mistake. The place I requested was a nice cloud with people singing, dancing, and having a fabulous time!” The demon laughed, “Ah yes, our amazing advertising department. They can make the worst punishment look like a reward.”
Although it’s cute, there’s some faulty theology in that story. First, we’re saved by grace and not by works. Secondly, while we’re given a choice of where we go, we make that choice on Earth, not at the pearly gates. On the upside, the story reminds us to trust God when he says he has something better in mind for us! Overall, the story makes us wonder about the next life and the rewards we may – or may not – receive.
So far, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has addressed, through the Beatitudes, the character he expects in his followers. He has spoken of salt and light to describe the influence we are to have. He has looked at the Law and depicted what moral righteousness looks like: kindness, purity, honesty, love. Now, he argues that that true piety developed through sacred practices or the righteousness of action, is fruitful. As with our moral behaviour, our spiritual practices are a matter of attitude and motivation coming from our private thoughts and feelings. For Jesus, being a Christian asks more of us than just being a “good person”. Even religious hypocrites and Gentile pagans are capable of loving within certain parameters. To be a Christian requires more. It includes our relationship with, our service to and our worship of God within our faith structures. It’s interesting how people separate “faith” from “faith structures”. Some Christians have embraced the outward structures. They feel they’ve done their duty if they participate in church activities or engage in devotional exercises on their own. Some get caught up in the institutional structures, serving in the courts of the church or being involved in denominational politics. Others have embraced faith while rejecting any structure. This is seen in comments such as, “you don’t need to go to Church to be a Christian”. “I can worship God on the golf course”. “I’m spiritual not religious”. All of which usually means, “I don’t care about God”. It’s important to note Jesus sees the melding of the two extremes as vital to the Christian life. “Faith structures” are not the same as “institutional religion” (which Jesus’ spoke against). What structures our faith is the dynamic interaction between the Body of Christ (the Church) and the Holy Spirit. For Jesus, faith and “faith structures” are inseparable. Christians are different from both the Pharisees and the Gentiles. We’re to stand out from the religious and the irreligious. We’re to be the Church in the World, not the Church disengaged from the world. We are not to be Christian in name only, but in reality. Our lives are to be distinct from both the world and the religious establishment. Faith is exercised in community and spiritual practice, and we’re to love God and our neighbour from the depths of our beings.
In this introductory verse, Jesus warns, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” or “Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it”. Huh? What happened to “let your light shine before others, so they may see your good works”? In both passages, Jesus talks about doing good works resulting in being seen by others. But in one he commands it, while in the other he prohibits it. We have to ask: “Am I no longer required to be “just like salt”? Has Jesus reconsidered and changed his mind?” Not likely. Once again, Jesus is looking at the human heart. He distinguishes between the motivations behind our actions, knowing different sins tempt different people. Making a performance of our piety to be praised is vanity. Keeping our faith under wraps is cowardice. While we all struggle with both these sins, we usually have a leaning towards one. Like the religious leaders of Jesus day, clergy today (and lay people) can desire the admiration of others for our spiritual depth. Some use the Church to be “big fish in a little pond”. Sometimes (but not always), admiration is the underlying motivation of the lay person who takes on many roles in the Church while refusing to relinquish any. The attitude isn’t one of service or of wanting the best for the Body of Christ; its one of control and wanting the best for one’s self. On the other hand, when it comes to letting our light shine, many of us are “shrinking violets”. We tell ourselves our desire to conceal God’s grace through Jesus is motivated by humility, when really, it’s weakness and fear. It’s easy for everyone never to speak of our faith; it takes guts to describe the Christ who is the reason behind our good works, and sensitivity to do it in a way that opens people up. Whether we’re to “beware of practicing our piety for attention” or to “let our light shine”, depends on our struggle. As the theologian A.B. Bruce puts it, “We’re to show when tempted to hide and hide when tempted to show.”
