Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
In his book, The Great Spiritual Migration, Brian McLaren, pastor and theologian, shares about an experience he had in the airport a few years ago. He writes; “Oh, I get it,” she said nodding. This gregarious young mom was sitting across from me in an airport area. Her little boy was asleep in a stroller, and she, noticing how intensely I was pecking away on my laptop, had asked me what I was writing about. When I did my best to summarize the main idea of this book, she said, “So you’re saying that Christianity isn’t very Christian anymore. You want Christianity to become more Christian. Is that it?” When I said yes, she responded, “Good luck with that! By the looks of things, it won’t be easy. Try to get it worked out in time for my little boy, okay?” This short interaction summarizes the way many feel about Christianity in our current culture, that there is something broken about it. That somehow the faith has lost its way. That faith communities rather than being governed by the rule of love, have been governed by lesser rules. Rules that seek to perpetuate an institution or an idea. We develop a god who dislikes the same people we dislike, a god who politically agrees with us, a god who measures others by some human standard, at times the church has diligently searched the scripture in order to build this god and make a god in our own image.
But our Gospel reading offers a response to this. Jesus teaches about three spiritual practices — giving, fasting, and praying. Jesus begins by warning us to be careful not do these practices in order for others to see how good we are. Jesus reminds us that when we give, our focus should not be on us but on God.
When we give, we should give as though it is a divine work we are undertaking and that it is a demonstration of our desire acting rightly and a commitment to making things good and just in the world. All our giving should be a response to God, a celebration of God’s blessings and act of honor. Our Giving is living out one’s sense of identity, calling, and relationship with God. This can at times be hard to do, but our goal should be to give with this in mind.
The second spiritual practice is that of prayer. I believe prayer is recognizing and acknowledging that God is inviting us into relationship in every moment of life. God hears our prayer in moments of joy, in moments of anger, and in moments of sorrow. I take comfort in the fact that God sees the totality of our beings, our failures and successes, our grief and our joy, our fears and hopes, our moments of hypocrisy and of right living, and still God longs to for our prayers. Prayer should ultimately ask the question where is God working in the world, how is God working in my life and how can I be part of that.
The third practice Jesus describes is that of fasting, going without food or drink for a certain period of time. But this practice of fasting can really be applied to any area of life. It can help us to recognize what we truly need in life, what is important, and give us avenues in which to deepen our connection to God. We are in the season when many people are practicing some form of a fast. We may hear of someone who is going to “give up” something for Lent. The goal with this practice or any of these practices should be to orient ourselves toward God.
Our Isaiah reading reminds us that God longs for our spiritual practices to inspire our actions. That our goal should not be to just practice prayer, or alms giving, or fasting, or any of the 100s of spiritual practices, but our goal should be to create a community with justice at the very center. Our spiritual practices would inspire us to act in the real world. In his sermon “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question, what are we doing for others?” Isaiah said we should long to be called repairers of the breach and the restorer of streets. A faith like this would be an appropriate response to the woman in the airport.
I recently read an article about Knox Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati. They were facing a dilemma. Over a 100 years ago they had received a 22,000-dollar gift which today would be equivalent to about $250,000 today. There was some lore in the church that there was a racist component to this gift. The Session decided they needed to investigate. After exploring the historical records of the church, they were able to locate the giver’s will and found that the gift was given “for a church of the white race only”. The Session and Pastor were shocked. The pastor said that he felt his whole body tighten up after reading the will. As a congregation they realized this is was an act of structural racism, that they as congregation were benefiting and would continue to benefit from gift given in an Anti-Christian spirit. As a session they wrestled with what to do. They didn’t want to just say, “That’s not who we are anymore, thanks be to God.” They considered making a one-time gift, but worried they would fall into a trap of thinking they were freed from their “racism”. So instead the Pastor and the Session did something bold. They shared this information with the entire congregation. The session committed an annual gift to a racial justice ministry where they, listened, learned, and then acted. The church also continued to work on a twenty-year partnership with Third Presbyterian Church a mainly black congregation. The pastor of Knox Presbyterian, Adam Fronczek, writes “We may have changed our hearts and do not believe in the same racist things people thought in the past, but the reality is that we took the money and benefited from the money and property. We need to stop, confess, and lament.” 
This is the spiritual practice Isaiah is calling us to. This is the spiritual practice that Jesus is calling us to. Not a faith built on a god in our own image, but a faith centered on our relationship with God where we are changed, where we long to be called repairers of the breach and restorers of the streets.
 Brian D. McLaren. The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s largest religion is seeking a better way to be Christian, pg. 19.
The Miracle Worker
N.T. Wright tells the following story in his commentary on Mark. He writes; “There was a great disaster at Sea. A tourist boat, loaded with cars and vacationers, had failed to shut its doors properly; the water began to pour in; the boat began to sink, and panic set in. People were screaming as the happy, relaxed atmosphere of the ship turned into a horror movie. All at once one man-not a member of the crew- took charge. In a clear voice he gave orders, telling people what to do. Relief mixed with the panic as people realized someone at least was in charge, and managed to reach lifeboats they otherwise would have missed in the dark and the rush. The man himself made his way down to the people trapped in the hold. There he formed a human bridge: holding on with one hand to a ladder, and with the other to part of the ship that was nearly submerged, he enabled still more to cross to safety. When the nightmare was over, the man himself was found to have drowned. He literally given his life in using the authority he assumed- the authority by which many had been saved.”
