Sunday, February 18: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Recently, a co-worker experienced a death in their extended family and, on their first day back to work, I stopped over to their desk to say hello and see how they were holding up. As our chat came to an end, I found myself telling my co-worker that “I’m thinking and praying for you and your family.” En route back to my own workspace, the wheels in my head started turning, and I began doing what I do really, extraordinarily, well: overthinking. In less than 30 seconds I posed the following questions to myself: Did I say that to encourage my coworker? To let them know that I care? Or… did I say that so that they might think I am a very spiritual and religious person?
In Matthew 6, Jesus warns us to “be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” These instructions begin broadly with “righteousness”, before progressing on to three ways we practice our faith: charitable giving, praying, and fasting. The key phrase being “to be seen by them.” Of course, good works and continued discipleship are important. During Lent, these practices can help us engage more fully and deeply with Christ. Jesus warns us not against the acts themselves, but against our motives for doing them. When someone gives to gain approval or praise of others, they get what they seek: public recognition. But, in doing so, they forfeit what they should truly desire: approval.
While I was baptized and raised in the Lutheran Church, until several months ago, I spent my adult life very disconnected from God, His Word, and the Church. Between the Reformation 500 celebration and the new member class at St. Paul, the knowledge shared with me facilitated an epiphany (that feels like) all my own: that God’s judgement, mercy and love cannot be earned or bought but can only be received by faith. Maybe I knew this at some earlier point in my life… but it’s more likely that I needed the exact combination of loving support, people, and circumstances to align for me to fully recognize that truth and its significance.
So, there I was, trying to determine whether I had what it takes to reestablish and further deepen my relationship with Christ. What if I couldn’t make it to worship next Sunday? What if my financial contribution was not enough? How would I know whether I was doing all the things that are expected? And how would I ever know if I was doing those things correctly? Then, without warning, that inner dialogue and anxiety stopped. Why? Because as we drove home from our first new members’ class, I realized with incredible clarity the most important truth – that faith comes first. And it is faith that I keep returning to. In late December, I downloaded a daily devotional for my Kindle and what I read on January 1 of this year was that it is “faith—without good works and prior to good works—that takes us to heaven. We come to God through faith alone.”
Intentionally or unintentionally, it’s easy for a person to fall into a pattern where a higher importance is placed on good works than on faith. After all, good works are observable to the human eye and are often easily quantifiable – number of prayers prayed, number of Lenten candy bars bypassed, and sum of dollars donated. On the other hand, faith is not readily quantified, nor can it be accurately measured by others. Faith is the specific, intimate, and private relationship between ourselves and God.
Our challenge this Lenten season then is to act intentionally – to practice discipleship from a place of faith and to serve sincerely in the name of God. After all, God cares not just that we do the right thing, but that we do the right thing for the right reasons. And, when we do, God sees us and blesses us, promising heavenly treasures that will far surpass all the earthly possessions we could ever have.
Faith first – glory to God!