In today’s passage, Jesus seems to be promoting secret piety. Really, he’s discouraging acting piously or using our faith to draw attention to ourselves. In itself, being the centre of attention is neither right nor wrong. Needing to be the centre of attention is something else. When it comes to our faith, there are three concerns here. The first is that we can draw the light away from God and place it on ourselves. This means we are glorified instead of our heavenly Father. As the opening lines of the Shorter Chatechism remind us, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever”. So not only are we denying God the glory that is his and his alone, we’re also failing to do what we’re made to do. Like Adam and Eve, we’re challenging God’s created order and making ourselves ‘gods”. We’re rejecting God’s purpose for our lives. The final problem here is that we are misusing the gifts of God. God has graced us with spiritual practices as a way of drawing us towards him in Christ, to help us mature into less self-centred people and to encourage and strengthen us. Those are precious endowments. Like the men in the parable of the talents, we’re to use these entrustments to magnify the giver.
This takes us back to the “reward” our Father gives us, which is, first and foremost, as The Message puts it, the “applause” or approval of God. The motives, attitudes and actions of Christ’s people are to be the same motives, attitudes, and actions of Christ. We’re here to please God by doing God’s will and to make God smile by doing them with a pure heart for God’s glory. Once again, Christians are often of two minds when it comes to rewards. Some live to hear God say, “Well done my good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25: 21). We feel a just God acknowledges and rewards our goodness by giving us a nice room in his heavenly mansion. We feel entitled to heaven on the basis of our “good works”. Each one of us needs to tattoo Ephesians 2:8 & 9 on our forearms, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast”. Other Christians dismiss any and all notions of a reward. Some anticipate God will greet them with the reminder, “Does the servant get special thanks for doing what’s expected of him? It’s the same with you. When you’ve done everything expected of you, say, ‘The work is done. What we were told to do, we did.’” (Luke 17: 10). We expect no reward because we’ve done nothing remarkable. We see any unlikely sign of approval as an improbable gift from God. Some Christians go farther and deny there is reward or punishment in the afterlife. Our faith is all about building God’s kingdom here and now and then it’s over. Therefore, some look for God’s reward in this life and take any sign of hardship as God’s punishment. This can lead to haughtiness and pride if we’re blessed, and bitterness if we’re not. Do we expect God to reward our efforts with a long, easy life or financial security or a perfect, love-filled personal life complete with compliant teenagers? Do we expect God to bless our efforts, so our good works come to fruition in our life-time and feel wounded when that doesn’t happen? It seems logical that if God blesses us here and now, any sign of trouble must be God’s curse. Every death, disease, conflict, trouble or trial becomes proof of God’s displeasure. Rather than seeing these things as part of life in a fallen and imperfect world, we see them as harsh and undeserved. Or we want to figure out why God is unhappy with us, so we can fix it. We want to control God’s justice. A lovely middle-aged woman I know got breast cancer. She asked, “What have I done to deserve this?” My response was “Nothing” (that is, nothing more or less than anyone who is enslaved by sin) “Even children get cancer, and what have they done? People get sick.”
At the same time, we cannot dismiss the notion of a Divine or heavenly reward. Without reward, injustice reigns because everyone gets everything or nothing. We would all end up in heaven or in hell. Judgement is the action of a righteous God. Moreover, we can’t dismiss the idea of a reward because Jesus affirms it several times in the gospels. He is clear that God has something positive in store for those who are in God’s good graces. As Paul states, God can do “far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams!” (Ephesians 3:20) A reward in heaven awaits those servants who are alive in Christ. We also can’t dismiss the rewards God gives us here and now. But, just as we wrongly do things to obtain intangible rewards such as admiration, power, attention or love, so God’s rewards are spiritual. In following Christ, we are rewarded with peace, joy, hope and satisfaction knowing we’ve done as God wanted and have pleased God in doing it. The poet George Herbert was to meet friends to attend a concert. He arrived too late because he’d stopped to help someone in need. A friend said, “you missed the music”. Herbert replied, “yes, but I’ll have songs at midnight”. A plastic surgeon gave up a lucrative business to remould the bodies of burned and mutilated soldiers. Surprised at this, a friend asked him what he wanted out of life. The surgeon responded, “I want to be a good craftsman”. Our definition of “reward” needs to be broadened. Reward is not tied to the tangible earthly things that people usually look for, God is Spirit and God rewards us spiritually. We do well to remember that serving our Master not only brings reward but responsibility. In the parable of the talents, the servants who had done their job well were the ones who were given more to do. That would seem like punishment to many. While extra responsibility may mean more work and effort, the deeper, hidden reward is in knowing God trusts us. To be honoured like that is more reward than we could ever dream.