Our Gospel story offers us three separate scenes. Jesus and his disciples leave the synagogue where he was teaching. They enter the house of Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother in-law was sick with a fever. At this time most people thought fevers were result of displeasing God or some sort of demonic ailment. Many thought they could only be healed by God. Jesus reaches out to her and she is instantly healed. The fever moves on and she begins to serve Jesus and the disciples. This may sound odd to our modern ears, she is healed and immediately begins preparing a meal. Jesus restores not only her health but her dignity. This was a culture that practiced hospitality in a way we do not. Strangers and guests were welcomed and a meal was offered. It was the duty of the oldest woman to oversee this process. This healing honors her status and restores the social order in her home.
As the day is ending and the sabbath is closing, crowds begin to arrive. The crowds bring Jesus the sick and he restores them. The whole city was at their door.
The third scene, Jesus gets up while it is still dark. He goes to a place to be alone and he prays. Simon and the other disciples are hunting for him. The word here signifies that this is an urgent man hunt. Picture this type of search, blood hounds and helicopters desperately seeking. Jesus has disappeared and everyone is desperately seeking him. You can hear the exasperation in the voice of the disciples, “Everyone is searching for you.” Jesus responds by telling them we need to travel to neighboring towns and proclaim the message in those towns. Jesus did not want to become to be local shaman or a local healer; his message is so much bigger than a small fishing village. He came to share a message with the world. A message that would ultimately get him killed, but would restore our dignity and redeem the world.
These healing narratives offer an interesting insight into the character of God. The image of God that many of these people had is that it was God who caused disease and sickness. God that handed out disease as sort of a divine punishment. Many of us have struggled with this wrathful concept of God, a Supreme being who was capable of murder, of genocide or who would indeed send billions to hell. We see in Jesus something entirely different, “through his life and teachings, his compassionate interactions with individuals and groups, in his profound nonviolence even to the point of death. Jesus reveals a generous God, a God in profound solidarity with all creation, a God whose power is manifest in gentleness, kindness, and love. This vision of Jesus should inspire us an empower us to become ambassadors of a new way of life, servants of all, people of reconciliation, and agents of liberating mission.” This is the message that Jesus proclaims that God isn’t a God of wrath but of generosity of love.
There was a girl named Beth Usher.. Who as a child began experiencing seizures all day long. One day as her parents were getting ready for work her and her brother sat in front of the Tv and they put Mr. Rogers on. She was able to sit through the whole episode without a seizure, which was amazing considering she was having close to 100 a day. She became a regular watcher of the program. But her disorder continued to get worse. Finally, she needed a surgery that would remove half of her brain. It was very high risk with unknown complications. Her mom called PBS to ask for a photo to hang in her hospital room. A day or two later Mr. Rogers called the house and asked to speak to Beth. He spent an hour on the phone with Beth. She chatted with the characters in the neighborhood, and finally she confessed to them that “I am afraid I am going to die Mr. Rogers”. He comforted her on the phone. The day of Beth surgery came and it went well but she ended up in a coma. Mr. Rogers called Beth’s mom to check on her and he asked if he could come for a visit. He drove to the hospital in Baltimore. She described how one day he just walked into the room with a little metal case. He set the case down and pulled out all the puppets and put on a show for Beth while she was in the coma. At the end of the visit he gathered the family and prayed with them. Beth’s mom felt a peace from that prayer. Beth eventually came out of her coma and continued her friendship with Mr. Rogers. He would call her every year on her on birthday.  We are called to be servants of all.
Too often Christians are only known for what they are against and not what they are for. Imagine a world in which Christians were known for radical liberating love. In 2019 our denomination began a conversation in around the cash bail system. This is a system that many of us have never thought about before, or had little interaction with, but it is an issue that can deeply affect the poor. This system is one of the reasons for overcrowding in jails and the issue of mass incarceration. People can be held for a minor offence, a misdemeanor for months, or even years before they face a trial. Imagine how your life could change if you were suddenly taken away from it for a few months or years. Would you lose your job? Your business? How with this affect your family? Your marriage? What would you miss? This was the case for Kalief Browder who at the age of 16 was accused of stealing a backpack and sent to Rikers Island in NY. He never stood trial or nor was he ever found guilty of any crime. But he spent 3 years in the NY jail system and almost two years in solidarity confinement. He was eventually released but he was never the same, he struggled and ultimately took his own life. 
Jesus proclaimed a radical message that God was not a God of wrath but a God of Love. A God of love who empowers us to be ambassadors of a new way of life servants of all, people of reconciliation, and agents of a liberating mission. May the church chart a course so we can be heralds of that love.
 N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, Pg. 11.
 McLaren, Brian. The Great Spiritual Migration, pg. 122.