Finally, while a reward, especially heaven, is a great motivator, I wonder if seeking a reward doesn’t take something away from our actions. As a parent, I don’t want my kids to be obedient because I’ll reward them or because they’re afraid of punishment. I want them to want to please me because they love me. I would hope our first motive in pleasing our heavenly parent, is not to gain something for ourselves, but to gain something for him, by doing what will make him happy because we love him. That relationship of love is reward in it’s self.
Questions for Reflection:
Are the devotional and structured practice of your faith integrated in you and your life?
Are you more tempted to use your faith to gain approval or to hide your faith out of fear?
Have you ever brought glory to yourself instead of to God or used the things of God to your benefit?
Do you believe God rewards people or not? On what basis does God do (or not do) this?
What spiritual rewards have you noticed because you’ve served well?
God expects more of those who do well. How do you react to this?
Do you serve God in anticipation of heaven or from another motive?
Offering: Righteous Judge, for many weeks now, we’ve been faithful in giving you our gifts. We have not been seeking approval or recognition. We’ve been doing it out of love for you and your Church. We are grateful that you receive what we bring, not only our money but also our devotion and service. Help us to continue to practice our faith so that we bring glory to you and you alone. Amen.
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession:
O God in whom we live and move and have our being
We come to you in prayer as the summer season draws nearer to its close and we prepare for an autumn filled with many changes. We give you thanks for the occasions we’ve enjoyed this summer. With the restrictions of CoVid we are even more grateful that we are able to savour the beauty of your creation right outside our doors. We thank you for family and friends and for our Church family, aware that they’re a gift we too often take for granted. We thank you for the chances we’ve had catch up with those we love. We thank you for whatever opportunities for travel, recreation & restoration have been possible. We recognize how blessed we are to live in Canada where we’re normally able to move freely and where each season brings a beauty of it’s own. We’re grateful for each moment in which we found relaxation in the summer season and for each moment when we are able to come apart to find rest and restoration in our communion with you.
We remember those for whom this summer has been difficult:
- those still isolated by the restrictions of COVID-19;
- those who go hungry or face violence in forgotten corners of our own community and around the world.
- those who are uncertain how to engage with friends and neighbours in ways that are wise.
- those whose businesses are struggling,
- those who are out of work and experiencing financial stress
- those who now have to figure out how to be inviting and safe at the same time; we pray especially for teachers administrators, custodians, children and youth as they return to school. We also pray for churches as they open their doors to return to their normal rhythms, and for those who are not yet ready to gather again.
May each one find courage by facing tomorrow in your company
O God, Jesus walked the road of suffering with so many in pain and grief
We remember those whose lives have faced crises this summer
- Through tragic death and unexpected loss,
- Through critical illness or injury,
- Through pain or problems that seem to have no end
We think particularly of those we know who are ill or grieving.
May each one find comfort in your compassion arms
Lord, Jesus often faced many demands and the pressure from his critics,
We pray for all those who have not found rest this summer:
- For political leaders trying to figure out ways forward to care for their communities when there are no examples to follow; we particularly hold up Prime Minister Trudeau and Premier Ford as well as our ministers of health, our mayor and our local leaders
- For administrators and care providers responsible for the care of the elderly or of those in hospital
- For those whose jobs and responsibilities have changed, and every day presents a new challenge
- For those who seek work in these uncertain economic times
- For parents who feel caught between their need to provide for their families and their desire to protect their children
May each one find strength and assurance day by day in you who are our Rock and Protector
O God, we need the embrace of your presence, each in our own way.
We pray for all who face challenges
- Those who are affected by wild fires
- Those threatened by hurricanes and tornadoes in this tumultuous season
- Those who live with war and poverty every day
- The people of Lebanon as they rebuild their city and homes
Bring healing and peace to our lives and to this world you love.
Open our eyes and our hearts so that we may offer healing and peace
to those we encounter,
May all people know the healing and peace that passes all understanding which is found in Christ Jesus who taught us to pray together saying…
The Lord’s Prayer.
Invitation to Mission:
We go into the world, to practice our faith, so that others will see, not us, but Christ.
May the Triune God bless you and keep you.